Canyon Fires
Book 4 of the Dawnwalker Cycle

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009

Chapter 15

May 1, 2001

"Before Scooter gets going on her thought of the day," Al said as they were gathered around the rafts before getting going the next morning. "I got a few things Iíd like to say about the next couple days. This is more company stuff than it is trip stuff, so I donít think Iím stealing Scooterís thunder."

"Get right down to it, Al," Scooter grinned. "Youíre the boss."

"Sometimes, I wonder," he laughed. "Iíll try to keep it short. First, I know there are several people here who have been having some fun rowing on the flats, even some of the easy rapids. Normally, thatís fine with me. And, of course Randy and Noah have pretty well been at the sticks through most of the rapids. But folks, we got us a little problem. When we get down to Phantom, weíre going to be meeting a bunch of people. A lot of them are former Canyon Tours boatmen. Some of them havenít been at the sticks in years, and Iím going to have a hell of a time with them wanting to get on the oars, and probably in the big stuff. If they catch a customer on the sticks, itís going to make it even worse. So, from Phantom down to Bass, I only want current regular employees rowing. Iím sorry that cuts some of you people out, especially Preach and Randy, but itís going to be a zoo enough as it is."

"Hey, we understand," Noah said, grinning a little inwardly at being called "Preach" Ė Al had been doing it off and on since Nankoweap, and now a couple others were picking up on it. It was a nickname he didnít mind, considering the circumstances.

"No problem," Randy agreed.

"Glad you understand," Al told them. "Iím gonna say pretty much the same thing down at Phantom before we get going, but I wonít be pointing at you specifically, and Iím gonna mostly blame insurance. Weíre gonna be having four summer boatmen joining us at Phantom Ė at least, I hope weíre going to have four, and that nobody bombed on me at the last minute, so if someone needs a fill-in, there should be one. The other thing is today, before we get down to Phantom. We got six big rapids today, four of them bigger than the other two. I want to run the big four with the summer boatmen, so Iím going to switch off when we stop to scout. Scoot, youíre planning on scouting Unkar, arenít you?"

"Just boat scout," she said. "Itís not that bad, and the landing to scout is."

"OK, Iíll ride Unkar with Barbie, I guess. You probably donít want to scout Nevills either, so, Scooter and Barbie, plan on meeting up below Unkar and Iíll hop over with you so I can ride Nevills with Randy. Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Iíll switch when we scout. Then, Crystal, Iím guessing that Scooter will have you doing sweep, so Iíll have whoever Iím with hold up somewhere below Grapevine, and Iíll hop over with you so I can run Zoroaster with Preach. After we get past Phantom, Iíll run Horn Creek with one of the kids down from the rim, and weíll just have to wing it about which boat weíre in. Iíll catch the other three tomorrow."

"Works for me, Al," Scooter said. "Iíve said it before and Iíll say it again. Weíve got a lot of ground to cover this morning, so we need to move along efficiently. That doesnít mean race, and it doesnít mean taking chances. If someone feels like they need to walk one of the big ones, well, weíll just take the time it takes. The bottom line is to do this safely, even if it takes all day. And, while we donít want to waste time, we do want to get a good look at the Canyon weíre passing through. The next few miles, as we get into the Vishnu Schist, have got some of the most impressive water sculptured rock formations in the Canyon. This morning will be one of the times youíll remember best. But, if thereís any question of safety, do the conservative thing, OK?"

Noah looked around from his seat on the boatmanís box of Crystalís raft. He couldnít help but be a little nervous. The rapids heíd been through so far had been, well, some of them not easy, like House Rock, but nothing he couldnít handle. But the ones coming up today, they had reputations. Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine Ė heíd heard about them all his life, and there were stories back among the guides on the Ocoee that you had to be some kind of superhuman to run them. Like everyone else this morning, heíd gotten up early, had a cup of strong coffee, polished off his French toast and bacon, and helped with the tearing down. Soon they were loading the rafts, and tying things down extra tight. He could see that there wasnít a lot of extra comment Ė everyone was taking it seriously.

