May 8, 2001
It had been a week since Canyon Tours Team 2 had gone through Upper Granite Gorge and the big rapids like Hance and Sockdolager and Granite and Crystal. There had been rapids every day, sometimes ones that made them work and sweat a little, rapids like Waltenberg and Deubendorff and Upset, but they were distinctly muted compared to the big ones now far upriver. But the spectre of Lava, perhaps the most fearsome one of them all, always lay in front of them.
Back several days up the river at Bass Camp, when the gear boat had first come into existence, the original intent was that Noah and Randy would switch off at its oars so that both would row it half a day, but that fell apart almost at the beginning. Since then the two had switched off for full days, each rowing the gear boat one day and Crystalís raft the other. It wasnít until the idea of the hike up Havasu Canyon had been broached at Tapeats Creek that Randy began to suspect that the present schedule would leave him on the sticks of the luggage-loaded raft at Lava Falls.
Even then it wasnít a done deal. There were camps both above and below what many still considered the toughest rapids on the river. Given a choice Randy knew that heíd rather run the monster toward the end of the day so heíd be warmed up and ready, and then have the evening to dry out afterwards, rather than having to do it first thing in the morning and have the night to worry about it. It wasnít until that morning that Crystal announced that, unless something went wrong during the day, she planned on getting past Lava before they camped.
It wasnít as if Randy didnít know what he was getting into. After all, heíd run Lava in a gear boat a year and a half before. Back on that trip, heíd run the gear boat for more than a week, every day, and had even run the four big ones just below Phantom on the first day heíd been at the oars of the raft, with a different boatman with him in each of them. And when heíd run Lava, heíd been expecting Crystal to run with him, but sheíd shoved him off the bank, given him a nice wave, and turned to hustle up the bank to watch him run it solo. Already too far down to turn back, heíd spun the raft, picked out a good line, and made the run about as clean as it could have been done. It had been a personal victory for him, the high point of the trip. If it hadnít been for Nicole, the vision of the roof trusses of their new house rising above the trees of Hanneganís Cove at Spearfish Lake, and his family duty to Clark Construction, heíd been Ė for at least an instant Ė ready to give it all up and join Crystal in the Canyon.
Now, with at least a distinct feeling of déjà vu rising in him, he realized he was going to have to do it again.
The gear boat was a little different on this trip. On the last trip, it had been loaded with the regular baggage of the party, like the other boats, camp bags, and night bags and all the other odds and ends, just piled higher than the loads on the other rafts since there were no passengers, and it had to be loaded and unloaded daily. This time, Crystal had packed it clear back up at Baseball Man with the camp bags of all the people who had hiked in at Phantom and out at Bass, along with some empty ice boxes, garbage and crushed cans and the like, and groovers that the party had filled to that point. Although either he or Preach checked the straps daily, the tarp had not come off since Baseball Man. It made the gear boat seem something like an extra on the trip, rather than a part of the party. At times, it seemed like he was rowing the garbage truck of the trip.
At least it wasnít as lonely as the gear boat had been on the last trip. Back then, it had almost seemed to Randy that he was a little apart from everybody, a little left out of the jokes and the good times and the laughter on the other boats. Heíd been enough apart, in fact, that he hadnít really picked up on the fact that things had changed mightily for Crystal and Karin and Al up at Baseball Man. There had been some tensions between Crystal and her mother earlier in the trip, and he knew about that, but he had noticed that Al had then somehow become a part of the discussions. With nothing being said, he figured that Al had been called on to mediate between the two; the truth didnít come out until farther down the river.
On this trip, though, he had Nicole with him, at least most of the time. When they got to major rapids, Nicole had hopped over into a nearby raft, usually but not always Crystalís, and ran the rapids with little comment, but once below she rejoined him. It made the trip a little special for him, like the two were at least partly a trip within a trip, enjoying their first real vacation together in sixteen months of marriage. Nicole had ridden several rapids with him at the sticks, while theyíd been in Crystalís raft, and he hadnít picked up any signs of nervousness; but then there had been nothing quite as overtly threatening as Hance, Granite, or Crystal, either.
