April 30, 2001
The campfire at Nankoweap went a little later than normal, but Noah didnít really have his mind on it. As heíd mentioned in his off the cuff "sermon" what heíd said was pretty much what was on his mind, anyway. If there had been any doubt about it, the memories of his discussion with Crystal up at the granaries pretty well settled it. Yes, this trip was something of a vision quest for him; like Christ in the wilderness, like Moses on Mt. Sinai, he realized that he was seeking a vision on this trip Ė or, at least, a leading.
Long after the other people on the trip had called it a night, even Crystal, he sat out by the coals and the little flickers of the fire. The truth was, he admitted to himself now, was that he really didnít want to be a pastor of his own church. Not that he doubted his own faith, not that he doubted that he could handle it, but it had reached the point where it just wasnít appealing to him. He enjoyed working with the young people at Glen Hill, enjoyed working with Pastor Jordan, but now, he realized that for a couple of years he just hadnít been feeling the leading to take on all the responsibilities and troubles of a church of his own. It took a dedication that he was beginning to doubt that he had. Heíd been working to prepare himself for that moment for perhaps ten years, now, and he knew that if he wanted to do it, he could be in a church of his own in a matter of months, if not weeks. In fact, that had been the case for a couple of years, now.
But, if he turned down the opportunity Ė then what?
It almost seemed as if the Lord was opening doors for him to take a different path. In fact, it had seemed like it back at Glen Hill Road, back in the winter, when heíd had a long talk with Pastor Jordan on his doubts about going on this trip at all. Jordan hadnít seen a problem with it, and Noah had told him of Crystalís offer a couple years before to come out here and work with her. "Mark, as much as I like doing what Iím doing here at the church, and think itís where Iím supposed to be, it was a huge temptation. It was hard to turn her down," heíd told the pastor.
The thought of it was still tremendously tempting, and Crystal was part of the temptation. "Crystal isnít a Christian, like you and I think of what a Christian is," heíd told Pastor Jordan. "But, I know Iíve never met any other woman who comes close to measuring up to her standards. That bothers me sometimes. Now, I like to think that Iím strong in the Lord, but here I am, facing the temptation of a woman who was about as good a friend as I had all those years I was rafting, spending a couple weeks with her, in a place that could tempt me out of here easily."
"I can see how, under the circumstances, it would be a temptation," Jordan told him. "Noah, youíd be a fool to do it, but I wonder if you wouldnít be a worse fool to not do it. It could be that God is testing your faith. Or, He may be telling you that thereís something else that you should be doing. Look, you know what Iím going to tell you. Pray about it, then follow the Lordís guidance."
Noah had prayed about it, prayed a lot Ė and still, he wondered if this might be a door opening to him, rather than the devil calling him away from his chosen path. In the end, heíd decided to take the trip and do the wedding, in hopes that along the way he could examine the question more clearly Ė a vision quest of his own, in fact, with a fairly severe question that had to be answered pretty soon. In fact, it was more imperative to him than heíd hinted to Crystal.
Finally, he headed down the shoreline to where his sleeping bag had been spread out on its ground cloth, on the sand bar a few feet away from the river. It took a long time to get to sleep, and he didnít sleep well, with the arguments running circles in his mind. In the middle of the night, a full bladder forced him to get up and go to the river. When he got up, the Milky Way was high in the sky, the stars as clear and bright as possible, with constellations like Lyra and Cygnus standing out well. The view of the sky was very constricted by the Canyon walls, even in a relatively open place like Nankoweap. He was tempted to stand out in the cool of the night and just take in the view, but he realized he was only half awake, and was going to be behind on his sleep, so he stole back to the warmth of his sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep with the white-noise dull rumble of Nankoweap Rapids sounding in his ears.
It was still before dawn when the morning started with the roar of the big propane burners heating water for coffee, cocoa, tea, wash water, and so forth, so obviously at least some of the boatmen and swampers had already been up for a while. The stars were still out, but fading with the glow of light in the east filtering down over the lip of the Canyon. His sleeping bag was warm and the air was coolish, but Noah liked to get up and help out with getting around. Although heíd never been a guide on a trip like this, the desire to pitch in and help, along with carry his share of the load and set an example was still strong in him, both from his service as a youth pastor and from his days as an Ocoee guide. He sat up and pulled his fleece jacket from the drybag that lay to one side, and tried to pull himself together, just sitting there for a while, letting the peace of the place wash over him.