He glanced over a couple of rafts, to where Randy sat at the sticks of Scooterís raft, Nicole right next to him while Scooter ran through her talk. Like a lot of people on the party, Noah was aware that Nicole had a serious set of nerves about today, although there had been no public mention of it. Crystal had warned him back up at Nankoweap that Nicole and Randy might walk out the Tanner Trail, but when they floated past it yesterday without stopping, he realized that Nicole was going to give it a try.

Scooter could see the nerves among the party, too, and was just a little surprised that Nicole was taking it as well as she was. Well, if she made it through today, sheíd be through the worst of it, she thought. "Weíve all been talking about how big a day weíre going to have," Scooter said. "And maybe weíve talked about it a little too much. Folks, this really isnít that difficult. Iíve talked to you before about Powell, running this river for the first time, not knowing what to expect. Remember, in those days they didnít have much in the way of whitewater skills, and those hard boats he had werenít really the right thing to be running this river in. I think if Powell and his crew were to look at us today, running these rafts easily and enjoying it, theyíd drop dead of heart attacks in surprise. It really is a lot easier for us, and a lot safer."

She reached in her daybag, and pulled out Words for the Wild again. "This is what it was like for Powell," she said. "ĎAt daybreak, we walk down the bank of the river, on a little sandy beach, to take a view of a new feature of the canyon. Heretofore, hard rocks have given us bad river, soft rocks, smooth water, and a series of rocks harder than any we have experienced sets in. The river enters the gneiss! We can see but a little way into the granite gorge, but it looks threatening.í That had to be down by Hance, a few miles downstream," she explained.

"ĎAfter breakfast we enter on the waves. At the very introduction it inspires awe. The canyon is narrower than we have ever before seen it; the water is swifter; there are but few broken rocks in the channel; but the walls are set, on either side, with pinnacles and crags; and sharp, angular buttresses, bristling with wind- and wave-polished spires extend far out into the river.

"ĎLedges of rock jut into the stream, their tops sometimes just below the surface, sometimes rising a few or many feet above; and island ledges and island pinnacles and island towers break the swift course of the stream into chutes and eddies and whirlpools.í Iím going to skip ahead here." She took a deep breath, turned a page, and continued. "As we proceed the granite rises higher, until nearly a thousand feet of the lower part of the walls are composed of this rock. About eleven oíclock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously. The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks and lash themselves into a mad white foam. We can land just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make a portage. We must run the rapid or abandon the river. There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off, and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave and ride it to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher until we strike one just as it curls back and a breaker rolls over our little boat. Still on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is caught in a whirlpool and spun around several times. At last we pull out again into the stream. And now, the other boats have passed us. The open compartment of the Emma Dean is filled with water and every breaker rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that, we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred yards through breakers Ė how, we scarcely know. We find the other boats are turned into an eddy at the foot of the fall and are waiting to catch us as we come, for the men have seen that our boat is swamped. They push out again as we come near and pull us in against the wall. Our boat bailed, on we go again.í"

She closed the book and looked around. "That was the first time," she said. "Like I said a couple minutes ago, they didnít have the skills or the boats to know what to do, and Iíll bet their hearts were pounding, but they faced the challenge and they met it. Now, out of this party, almost half have done it before. We know itís difficult, but we know it can be done, and can be done safely, because we have. Weíre going to take our time and be careful, but we should have some fun." She looked around again, and said, "Normally, Iíd try to find some sort of appropriate closing words. Now, Iím not particularly a religious person, and I know there are others here who arenít, either, but I donít think anyone will mind if I ask Preach to say a few words."

Noah didnít hesitate; once again, it was pretty much a case of saying what had been on his mind, anyway. "Dear Father in Heaven, watch over us as we proceed down the tumult of the water today. Guide our hands and our hearts, and think of us when weíre too busy to be thinking of you. This, in Jesusí name we ask, Amen." He wasnít surprised to hear a chorus of several "Amens" in response.

"With that," Scooter said as she untied the bowline to her raft, coiled it up, and stepped aboard, "letís be about it, people."