The character of the Canyon had changed below Bass and the end of Upper Granite Gorge; in fact, it had changed a lot. The narrow vertical walls of Marble Canyon, back up at the first part of the trip, were long gone, and the depth and the immensity of the Gorge were muted, too. It would not be fair to say that the Canyon was less interesting or less spectacular, but it would be fair to say that everyone in the party was a little more used to it. There were still narrow stretches of spectacular gorges, places where the Canyon opened up into wide, distant vistas of the rim overhead or far away, as the case might have been, mysterious side canyons that would have been interesting to explore had there been time Ė but there had been so many now that minds were running on beauty overload, and all the possible superlatives had long since been used up.
Given that, when Randy backed the gear boat out onto the Colorado that morning, with Nicole perched high on the gear pile, he mostly categorized the day as "routine," except, of course, for how it would end. And routine it was, pretty much. As usual, it was cool in the morning; Randy was running in T-shirt and jeans, since he knew it would get warm rowing; Nicole, in a polypro shirt and fuzzy Polartec pants, which Randy knew would be coming off before long. If it warmed up like it had the other days, he knew that by noon sheíd be down to her bikini and life jacket, and heíd be rowing just bare-chested under his life jacket, along with a pair of grubby old running shorts heíd worn much of the trip.
Though the party might spread out some, they always tried to keep each other more or less in sight. Crystal usually ran at the front of the group, in case something unexpected came along, and Mike usually was at the back; he was a certified lifeguard, and had a reportedly good arm with a throw bag in case a rescue might be needed. Randy tried to keep the gear boat more or less in the middle of the group, and usually close enough to one of the other rafts that there could be some talking back and forth.
Just as luck had it, they ran for a while pretty close to Kevinís raft, with Nanci, Jon, and Tanisha aboard. The subject of the discussion was predictable, and it ran heavily to religion, and how a Christian should view the world. Randy didnít know Tanisha well, and Jon hardly better, but it seemed to him that Nanci was getting some pretty intense lessons from Kevin and the black woman. In time, it started to irritate him a little. Although he knew it was important, especially to Nanci, a heavily religious discussion wasnít exactly what heíd come to the Canyon to hear. As the run of the river current allowed, he did a little rowing to pull ahead a ways, getting closer to Larryís raft, with Josh and Tiffany and Myleigh and Trey aboard, which at least offered the prospects of a different discussion topic.
Apparently Nicole picked up on it, too, for after theyíd gotten a ways away, far enough to be out of easy earshot, she commented, "Boy, theyíre laying it on pretty thick, arenít they?"
"Yeah," he agreed. "Itís all pretty new to her, I guess."
"When anything is new and interesting, thereís a lot to learn," Nicole said thoughtfully. "You know, after yesterday, I canít help but think that maybe we ought to go to church a little more often."
"I was thinking that, too," Randy agreed. Like Nicole, heíd grown up in the Spearfish Lake First United Methodist Church; in fact, his grandmother had designed the striking building with its soaring spire back in the fifties, and his grandfather and Clark Construction had built it. He and Nicole had both been in the youth group there, had been on church activities, and had even become members of the church. But as they got into their teens, church attendance had been far down their list of priorities, and hadnít picked up much since their marriage. "I guess weíre growing up, Nicole."
"Could be," she said. She let out a sigh, and asked, "Randy, how tough is Lava?"
"Tough," he said. "Itís every bit as tough as Crystal or Hance. Itís different, though. It comes at you all at once; itís just one big, tough drop. You have to be real particular about setting up the right line, and then itís mostly trying to keep it straight until it flushes you out the bottom. On the other hand, itís an easy walk, so you donít have to do it if you donít want to."
"Are there any more big ones after that?" she asked.
"No, once you get past Lava, the worst is over," he said. "Oh, thereís a couple more moderate ones maybe thirty miles on down, but no big deal." He let out a sigh. "Once you get past Lava, thereís still almost fifty miles of river, but when I ran before, I was sort of torn between wishing it would last forever and wanting to get it over with and get on home."
"I know how that feels," she agreed. "As Jackpine and I went through the Hundred Mile Wilderness on the way to Katahdin, when we did the AT, I kept thinking that I hated to have it over with."
"Crystal told me that she spent most of that hundred miles thinking about climbing Katahdin, then turning around and hiking back to Springer Mountain at the south end," he replied. "I really had difficulty getting her in the truck and on the road. If we hadnít been scheduled to pick up Myleigh, and the prospect of Crystal seeing her again, I donít think I could have managed it."
