April 28, 2001
"Just a bit of orientation for today," Scooter said. The rafts were pretty well loaded, and some people were already aboard. It was still fairly early on a cool morning, but the sky was clear, and it would obviously be warming up some, later. They’d be pushing off in a few minutes, but there were a couple of things to be said, first.
"I want to talk about the schedule for this trip a bit," she continued. "Again, a lot of you know about it, but this will bring those who don’t know up to speed. Now, this is a really goofy trip for Canyon Tours, and you all know why. It has to do with an event that’s planned about eighty miles down the river a few days from now. Now, there’s a lot of people who wanted to be at this event, most everybody who works for Canyon Tours, and some others, including some of you people, so we had to squeejaw things around pretty hard to make everything fit. Now, the deal is that Team 1 launched four days ahead of us. They’ve got several employees, several guests, and it’s partly a customer trip. Ideally, we’d liked to have run pretty close behind them, but it wouldn’t work because we only got off the river two days ago, and also had to do an overnight burnaround in Flag so we wouldn’t be any farther behind them. At that, we barely made it work. We couldn’t have done it if Jeff and some others hadn’t pretty well taken care of the groceries and stuff that the team normally does, getting everything packed and ready to go for us. We also had a problem with boatmen. Carl finished his finals at Northern Arizona the day before yesterday, and rode out on the bus with the guests, or else we’d have been a rower short. Andy, Barbie, and Duane also go to Northern Arizona, and they finished their finals that morning, so they rode out with the crew bus when we went up to rig. We’d have brought more college-student boatmen and swampers with us, but they still had finals or are on the way here if they don’t go to Northern Arizona."
This was already getting a little long, she thought, and probably some of the logistic stuff wasn’t necessary, but it was good for people to know why they were going to be doing things a little oddly. She looked out over the six rafts, and didn’t see anyone falling asleep, so she figured it couldn’t be too bad. Well, get down to the nitty-gritty.
"Now, the deal is that Team 1 is gonna run a little slow, with the idea of being about a day behind the normal schedule when we meet them at Phantom Ranch," she explained. "We have to run fast to catch up. Now, at Phantom, we’re going to be joined by a bunch of guests and employees who will have hiked down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim, and they’ll be spread among both teams. That’s why we brought six rafts instead of five, and we’re even loaded light for the five. It won’t really matter a whole lot, since we’ll all be running together for a while. We’re going to stop, oh, somewhere not far below Phantom, then run together to the wedding site, and then the next day, on down to Bass Camp.
"At Bass, we’re going to split up. Most of the people who hiked in and some others will be hiking out the Bass Trail. I will be one of them, with some more of the Canyon Tours people, to form Team 3. At least some of the boatmen on this trip will be with me. We get three nights in Flag to do the turnaround, and then we start out again on the seventh on a regular trip. The reason that I’m leading now is that Crystal has a lot of relatives and friends in this group, so it lightens up the load on her for visiting with them in this section. She’ll be leading after we all get to Bass. Probably some of the guests will be going on with the teams that are already on the river. Once you leave Bass, you’re going to let Team 1 get ahead of you, and they’ll run the rest of the trip a little faster than normal. This team will slow it down a little, so you can take out a day behind them.
"Now, what all that means is that we’re going to have to push fairly hard the next three or four days. It shouldn’t be as bad as yesterday was, most days, anyway. There will be some time for stops, hikes, and side trips, but it means that we’re going to have to get going early and run a little late some days. Originally, I thought we were going to stop a little upriver, so we’re already ahead of schedule. I figure on running down to about 35 Mile today, but there aren’t a lot of camps in there. I don’t know what we’ll find when we get there, since we apparently have a clog of private trips right around here. Some of them will be thinking the same thing, so we might run a bit farther. If we start getting too far ahead of what I planned, we’ll slow it down some. We’re just going to have to play that one by ear. OK, again I’ve probably bored everybody, but any questions?"
"Any hiking today?" Nicole asked.