*   *   *

The first of the rapids was right around the corner, Unkar. It lay in the shadow of a canyon wall under the otherwise bright, clear blue sky, twisting around a sharp curve to the right. They all slowed as they approached, and each of the boatmen stood up to get a better look; Randy, in the lead raft with Scooter and Nicole, actually stood up on the boatmanís box. Several rafts behind, Noah could see him confer with Scooter for a moment, then sit back down, take a couple strokes to pick out a line, then start his run. Except maybe for House Rock, Unkar was the heaviest rapids theyíd seen so far, but Noah was a little more used to handling the raft by now, and except for the need to move right to make the curve, it was almost routine. As the rapids drew close, he pivoted the raft from its slow sideways drift once he had his entry line. The raft slid down the tongue, rose high on the back roller, and he skewed a little sideways to pull to river right as the raft bucked over the waves. A lot of water came on board, but it quickly drained out the floorboards, although the passengers got wet, and he even got wet, too. It was still early in the morning, and a bit cool, but they all had rain suits on to keep from getting too cold in the icy waters.

"Not bad for a warmup," Crystal grinned. "Looks like everybody made it all right."

"Looks like it to me," Noah agreed, watching ahead as Randy held up in the lead raft, waiting for Barbie to catch up with them.

*   *   *

"So, howíd you like that, Nicole?" Al asked as he settled down on the gear pile for the run to Nevills Rapids.

"Oh, it was OK," she said listlessly. "I got a little wet."

"Probably wonít be the last time," Al told her.

"Seems like weíre still pretty much in the open," Randy commented, wanting to take attention off of Nicole. She did seem to be handling it pretty well, but he knew that there was a maximum dose of tranquilizer flowing through her blood stream, too. So far, so good, he thought.

"Weíre still in shale and limestone, here," Scooter explained. "The schist and granite donít come up until weíre just below Hance. That reading this morning, most people think it was Grapevine that Powell was talking about, although he had to have exaggerated the drop."

Randy only half listened to Al and Scooter exchanging tall tales about the upcoming rapids. He glanced over at Nicole. She was taking it, well, tranquilly. She wasnít saying much of anything, but at least she obviously wasnít frozen with fear, either. Maybe this was going to work.

They came around a bend, and Nevills was in front of them. It didnít look that bad, and on standing on the boatmanís box and looking downstream. "Doesnít look too bad," he said. "But if weíre going to run the edge, I think I want everyone down and in."

"Good thinking, Randy," Al said, swinging around off the side tube. Nicole was already in a position that was pretty good, and Scooter joined her.

Without much more looking, Randy selected the obvious line, set up, and headed down it. Scooter had warned that it was going to be a little harder than it looked, since they were going to be the lead boat all day and wouldnít have the chance to see how the others set up, but it proved to not be of any great difficulty. "You all right, Nicole?" he asked as they washed down through the easy stuff at the bottom of the rapids; he pivoted the boat so he could look back upstream at everyone else making their run.

"Iím OK," she said in a small voice.

"Good deal," he said. "Hang in there."

"Weíll be able to get out and stretch our legs in a few minutes," Scooter told her. "Randy, weíve got a couple of riffles as we go around this next bend to the right, but weíre going to want to land river left just above Hance to scout."

Once they were past the riffles, the river slowed noticeably Ė backwater from the natural dam at Hance, Randy figured Ė and he actually had to row some to make progress. The walls were rising now, looking even more rugged than the vertical walls they remembered from back up in Marble Canyon.

Not long afterwards, they were nosed up into a talus pile along the shore at Hance. The boatmen, and some of the others climbed up a small ridge to look down at the rapids. They seemed steep and long Ė they were still in the basalt, with the sedimentary layers showing easily. "This is one of those places thatís a little goofy," Scooter said to the group. "The layers are slanted down toward us, so itís kind of an optical illusion. Itís not as steep as it looks."