But he didnít stay like that long. As always, there was some organizing to be done. Except for what he was wearing, everything had to go into one of his drybags, but there was some shifting around to be done between day and night use. He was just finishing up the process when he heard the off-key chorus of a number of kitchen workers yell "Coffeeeeeeeeee!!!" One by one he rolled up the dry bags, squeezing out the air before strapping them shut tightly. He grabbed the bags and his coffee cup and headed down to the kitchen area, which was quite close to the rafts.
At the kitchen area he found that several people had been up for nearly an hour, getting things ready for breakfast. "Slept in this morning, eh?" Nanci asked him. She was fully awake and chipper, busy with a spatula, cooking pancakes on a warped griddle. She had to have been up for a while, he thought; she sure is pitching in with the work. Better than me, today.
"Had trouble getting to sleep," he said, heading for the bucket of coffee. It was made river style: grounds thrown into a large bucket and boiled. It was strong enough to grow hair on your chest Ė even Nanciís chest, he grinned at the thought. It was filled with grounds, but someone had been thoughtful and provided a tea strainer.
He sipped at the strong, hot coffee and offered to help out where he could. "Not now," Karin grinned. "I think weíve got enough butts in the kitchen as it is." There were others hanging around waiting for breakfast, so Noah just sipped at the strong coffee some more, and talked desultorily with some of the others. Before too long, there was an unseemly, discordant chorus sounding "Breakfasssssst!!!" It was good this morning, pancakes and sausage, but then it was always good Ė Canyon Tours didnít skimp on feeding you, he thought.
He took a plate and silverware from a mesh net hanging under one of the tables, then headed for the chow line, trying to avoid eating more than he should, then found a place to eat. Sometimes there was a place to sit down, more often not, but this morning he found a place to sit on the bow of a raft. Eating went quickly, not pigging out, but the less time spent eating off a plate balanced in one hand like that is the less time to have to do it. Breakfast finished, he headed through the wash line, stacked the wet plate in a bucket and threw the silverware in another one.
Tearing down was a well practiced chore for the boatmen, and the others were starting to get the hang of it. Josh and Tiffany, as usual, were in the thick of it; they led trips of their own, and both had admitted that theyíd picked up pointers they could use from the way that Canyon Tours had things organized. Randy and Nicole and Buddha and Giselle were pretty much always in the thick of things too; in fact, everyone was. Before long, they had things packed up and ready to load.
Soon the group of them turned to the practiced routine of loading the rafts. Each boatman was in charge of loading his own raft, but there were always two or three others right there, helping the packing get done quickly, and before long there were tarps being spread on top of the load and being strapped into place. Without a lot of discussion, people clambered aboard as soon as the strapping was done, and daybags were clipped onto the straps where they would be close at hand. It wasnít long before they were ready to go.
"I gotta say," Scooter told them, "many hands make light work. Weíve been getting around in the morning a lot better than we normally do when weíve got regular customers with us, and itís good to see everybody pitching in and helping. It makes life easier for the boatmen, and easier for all of us. Of course, we boatmen usually think that it takes three or four days for everybody to get their acts together and get organized to run the river. This will be our fourth day on the river, and weíve pretty well gotten there. Crystal and I know some guys who run motor rigs, they do five- and six- and seven-day trips. Theyíve barely got people pulling together when the trip is over, and I kinda feel sorry for them."
"It helps when youíve got twice the normal ratio of boatmen and guides to guests than we normally have," Al added, still standing on shore. "But when youíve got guests like these, it helps a lot more."
"Couldnít have said it better," Scooter grinned. "What weíre going to do this morning is to go out and run for an hour or so, then take a break, then run down to the mouth of the Little Colorado. Thereís nothing terribly difficult; the worst rapids is about three miles down, and itís a little worse than we had yesterday, but not much. Weíll mess around at the mouth of the Little Colorado for a bit, have lunch, and run some more, down to Tanner, or somewhere around there, about as far as weíre going to run this morning. This is going to be a moderately long day, but weíll have plenty of time to mess around at the Little Colorado. With that, people, letís be about it."
"Hey, Scooter," Jon asked. "Arenít you going to do a reading today?"
"Yeah," she said. "But I think Iíll hold it off till after lunch. Itís a little more appropriate place for it. Like I said, letís be about it, people."
"Scoot, you want a shove?" Al asked.