"Not during the day," Scooter told her. "We’re heading off into an area that doesn’t have a lot of hiking possibilities, but there ought to be some interesting side stops. One of ’em is going to be especially interesting, which is why I told Andy to keep Brown Bess loaded near the top, but I’ll talk about that when we get there. If we wind up stopping where I want to camp, we have a pretty good hike, and there are a couple among the alternates. While I’m thinking about it: rapids today, and there are a lot of them. Some are tough ones, but nothing as bad as House Rock yesterday. The toughest are 24 Mile and 24-1/2 Mile, which are about as bad as Soap Creek was yesterday, at least at the low tide we’ll be hitting them at. They’re tougher at high tide. Nothing to worry about, although you’re not quite ready to be on the sticks through them yet, Nicole. Any other questions?"
She looked around, and everyone seemed satisfied. "It’s kind of a Canyon Tours tradition to start each day with a reading. Al knows a lot of this stuff by heart, but I have to cheat." She pulled a small book from her pocket, entitled Words for the Wild. "The first guy through here, Major John Wesley Powell, wrote this, and he was talking about what we’re gonna be seeing today," she said, opening to a dog-eared page and beginning to read: "‘And now the scenery is on a grand scale. The walls of the Canyon, 2,500 feet high, are of marble, of many beautiful colors, often polished below by the waves, and sometimes far up the sides, where showers have washed the sands over the cliffs.’ I’m gonna skip ahead a little, Al. ‘Riding down a short distance, a beautiful view is presented. The river turns sharply to the east and seems incised by a wall set with a million brilliant gems. What can it mean? Every eye is engaged, every one wonders. On coming nearer we find fountains bursting from the rock high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall. The rocks below the fountain are covered with mosses and ferns and many beautiful flowering plants. We name it Vasey’s Paradise.’"
She closed the book and went on. "Sometimes we camp just above there, although I try not to. The place is lousy with poison ivy, and every time we go there, we seem to have a customer who thinks they’re immune to it and finds out they’re not. I guess that means something we all know – even the prettiest rose comes equipped with thorns." She let out a sigh. "With that, people, let’s be about it."
* * *
While most of the customers – they were actually guests, but Scooter and Crystal both had trouble making the distinction in their own mind – were still asleep, the two of them had gotten their heads together in the early morning half-light. "If we’re going to make this a qualifier for Randy, we’re going to have to get them out of Duane’s raft," Crystal said. "And, I want to run with Nanci and Mom, at least today."
"Guess we can do it," Scooter said from behind the roar of the big propane burner that was heating wash water. "How’s about you take Noah, and I’ll take Randy and Nicole?"
"Works for me," Crystal smiled.
"I’ll keep getting Nicole on the sticks some," Scooter said.
"Yeah, that seemed to work pretty good yesterday," Crystal agreed.
It wasn’t quite as simple as that; Jon and Tanisha wound up riding with Barbie, and that moved Tiffany and Josh to Duane’s raft. That was all to the good, Crystal figured; it looked like Duane was ready to talk dogs as much as the two Iditarod racers. Completing the confusion was the fact that Al was planning on riding with all the newer boatmen, and would switch off once or twice over the course of the day.
The river was noticeably lower when they pushed the six rafts away from the shore at the camp at 19-1/2 Mile. Since North Canyon Rapids was just ahead, Scooter put Randy on the oars right away, as the rapids in the next few miles weren’t ones he’d done before. Scooter plopped down on the gear pile next to Nicole and glanced down the river at the GCR site, with the two big motor rigs. As they got closer, it was clear that they were still making breakfast, and might be an hour or two before they got on the river. "Jeez, we got on the river early," Randy commented as they drifted by the camp, noticing Scooter waving at someone on shore.
"We did get around pretty good," Scooter said. "Of course, we don’t have a bunch of newbies at outdoor living, either. Most everybody here has done it some, and everybody got around and pitched in pretty good."
"Yeah," Randy said, looking down at where North Canyon Rapids was approaching. "I don’t remember it going that well last time."
Scooter glanced down river. "Guess it’s just as good we stopped where we did," she told her passengers. Sure enough, like she’d suspected, the upper campsite was filled with a private party, and it looked like there was someone in the lower campsite, too. "We’d have been close to dark before we got a site."