It looked a damn sight worse to Randy; it was obviously a difficult patch of water. He stood there on a rock for a long time, staring at the water. It was a steep froth, but the line through it was fairly clear. If heíd been in his kayak, he could see several promising lines, even some play holes, but now he knew he was looking for easy water, the safest route. The best would obviously be a rough ride. He glanced down the shore. It wouldnít be all that difficult a walk for Nicole, and heíd feel better if sheíd walk it.

He looked around for her, figuring sheíd be close by, but there was no sign of her. He glanced back toward the rafts, and was a little surprised to see her climbing unsteadily back aboard.

"You like someone else to take point?" Scooter asked.

"I wouldnít mind," he said. "But it doesnít matter; Iíll still have to take it as it comes."

"What you thinking for line?"

"I guess start left of the island," he said. "I donít think we can make it right from here, anyway. Then try to pull towards the center, and try to skim the eddy lines and stay out of the biggest stuff."

"Thatís probably as good as any," she said. "Look, Randy, I can do it if you want."

"No, Iíll do it," he said. "I think I can handle it."

"I guess," she said. "Ainít Nicole going to walk this one?"

"Doesnít look like it," he said, pointing down at the raft. "Why donít you give me a minute with her before we get started?"

"OK," she said. "Look, I can still take the sticks if itíll make her feel better."

"Iíll ask," he promised. "I guess I better get down there."

Slowly, the boatmen filed down the hill. Randy didnít want to think about it too much, just do it. That was the best way, he knew. When he got down to the raft, he stepped aboard, and sat down on the gear next to Nicole. "You donít want to walk this?" he asked. "You can if you want."

"No, I canít," she said plaintively but quietly. "Iíd like to, but Randy, Iím dosed up a little too much. I canít walk right. I can barely stand up."

"I thought you were acting pretty quiet," he said. "Look, Scooter said sheíd take the sticks if you want."

"No, go ahead and do it," she told him. "I donít want you to lose out on the chance."

"You sure?" he asked quietly.

"You go ahead," she said. "Iíll be all right. At least Iím dosed up a little too much to care."

"OK," he said. "Weíll have to watch that shit tomorrow, but tomorrow is tomorrow. You hang in there. And, Nicole?"

"What?" she said, a little hollow-eyed.

"I love you," he said. "And Iím proud of you for hanging in there, snootful of tranquilizer or not."

"Thanks, Randy," she said. "Run it clean."

"You bet I will," he said. "You hang in there. And, you hang on tight, too." He stood up, and headed for the oars. "Scooter, are we about ready to rumble?"

She looked around. People were getting aboard, getting set. "Hey folks," she said. "This is serious. Yank in the drag bags before you shove off. Make sure the lines are snubbed down, boatmen."

There was a minute or two more of getting ready. "All right, people," she yelled. "Letís be about it."

*   *   *

Afterward, Nicole didnít really remember much of Hance, or Sockdolager, or Grapevine, which soon came up. About all she remembered through the drug-induced haze was that there was a lot of riding up and down, a lot of green water washing aboard, and a lot of relief at the bottom of every drop. But that was fine. Sheíd made it.

In fact, all of them ran Hance perfectly, and as each raft slid out into the calm water below the rapids, its occupants let out a big yell of success at the clean run. There were some big grins on boatmenís and passengersí faces in the moments there below Hance.

Below Hance, they reached the hard Vishnu Schist, a metamorphic rock, sandstone compressed by heat and pressure and time into a black, shiny rock that the river doesnít cut very easily. Gone were the wide views and easy slopes; the walls of the Canyon rose above them on each side nearly vertically, with few spots for landing and not much chance to rest.

The next rapid downstream, Sockdolager, was not as tough a ride as Hance but in more difficult in terms of bigger waves. Randy ran it clean, but Andy, with Myleigh and Trey, and worst of all, with Al in his boat, got a little too far over an eddy line, bounced the side tube off of one of the river right rocks along shore, spun the other way around, and took another hit from a shoreline rock on the nose of the boat Ė fortunately not a hard one. They bounced off and got spit out the bottom backwards, not any worse for wear but wet and relieved, with Andy mostly waiting for the ass chewing he expected from Al. "Shit happens," was all that Al told him. "It counts as much as anything how well you do when things get out of hand. You didnít panic and turned it into a good save, Andy."