"Sure, keeps my feet dry," she grinned as he put his hands on the front of the raft and gave it a heave. In a moment, she was floating down the river.
Al gave Duane a shove, but when he got to the next raft Ė Crystal, but with Noah at the oars as usual, he said, "Nanci, why donít you hop over and ride with Barbie this morning? Crystal, you might as well do it, too. Iíd kind of like to see Noah on the water, and besides, itíd be nice to ride with Karin at least once this half of the trip."
"Sure thing, Al," Nanci grinned, grabbing her day bag, following her sister as she jumped over into the next raft.
"Iíll get everybody else off, and be right back," he told Noah. In a moment, he shoved Carl and Andy off, then Barbie while Nanci was still getting settled, and finally, gave ĎCrystalísí raft a shove, hopping over the bow as it pulled free of the sand of Nankoweap. He watched as Noah backed the raft up a couple of strokes, pivoted, and caught the current heading downstream. "You likiní this, Preach?" he grinned.
"Pretty good," Noah grinned. "Not quite like the Ocoee, but itís fun to be in a raft again." The raft picked up speed; they went through a minor riffle. He glanced up at the granaries far overhead, and now starting to fall astern. The current carried them swiftly past the lower camp at Nankoweap; it had been unoccupied when they arrived, but now a private party was just stirring and getting going on breakfast, a long way from getting on the river yet.
"You know," Karin said absently, "I think thatís about the best Iíve ever seen us get around."
"Yeah, that was pretty good," Al grinned. "We got us a bunch here that donít want to sit around and have the third cup of coffee before they start tearing down. Noah, I have to say that it doesnít usually work that way with customers. You always seem to have someone that drags ass in the morning, just canít seem to get around. We donít have anyone like that on this trip. Thatís kind of nice to have for once."
"Like Scooter said," Noah grinned. "Everybodyís getting settled into the trip, and this is a bunch that doesnít mess around much. Look at it from my viewpoint. Weíve had three days getting everybody into thinking Ďriver.í On the Ocoee, we had three hours, total, sometimes four trips a day. It was always a handful."
Al shook his head. "Just as soon do it this way, thanks. You know, I really ought to find the time to go back east and run that creek sometime, just to see how the other half lives. Iíve heard Crystal and Scooter talk about it enough, and now you."
"It really is pretty different," Noah said, swiveling a little to pick the line around an easy bend to the left, and taking a couple of oar strokes to get on line. "Those were some good days, but I like this better."
"You ran that, what? Four years? Same as Crystal?"
"Same as she did, the same years," Noah replied. "Actually, a little more. Sheíd head back up north when school started, but I wasnít as far away, so I worked the weekend releases in the fall, too. I was going to work it a fifth summer, but I got a call to go to Glen Hill Road, so I did that instead."
It was just getting a little warmish once they got out on the river, but a little breeze kept it comfortable. "Might get hot this afternoon," Al grinned. "Be nice to see that for once."
"Itíd be good to see some hot days," Karin smiled. "Noah, it gets like an oven down here, and itís a different place. I like running the spring and fall, itís not as crowded, but the hot days are fun in their way, too."
They worked their way on downstream for an hour, talking lazily, taking in the sights, running a few small riffles just below Nankoweap before the river flattened out. Even the current speed slackened, and Noah had to pivot the raft and row to help out the current. It was slow going, and it was most of an hour before they heard the rumble of a set of rapids ahead of them. Al was telling a funny story about taking a couple of girls on a trip and catching them taking artsy nude photos of each other, and some of the other antics that went on. Karin was laughing along with them. While he listened, Noah pivoted the raft, and saw the rapids coming up. They were the last in line, and he glanced at the lines the others were taking. They were on about the line that he figured he would have taken, so he moved slightly to catch the fast water of the tongue, then just as the raft started to get into the fast water, he pivoted to row into the rough stuff. There was a momentís worth of excitement, and he had to pull to the side a little to work out of the worst of the wave train.
As things began to flatten out, Al made the first comment heíd made about Noahís raft handling. "Not bad, Preach," he said. "On a hot day, youíd probably want to just ride out the wave train so you could get a little more wet to cool off, but on a day like today thereís no point in getting any wetter than you need to."
"Just like the Ocoee," Noah grinned. "It gets hot down there in the summer. Steamy hot, lots of humidity. Thatís supposed to be a thrill ride, anyway, and people expect to get wet."