"It was getting late enough as it was," Randy agreed. "I don’t really have a clear memory of this one. What’s the deal on it? Straight down the middle?"
"On the tongue," Scooter told him. "Then try to get to the river right side of the wave train. Pretty straightforward. Nicole, guess we’d better get down and in. This one ain’t that bad, though. Not as bad as Badger, yesterday, about like Soap Creek."
"I suppose," Nicole said, looking a little uncertain. ‘Down and in,’ she’d learned yesterday, meant to get to a low position on the gear pile, and off of the side tube – and hang on to the straps that held the gear pile in place.
"This one can get a little snotty if you hit it at higher levels," Scooter said. "But at low water, well, it’s not that bad, and we’re running on night water now. If we’d run it yesterday afternoon on day water, it would have been worse." She gave a professional look; Randy was lining up for the rapids like he meant it. But then, she knew that Randy had been around a fair amount of white water. In fact, the day she’d first met him, she remembered now, he and Crystal had just got off a run of Nantahala Falls, right in front of NOC; she’d been standing outside, smoking a cigar, and had watched the two of them run.
Nicole looked at the white water coming up – it didn’t seem as bad as Badger had, easily not as bad as House Rock. Still, it was a little bigger than she was comfortable with. This was more than a little scary. She watched as the raft floated smoothly down the tongue of the rapids, pitched down . . . and then she couldn’t watch anymore, all she could do was to hang on and hope it would be over with soon. She glanced back at her husband at the oars, staring intently ahead, but he flashed her a smile. Keep your attention on the river damn it, she thought. I want to live through this . . . the roar of the water increased, the raft pitched up, rode over the top of the first back roller, and down into the next. Keeping her eyes on Randy, she saw him rowing hard, trying to pull the boat to the side – he didn’t look concerned at all, just serious about what he was doing. The boat pitched up and down several times, then all of a sudden spun around quickly . . . there was no helping it; she let out a scream . . . and noticed that they were floating smoothly in flat water, the roar of the rapids only a few feet away. "Got a little far over the eddy line," Randy said complacently, working the oars to continue the boat’s spin . . . he was pulling it back into that white water . . . oh, dear God! . . . the raft bucked up and down a couple more times, nowhere as near as bad, and then they were just bobbing up and down, as he tried to keep it in the fast water.
"Yeah," Scooter said complacently. "That one’s a little tricky. Randy, I know you were trying to keep it as smooth as possible for Nicole, but I think you overdid it."
"Sorry about that," he said. "You OK, Nicole?"
"I think so," she said dubiously, wishing he was sitting down next to her, his arm around her, like he’d done after Badger yesterday. "Was that the worst we’re going to see today?"
"No, we’ve got several others about like that in the next six miles," Scooter told her. "Actually, that one . . . well, it’s a little longer than the others. They’re mostly over more quickly. Then, that’ll be the worst we’ll see for a couple days."
Nicole shuddered. Maybe she should have taken a tranquilizer before she started this morning. It probably would only take a couple hours to get through the hard part . . . but it was too late now. Well, maybe not. It’d take a while to take hold, but it would help . . . she swung around, unfastened her day bag from the tarp straps and unrolled it, digging around in it. Sunscreen, sunglasses, a number of other things . . . but where was that pill bottle. All of a sudden, she realized it wasn’t in the day bag! Frantically, she dug through it to make sure . . . but no, it wasn’t there, and she was just about sure she’d stuck it in her overnight bag, which was under the tarp – and not even on this raft!
Tough it out, Nicole. This isn’t going to be that bad.
"You need something?" Randy said.
"Just looking for my Chapstick," she said, realizing that she wasn’t doing a good job of lying.
"Got some in the boatman’s box," Scooter said. "Randy, if you want to stand up for a minute, I can get at it."
"Yeah, sure," he said, getting to his feet.