Below Sockdolager it started to get warm. By now everybody had more or less gotten out of rain gear, which was wet and clammy and uncomfortable, and were down to wearing a conglomeration of T-shirts and swimsuits. After Hance and Sockdolager, Grapevine and the smaller Zoroaster seemed almost anticlimactic by comparison Ė the doubts were gone, they knew they could run it. The scenery here, the steep canyon walls, narrow side canyons, and patterns of the black schist were awesome, some of the most unusual and spectacular scenery that they had run through. Not far below Zoroaster, Randy noticed the little side canyon where they had stopped on his first trip, with the intent of staying the night. What had happened there had changed the whole tone of that trip, and now he was just as glad to see that bad memory sliding past without stopping.

Four miles farther on, they started to get near the "populous" Phantom Ranch area, where the most signs of man to be seen between Leeís Ferry and Diamond Wash were located. They were doing pretty well on time, better than Scooter had expected, both from the early start and the fact that Nicole hadnít walked any of the rapids. "Donít know where Team 1 might have stopped," she said, "but Iíve been thinking we might catch up with them on the river."

"I dunno," Al said from the raft a few feet away Ė he was riding with Crystal now, so he could run Zoroaster with Noah on the sticks Ė "When I talked with Dave and Mary before they left, they were thinking of stopping up by Grapevine or Hance. Not a lot of places to stop below there, anyway. If they stopped at Hance, weíre probably not far behind them. Letís get together. Noah, you and I can trade places. I want Karin on the sticks when we get to Phantom."

"Showing her off, Dad?" Crystal grinned.

"You damn betcha," he said. "I canít think of a better way to show that Iím marrying another river rat."

The switch was quickly made, and the bride-to-be of tomorrow was at the oars when the Kaibab Trail bridge went overhead, then a cable stretched overhead as part of the river gauging station. Shortly below, there was a landing on river right. They glanced ahead, to see five light blue Canyon Tours rafts beached there, and a big group of people standing and sitting around. Karin glanced at the landing, picked a spot, and began to pull toward it, while someone on shore pulled out a harmonica and began to play, Here Comes the Bride, through a host of cheers.

*   *   *

Things got confusing there for a few minutes Ė there were a lot of people gathered around the eleven Canyon Tours rafts from the two trips. Even Al didnít know everybody Ė about half the passengers on the Team 1 trip were customers, but he had to stop and take the time to have a word with everybody, shake hands, and introduce Karin, Crystal, Jon, Tanisha, and Nanci to those who didnít already know them. By the time he got done, both parties had lunch tables set up. It took a while before Al was able to get a sandwich in his hand and go over to have a talk with Dave and Mary Wells, who were sitting on the nose of one of the rafts, along with Bill Peterson, who had been a trip leader up until last fall, when heíd headed off to law school. "You guys have a good trip so far?" he asked.

"Slow," Mary sighed. She was sort of funny looking, medium height, with long reddish-brown hair done up in braids, and big round glasses, but she was also Canyon Toursí senior trip leader. She was very competent, and Al knew that she and her husband Dave didnít plan on leaving the Canyon for a few decades, yet. "I know weíre only a day behind normal, but it seems like a week."

"Whereíd you stop last night?" he asked.

"Grapevine," she said. "We only got in about a half hour or so ago."

"Guess we werenít far behind you," Al grinned. "We left from Cardenas, but we got on the river real early. We got everybody about ready to go?"

"No way," Mary said. "We had a couple customers hike up to the store, theyíre not back yet."

"Should be pretty soon," Dave added. He was several inches taller than his wife, solidly built, with long, dark hair and a face that showed signs of a lifelong battle with acne. He wasnít much of a talker; usually he let Mary do the talking, and she more than made up for him. Dave had only a little less experience than his wife, and was qualified as a trip leader, too, although Al had only once broken them up to run separate trips in an emergency. He didnít intend to do that again if he could help it Ė both of them had bitched at him about it the rest of the summer. Technically, they traded off as trip leader on Team 1, with Dave officially being the trip leader this time, but Al knew that he and Mary split up the responsibilities in their own way.