"You do just fine with this thing, Preach," Al grinned. "Iíve been seeing you at the sticks a lot, and I was wondering if Crystal was coaching you, or whether you were doing it on your own."
"Thereís still a few tricks to handling one of these big things," Noah said. "The first day or two, Scooter and Crystal were coaching me pretty good, but I think Iím getting the hang of it, now."
"Thereís always new tricks to learn," Al told him seriously. "When you think you know it all, then thatís the time to quit. Look, I take it Crystal talked to you about that idea of getting you qualified to run one of these things for the insurance."
"Yeah," Noah told him. "It does seem like itís an interesting idea."
"Iíll be honest," Al told him. "Itís kind of an iffy thing. The thing is, I can always stand to have a qualified boatman or two I can call on in an emergency. We usually have to scramble in the spring and fall for boatmen, since so many of ours are college kids. I can usually come up with someone from one of the motor rig outfits to fill in, since they run a shorter season than we do, but you never know, and I kind of like having someone I know who I can call on. If you want to explore the idea a little further, Iíd be interested."
"Well, I think I would," Noah told him. "Right now, getting free on short notice isnít really going to be much of a problem, so long as I donít have to do it too often. That could change if I get a church of my own, but thatís still in the future, so I donít know."
"Cross that bridge when we get to it," Al said. "Iíve usually tried to come up with people who have experience with this river. Iíll be honest, I was a little reluctant to take on Crystal, even with her eastern experience, but Louise and I learned that she knew a bunch about handling one of these things, and what she didnít know she picked up quickly. So when Crystal suggested that Scooter join us, I was willing to listen, and Scooter worked out just as good, even better than Crystal in some ways. So when both Crystal and Scooter say that you were a better boatman than either one of them were, I just had to see it."
"I wouldnít want to say that I was better," Noah said. "I probably was as good as Crystal back then, but that was years ago and Iím a little out of practice. Scooter, well, Crystal and I hung out with Scooter some, but I never ran with her much."
"Youíre not bad, for being a little rusty," Al grinned. "Preach, if we could run you down this river for a summer, I think you could probably be as good as anyone on this river."
"Donít tempt me like that," Noah said. "You might find me taking you up on it. As it is, Iím just glad that Iím getting the chance to row this river once."
"A lot of people want to do it," Al told him. "But if you want to do a private trip, you have to have a permit. You know how long it takes to get a permit to run this thing on a private trip?"
"The last I heard, it was something like ten years," he replied.
"More like sixteen, now," Al told him. "Itíd be more than that, but they decided a few years ago to let private trips take unused commercial launch dates." He shook his head. "To be fair, itís not a fair balance between the commercial operators and the private trips. Back when the permit system started, the balance wasnít bad, but itís gotten way out of hand. On the other hand, when they changed that part around to let the private trips have unused commercial launch dates, I decided that we werenít going to let any of our launches go unused, because we might not get them back, even if we need them. Thatís why we run on into November."
"Itís pretty down here, then," Karin observed. "But it can get cold, and the days are awful short."
"Well," Noah said. "Iím certainly willing to give it some thought. Really, if I know itís coming, I should probably be able to break free, especially if I can get a decent warning."
"Think it over," Al told him. "Weíll get some idea of how you handle the bigger stuff, and then maybe we can talk about it a little."
* * *
Several miles downstream, the rafts pulled into a beach at the mouth of the Little Colorado River, which flowed in from river left. The Little Colorado flows an amazing turquoise color, from mineral deposits leached out upstream. It was getting warm now, after the cool of the morning, and the chance to get out of the rafts was welcome.
"This is a popular stop," Scooter told them. "Probably the only reason weíre here by ourselves is because we got a good start this morning, so donít be surprised if we get joined later on. Itís considerably warmer than the main river, and that makes it a popular place for swimming. You can go upstream a ways, and swim through some little pour-over rapids. If you do, take your life jackets, but put them on upside down, with your legs through the armholes, since thereís some places you donít want to scrape your butts. And, remember, no soap in the side stream, so if you want to wash up, you can come back down here to the beach, get wet, soap up on shore, then rinse off in the main river."
Most of the group peeled down to their swimsuits, took their life jackets and worked their way up along the bank to a small natural water slide a short distance above the main river, with Crystal right in the middle of the crew, wearing a fairly conservative bikini. It was mostly an easy walk, along smooth rock ledges, almost like walking on a sidewalk, except that from time to time they had to climb up or clamber down to a different level. A short distance upstream, they passed the remains of an old prospectorís shack on the far side of the river, rocks laid up under an overhanging ledge.