Scooter quickly spun around, opened the latches on the box Randy had been sitting on, popped it open, and pulled out a battered tube of lip balm, handing it to Nicole. She took the cap off, made a perfunctory pass over her lips with it more for the sake of keeping the lie alive, then handed it back to Scooter, who stuck it back in the boatman’s box, closed the lid, and latched it. "Thanks, Scooter," she said, wondering who she was fooling.
"They get a little dry down here," Scooter grinned.
Damn it, she was just going to have to get through the next few miles on guts. "You ever flip one of these things over?" she asked.
"Not one of these," Scooter said. "Happens once in a while, but not often. Hasn’t happened to Canyon Tours since I’ve been here. GCC did flip one last year, I think, at least that was the story we heard on the Park Service trip in March. I did get a few flips back on the Nanty and the Ocoee over the years, but those rafts are a lot smaller, and don’t have all the weight down in the bottom like these do."
"They ever flip one of those motor rigs?" Randy asked conversationally.
"Not in years," Scooter grinned. "At least with the side tubes strapped on. One of the companies did flip one last year, down below where we’re going to take out, but that was a special case."
"How was that?" Randy asked.
"Oh, after they drop their passengers off, either at Whitmore or Diamond Creek, the motor rigs have to run clear down to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead to take out. It takes a semi to haul one of those things, and that’s too big for the road down to Diamond Creek. The motor rigs run faster without the side tubes on, so after they drop off their passengers and their gear, the motor-rig guys unstrap the side tubes, let the air out, and roll them up, so they’ll run a little faster. But, they’re not too stable. The way I heard it back on the Park Service trip, the crew was running along pretty good, kind of sampling some of the leftovers from the drag bags. One of them got hung up in 231 Mile, and got rammed by the other one. The boss was seriously pissed about it," she grinned. "You don’t turn one of those monsters back over very easy."
"Yeah, that’d be some serious rigging," Randy grinned.
"I guess it was," Scooter said. "I guess some motor rigs from some other companies came up on them, and they sort of pooled resources. Trouble comes up, everybody works together pretty good. But, fortunately, we don’t often get into trouble. OK, Randy, we got 21 Mile coming up pretty quick. This is just a straightforward pool and drop, although it drops pretty good."
Oh shit, Nicole thought. Why didn’t I put the tranquilizers in the daybag? And Scooter and my bozo husband have to be talking about flipping rafts over, of all the damn things . . . hang in there, Nicole.
* * *
They rode on down the river, deep between walls rising high above them on either side. Soon, they came to 21 Mile Rapids – about as much drop as the last one, but in a shorter distance. It was a quick thrill ride before they were back on placid waters.
They were going through a section known as the "Roaring Twenties." It’s a fairly high concentration of moderately difficult rapids, with the worst falling in a section of about six miles. Downriver, there would be places with more difficult rapids concentrated about as closely, but this was enough to give them some idea of what was to come.
The worst was 24 Mile Rapids, a rough ride, but a thrilling one. Barbie’s raft got spun sideways by one of the big waves in the wave train there, but Jon and Tanisha had braced for it and managed to hang on, although they got more than a little wet in the process. "No point in drying out too much," Barbie said as the water ran out of the drains in the bottom of the raft. "We got another one in just a few minutes."
Almost at once they were at 24-1/2 Mile Rapid. Like the rapids earlier that day, they didn’t get out to scout them ahead of time. It wasn’t quite as wild a ride as 24 Mile, but it was still hairy enough to see what the river in the Canyon was all about. Almost before they could catch their breath, they were at 25 Mile Rapids – not quite as difficult as the two that went before. There was one more about as bad a mile ahead, Cave Spring, and they ran that one without any difficulty either. Shortly after that, they found a little beach, and pulled in for a leg-stretch, but were soon back on the river.
Time passed, an easy hour of drifting on the current, watching the scenery high overhead. They were deep into the Redwall limestone now, the walls of the Canyon towering almost vertically to either side, compressing the blue of the sky to a narrow slot. Finally, a wide side canyon opened to river right, and Nicole, now rowing Scooter’s raft, nosed it into shore. Just downstream of the landing, they could see the irregular hole of a cave mouth, and beyond, the sparkle of rushing water and a spray of vegetation so green it almost hurt the eye after all the barren rock they’d been seeing – Vasey’s Paradise.