"It was pretty much like that for Jackpine and me, too," she said. "Except I knew you would be waiting for me, and I didnít want to make you wait any longer."
"I appreciate that, Nicole," he told her. "Iím sorry we havenít been able to get out together more, but with our goofy schedules, letís face it, itís not going to happen very much. It was a miracle we pulled this trip off, and I donít know that either of us is going to be able to break free a three-week time block together in the foreseeable future." He let out a sigh. "Iím sorry, but thatís going to be the way it is, and I suppose weíd better get used to it."
"I know," she said. "But it still doesnít seem fair for me to take off and go to run the Girl Scout camp most of the summer, when I can get free."
"You might as well," he said. "I know you enjoy it, and itís my busiest time of the year. On top of that, Myleigh and Jennifer and the rest of us are going to be trying to get Whispering Pines done while youíre gone, so any time you see me, Iíll be asleep." He let out another sigh. "I donít know how long Iím going to be able to keep that schedule up. I told Jennifer Iíd be with her this year, and Iíll keep my word. But as long as Myleigh is only available in the summer, this canít go on. I enjoy being in the band, and I enjoy the checks, but it just turns summer into a super bummer."
"It doesnít seem fair," she said. "And then, to have you sitting around not doing much all winter, when I canít get away. Itíd be nice if you could get away. I know that Crystal asked you to go sailing with her and Scooter and Michelle last winter."
"I never even thought about saying yes," he said. "God, I would have loved to do it, but how would it have looked if Iíd taken off for a couple weeks sailing with three women?"
"I wouldnít have minded," she told him.
"Yeah, but how would it have looked around town?" he replied. "Iíve considered ideas about getting away and going someplace alone, but I donít want to leave you behind, and that wouldnít look so good, either. At least being in the band, I get to go over to Jennifer and Blakeís and piss around with the guitar a bit. That makes the days go faster."
"Well, maybe we can think of something," she frowned. "How about coming out here and running the Canyon again, maybe on the last trip of the year, like Al and Crystal were talking about?"
"Hell, thatís still a maybe at best," he frowned. "It sounds good when you first think about it, but looking back over the last few years, four years out of the last five thereís been some job thatís in trouble and running late, and I canít get away. I wouldnít know until the last damn minute, and it all depends on whether my grandfather is in good health and capable of filling in when Iím gone. Same thing when they open their season out here. Thatís the first of April. Either weíre getting rolling on work or getting ready to. Again, I might be able to squeeze in a trip, but I wouldnít know until the last minute, and even then it would be iffy. Back up the river, Crystal was talking about doing a January trip sometime. That might be a possible, if it comes off, and if she can get a launch date. I donít know that sheís talked to Al about it, but it seems iffy."
She shook her head. "Back once upon a time, we had dreams of being able to take big trips together," she said. "The reality sucks, doesnít it?"
"It could be worse," he smiled. "At least when Iím staying home in the winter, I know youíre coming home at the end of the day."
* * *
They stopped for lunch and a short hike at Cove Canyon, about halfway to Lava Falls, but were soon back on the river. There was a little more tension in the air, now; everyone knew Lava lay ahead, and after a week since the last water that was anything like as bad, even the boatmen who had run it several times before seemed a little nervous, too.
About an hour after lunch, they floated past Vulcanís Anvil, a lava plug of an old volcano that stuck up out of the river. It was the last warning that Lava wasnít far ahead.
The character of the Canyon had changed some, now, even compared to the morning. Randy remembered Al saying on the last trip that several major volcanic eruptions had poured black lava down into the canyon, very recently, geologically speaking Ė a million years or so, when the river had cut down to very nearly its present bed. In that million years, the river had brushed aside most of the traces of the lava, but what remained changed the character of the Canyon. In the worst spot, lay the toughest rapids on the river Ė Lava Falls, a thundering, heart-stopping white cataract.
Like he had done a year and a half before, Randy stood on the bank with the other boatmen and the rest of the party, just about as awestruck as the last time. But, heíd run it before, and he knew he could do it. Like the last time, too, the choice of lines seemed limited, basically to either the right or left of a horrendous hole in the center of the rapids. Heíd run left the last time, what was generally considered to be the easier route. The right line was considered harder, more challenging, trickier. Called "the bubble-line run" after a thin line of aerated water that marked the approach, it did have a certain appeal, and he had been thinking about it ever since heíd realized he was going to be running it in the gear boat. It was riskier, it was wetter Ė but a spill there in the gear boat wouldnít be the disaster it would be in any of the other boats. It would mean the possibility some sleeping bags that wouldnít have to be slept in getting damp in their dry bags, and they could be dried at leisure downstream. And, he wouldnít have any passengers to risk.