"Everybody hasnít made it down the hill yet," Bill reported. "Michelle told me to tell you that the mule outfit cheesed out, so she grabbed a couple of swampers, and theyíre carrying the load down. With all that weight, they wanted to go slow, so the rest of us pulled ahead."

"What happened with the mule?" Al asked. Normally, Canyon Tours ran all their trips without a resupply at Phantom, but with all the extra people on this trip, and the need to carry extra gear and food for the wedding, heíd worked out a deal to have a mule-load of food and a few other items brought down. "Donít know," Bill shrugged. "She didnít say. Most of us carried some of the load, but she and Hannah and Wade got a lot of it."

"Well, it donít matter," Al said. "How you liking law school, anyway?"

"Itís a lot of damn work," Bill said. "Tell the truth, Iíd almost rather be back down here, but Rosemarie Ė well, you know . . . "

"Yeah, I know how that works," Al nodded. It was the biggest reason he lost senior boatmen like Bill; wives Ė or husbands, for that matter Ė often didnít like their spouses taking off for months at a time down in the Canyon. A real job that kept them at home had its benefits, especially when they were starting a family. Louise had been through that, years ago, but sheíd wound up choosing the Canyon, to Alís everlasting gratitude, and theyíd only gotten together when Al made it clear that he had no intent of leaving the Canyon, either. Dave and Mary had avoided that the same way, by being a couple of Canyon bums who got together, but Al figured that someday, sooner or later, they were going to start talking about kids, and no telling what would happen when that came around.

"You want to talk about how weíre going to break up for the summer?" Mary asked.

"Not just yet," Al said. "I was originally going to let it go till we got down to Bass, since I wanted to see how the new kids from the rim are doing. But, I think maybe we ought to get together after we get to camp this afternoon for a staff meeting to iron stuff out. Thatíll give everybody a chance to switch gear around, so we donít have as big of a mess down there on the beach at Bass."

"Well, all right," Mary said. "But we do have one problem. Fredís gonna have to hike out, either here or with the group out of Bass."

Fred was a spring pickup boatman, not a regular Canyon Tours employee. Normally, he ran motor rigs for GCR in the summer, but heíd been available before the GCR season started. "What happened?" Al asked.

"He got confused, somehow," Mary reported. "Somehow he got the idea that we were going to be running a short trip, like Team 2, and thought we were going to be off on the sixth. Heís got a GCR trip starting the eighth."

"Damn it," Al snorted. Team 1 wasnít going to get off the water till the tenth, with Team 2 a day behind. "Back when I was in the army, we always used to say that thereís always some poor bastard who doesnít get the word."

"Donít get upset with him," Mary counseled. "Heís a good boatman."

"No, Iím not," Al nodded. "Heís worked off-season for us before, and I donít want to run him off. Iíll just work something out before we have the staff meeting. It just means that youíre going to have to take one of the kids whoís come down from the rim, thatís all." He looked around for Fred, and didnít see him standing nearby. "Dave, go find him," he said. "If he wants to hike out, he might as well do it from here, otherwise itís going to be a burnaround for him topside."

"Will do, Al," the tall young boatman said, getting up.

"Is there any way you could leave Jerry or Dan with us?" Mary asked. "Iím not real crazy about running with three college kids all summer."

"Nope, no way," Al said. "We got too many college kids, but I need Dan and Jerry on Teams 2 and 3 for assistant trip leaders. Howís that Steve kid working out for you as a swamper?"

"Not bad," Mary told him. "Good, hard worker. Heís not ready to be a boatman yet, but when we get along toward the end of the summer, we could stick him in a gear boat if we had to, probably."

"Good," Al said." Weíre going to be green as hell this summer, but I think weíre gonna have most of these kids back next year."

"Thatíll be nice," Mary agreed. "Make up for this year."

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