"This is probably a good place for lunch," Scooter told them. "There are a couple interesting things right here, so let’s figure on eating, then poking around a bit. That’s Vasey’s Paradise, over there around the bend, but remember what I said about poison ivy this morning. If you get messed up with it, it’s your own damn fault."
The boatmen and swampers soon set up two metal tables from the rafts; cold cuts were liberated from coolers, and flatbread and chips made their appearance. Some of the party made the short trek down to the cave, and a couple even scrambled along the rock wall the short distance farther on to Vasey’s Paradise, taking careful note to watch out for leaves of three. A few just hung around the rafts, while Al led a group upstream a short distance to some old Anasazi ruins, and walked on up the side canyon a ways, just for the change in views. It took longer than an hour to get back on the water, but no one was in a hurry.
Scooter was one of those who stayed near the boats, and she was watching when the GCR motor rigs ran by as people were beginning to reassemble around the Canyon Tours rafts. The GCR rigs didn’t stop, but hovered in front of Vasey’s Paradise on motor power so the customers could look it over and take some pictures. She waved at Jim again, but they didn’t get close enough to talk. She knew that the GCR rigs usually made a long stop shortly downstream, and she planned to as well, so there might yet be a chance to talk to him.
Shortly afterward, the six rafts were back on the river. They swept near to Vasey’s Paradise – the river was fast there, and there was no stopping like the motor rigs had done. They weren’t on the river long; in only a mile or two, they swept around a bend and saw a huge horizontal slot in the Redwall in front of them. "Redwall Cavern," Scooter told them. "We’re going to pull in there, too."
Soon, the rafts were pulled up on the sandy shore next to the motor rigs; there were no good places to tie off, so the boatmen had to use sand stakes to hold the boats. Up in the sandy shore of the huge cavern, passengers from the motor rigs were exploring and throwing frisbees around; Jim and the GCR trip leader along with a couple of swampers were lolling around the back of the raft, watching as she talked to the Canyon Tours group.
"We usually like to make a long stop here," Scooter said. "It is kind of a neat place. Powell said this amphitheater could seat fifty thousand people. I figure he was overestimating by a factor of ten, and I wouldn’t want to see that many people here, anyway. But the acoustics are pretty incredible. One of the other rafting companies does one trip a year where they bring a string quartet along, and this is a favorite stop. We don’t have a string quartet, but I thought this might be an interesting place to hear Myleigh do her stuff. Andy, you’ll have to get Brown Bess out."
"Will do, Scooter," he said. "I’ve got the bass guitar, too. You want that?"
"Why not?" Scooter grinned. She turned to the GCR crew a few feet away. "You guys might like to stick around for this. This is going to be a treat to remember."
A few minutes later, Trey was hauling the harp case up under the overhanging rock, as Myleigh followed along behind, Randy bringing up the rear with the guitar. The sand slope was steep at first, but it flattened out after a ways.
"What’s this all about?" Jim asked, back down at the rafts.
"Just a little off-the-cuff concert," Scooter grinned. "By one of the world’s leading jazz harpists."
"Cool," the trip leader said. "I picked up an album of jazz harp last month. It was called Harp Strings. It was awful damn good."
"She’s the woman who did it," Scooter grinned. "Myleigh Harris. You know Crystal Chladek, right?"
"Yeah, sure," both said.
"She was her college roommate," Scooter grinned.
"No shit?" the GCR trip leader said. He stood up, put his fingers in his mouth, and gave a shrill whistle to get the attention of his party. "Hey, folks!" he yelled. "Free concert! Check it out! We’ll stick around for it."
"How long you figuring on staying?" Jim asked.
"Maybe an hour, I don’t know," Scooter grinned. "We’re probably not going to run a whole lot farther today."
"I’d like to make it to Nankoweap," the trip leader said. "But we can run a little late if we have to. I think I’ll wander up for the concert. Jim, you want to stay with the boats?"
"Yeah, I can," he said. "We ought to hear it pretty well from here."