Nicoleís comments that morning had been getting to him, too. Realistically, he knew he didnít have much choice to get out and do stuff like heíd once dreamed of, but when he could, he realized it might as well be intense. He might never be able to be a boatman, like Crystal and Scooter and the rest, but he knew that if he could run the bubble line, he wouldnít have anything to be ashamed of. It was a graduation of sorts Ė at least there would be one way he could top the last trip. With the other boatmen, he walked up and down the shore, looking at it from different angles. The left still seemed a little better; it would still be a hell of a rough ride, but the bubble line seemed doable.
"What do you think, Randy?" Crystal said. "Left or right?"
"The left looks better," he submitted nervously. "But Iím going right."
"The bubble line, huh?" she grinned. "Thatíll be fun. Hit it straight on the marks and hold on." She looked around at the other boatmen, all of whom were staring down at the river. "Everybody got their marks?" she asked.
There were some nervous, assenting sounds made. "No point in standing here and thinking about it all day," she said. "Letís head íem up and move íem out. One at a time! Mike, you go first and eddy out left below in case you have to pick up swimmers."
Slowly they walked back down to the rafts. Each of the boatmen, Randy included, checked their rafts over for loose lines that might entangle a swimmer if a raft were to flip, and most people pulled their life jacket straps extra tight. They stood on the bank and on boatmanís boxes, watching Mike back the raft away from the bank with Buddha and Giselle aboard, pivot and pull hard for the far side of the tongue to set up his approach for the biggest challenge the Canyon had to offer. That actually gave Randy a little relief; Mike was reportedly the best at rescues, and he knew Buddha and Giselle were both powerful swimmers, as strong as Crystal, and at home in the water. It didnít take long; the water was moving quickly, and they plunged down the tongue, just past the hole, took a lot of water on board, but emerged, still upright, bucking wildly in the wave train as Mike worked the oars to get into the eddy on the left side.
Next up was Kevin, with Jon and Tanisha and Nanci. This took just a little longer to get started, because all joined hands for a quick prayer before the three passengers settled down into their seats, and got a good grip, while Nicole and Crystal gave them a hard push away from shore. Like Mike before him, Kevin pulled hard over to his marks, pivoted, and pulled hard to set up his approach. He got a little sideways, and it was a wet ride, but in a couple minutes, he was pulling up along shore, so his customers could get out and watch the runs to come.
"Youíre up, Randy," Crystal said from her spot on shore where sheíd gone to watch the run. He gave the straps on his life jacket one last tug and sat down at the oars, heart pumping fast. "You ready?" she asked.
"Ready as Iíll ever be," he told her.
Nicole was standing at the bow of the gear boat. She called, "Good luck!" as she gave a mighty heave on the bow of the raft Ė and to a shock that almost was enough to stop Randyís heart, scrambled over the bow, swung around and sat down, getting a grip on the straps that held the front pile down.
"Nicole!" he yelled as the raft backed out into the current. "What the hell do you think youíre doing?"
"Run it clean for me, Randy," she yelled back, tightening her grip.
A number of thoughts flashed through his mind almost simultaneously. It was already too far to get back to the landing. Damn, she was going to get beaten on up there, but no time to tell her to get in the back, no time to argue. Go left? No, he rejected it instantly; he hadnít studied the marks; heíd been concentrating on the bubble line. There was hardly time to think about it; he was committed.
Heart in his mouth, he pivoted the raft, picked out the landmarks heíd need for his entry line, pulled hard to get on it, and positioned the raft for entry. It was mild, but fast, running down to the first part of the drop, then the nose of the raft dropped and they gained speed as he began to run down the tongue. He could just see Nicoleís head over the gear load in front of him. "Hang on tight!" he yelled.