The river seemed a little playful. "Better let me go first," Crystal said, "so I can show you how itís done." She put on her life jacket in the awkward fashion, waded out into the water, and let the current carry her down through a series of little pour-overs. By the time she finished, there were several people out there following her, including Nanci, wearing the same beat-up tank suit sheíd worn every day.
It proved to be a lot of fun, and they stayed messing around in the water or exploring around a little on the shore among the tamarisks and small bushes for probably close to an hour. One by one, most of the party drifted back down to the rafts, until only a few were remaining. As people drifted back from the swimming hole, the guides set up lunch. Lunch proved to be taco salad on pita, a fairly quick one to put together. People crowded around the single table that had been set up, putting together their meals, and a drag bag was opened, just for the sake of something cool to drink on a day that was starting to verge on hot.
"Hey," Nanci said suddenly. "What happened to Jon and Tanisha?"
Crystal looked around Ė sure enough, they werenít there. Tanisha would have stood out, she knew, especially with the bright yellow string bikini she was wearing. Where ever she was, Jon was likely to not be far away. Crystal glanced at her mother and rolled her eyes, and Karin nodded back knowingly. "Still up the river, I guess," she said noncommittally. "Maybe they wanted a little time to themselves."
"Probably skinny dipping, or something," Karin grinned.
"Youíre not worried about them?" Nanci asked.
"No," Crystal drawled with a knowing grin. "Theyíll be back after a while. If theyíre not back when weíre ready to put the food put away, I guess Iíll have to go looking for them, but Iím not going to do it until weíre ready to go."
"I guess," Nanci said uncertainly. "So long as you think theyíre all right."
"Oh, Iím sure it is," Karin grinned. "Theyíre probably enjoying themselves."
"Yeah," Crystal snorted. "They do manage that."
There was something going on there that her sister and mother werenít saying, Nanci was sure. "Well, I just donít want them to miss lunch," she protested lightly.
"Oh, if they do, itís their own fault," Karin laughed. "But they wonít mind."
Now, Nanci was sure that something was going over her head Ė but she was also sure that she wasnít going to find out what it was, at least right then.
They were just finishing up lunch when Jon and Tanisha appeared, both carrying their life jackets and wearing their swimsuits. Tanishaís bright yellow string bikini was as daring as anything Nanci would have worn a few years before. "Still time for lunch?" Jon asked, with a smug look on his face.
"There might be a few scrapings," Crystal told them, sounding both smug and exasperated herself.
"Oh, weíll make do," Tanisha smiled. "Hope we didnít keep anybody waiting."
"Not by much," Crystal said. "We were just getting started to send Noah out looking for you."
Jon and Tanisha were still working on their lunches as the boats were loaded, and were just finishing their sodas when people piled aboard the rafts. They wouldnít be alone much longer Ė far up the river, they could see a couple of motor rigs come around the bend and head toward them. "Timed that pretty good, I think," Tanisha winked to her husband.
"Yeah," he grinned back at her. "Couldnít have been better."
Nanci heard the interchange as she was getting set on Crystalís raft. Yes, there was something going on that she didnít know about . . . but she didnít get the chance to think about it, since Scooter was starting to speak. "The Little Colorado, at least to geographers, marks the beginning of the true Grand Canyon," she said. "Technically speaking, up to this point weíve been in Marble Canyon, although no one is too picky about it. This is partly due to the fact that right here was where some of the most famous lines in American exploration were written by Major Powell, leader of the first expedition through this place. This one," she grinned, "I can do from memory: ĎWe are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise above the river, we know not.í"
Like most of the party, Scooter glanced up at the distant walls of the Canyon, high overhead. "But we know now," she said softly. "A lot of us have run this river many times before. To those of you new to the Canyon, each bend reveals new and thrilling sights, and really, itís the same thing for those of us who have been down here many times." She sighed, and continued, "But, to see it for the first time as the Great Unknown, as Powell saw it, well, the chance is long gone. As awesome as it is for us, think what it must have been like for him and his handful of half-starved crewmen." She shook her head, and looked down. "How lucky he was," she intoned softly.
She looked around the high walls again, and looked upstream, to where the motor rigs were drawing closer. "Well," she sighed again, "with that, people, letís be about it."