Somehow, the tongue seemed longer than he expected, but all he could see now was the curl of the hole at the bottom, reaching out to eat them, and Nicole would get the brunt of it, in only her life jacket and bikini. He pivoted hard, pulled to the right, got a little momentum, and plunged down into the churning white chaos. Then, the raft reared up and all he could see was the tumultuous white mountainside, but somehow, he managed to keep going straight. The raft reared up, plunged down again, into a monster wave Ė there was no avoiding it, theyíd have to take it head on.
The bow of the raft piled into the wave, and green water came over the bow in a huge splash, soaking him down, burying Nicole. Sluggishly it began to rise as some of the water drained out the open slits in the bottom of the floor. Then, somehow they were through it, coming out the other side of the wave, rising to meet the next wave, not as bad, but Nicole was still there, yelling "Yeeeeeee-haaaaaaa!" at the top of her lungs. Then, they were bouncing along in smaller waves, more or less under control, and they became just white swirls.
With shaking hands, he pivoted the boat and yelled, "Nicole, are you all right?" as he began to pull for Kevinís raft, pulled up on shore.
"Yeah!" she yelled back, bubbling cheer in her voice. "That was fun!"
* * *
Randy was still shaking as he nosed the gear boat into shore; Kevin and Jon got hold of the grab lines and pulled him up, while he got up and stumbled over to the gear pile toward Nicole, and somehow wound up with her in his arms. "Jesus Christ, Nicole," he said, heart still pounding. "Do you have a hole right straight through your head?"
"I had to do it, Randy," she said. "I . . . I had to prove to myself that I canít let my fear get the best of me, and I wanted to do it with you so I could prove it to you."
"You could have told me," he said. "Good God, with even a few seconds warning I could have had you in the stern, where you wouldnít have gotten beaten on so bad."
"I knew I had to ride the bow, where it would be the worst," she told him. "I . . . I didnít make up my mind to do it for sure until I pushed you off."
"Nicole, youíre crazy as hell, but I love you anyway," he said, pounding her on the back and kissing her.
The kiss went on long enough that they totally missed Larryís run, which came next, and didnít even know it had been done successfully until the raft pulled up alongside, with a load of wet but happy Josh, Tiffany, Ben, and Joy. "Ran the bubble line, huh?" Larry yelled, exuberant himself. "Thatís way cool. Iíve never tried it."
Holding on tightly to Nicole, they stood side by side on the boatmanís box of the gear boat and watched Noah run Crystalís raft left, with Myleigh, Trey, and Jeff on board, getting wet too, but smiling and screaming.
Last up was Al and Karinís raft. They all turned and looked upstream, looking to see how the boss did it. "Holy shit!" he heard Crystal say, just as they realized it was Karin at the sticks, not Al, who was riding in the back of the raft, and her next words were superfluous, for everyone knew what was going on: "Sheís gonna run the bubble line, too!"
It almost looked worse to watch it from shore than it had looked from the boatmanís box of the gear boat. They could see the raft come plunging down the tongue; since it was a little lighter in the nose, it didnít get buried quite as deep in the big back roller, but still an awful lot of water washed aboard, almost burying the raft. About all they could see for an instant was Karinís head as she worked hard at the sticks, trying to keep the raft going straight. It was a wild, bucking run, lasting seconds that seemed to be hours, long enough to hear Crystal yell "Hang in there, Mom!" as the raft swept close to a pile of protruding rocks, still wallowing, half full of water. Then, Karin was through the worst of it herself, pulling across the eddy line, pivoting the raft and starting to pull towards the rest of the group.
As they got close, there were cheers. A year and a half ago, Karin had been a suburban housewife, a bookkeeper who went to work in business suits and heels. There could be no denying it now Ė that was a year and a half behind her. She was a boatman, now. As the noise died down a little when they pulled close, they could hear her yell, "Hey Randy!"
"Yaay, Karin!" he yelled back to his fellow bubble-liner.
"There are us boatmen who run the bubble line," she yelled, with a huge grin on her face. "And there are those who donít. Those who donít can damn well make supper tonight!"
* * *
Most nights up until now, Randy and Nicole had set up camp more or less to the center of things, but this night, they worked their way well downriver of the camp, to a little spot of hard, flat sand shielded from the up-canyon wind by a little grove of tamarisks. As the fire died down, they left the group of diehards and picked their way through the rocks and across a tiny little stream to where their doubled sleeping bags lay on the side-by-side pads. There was the usual night time getting around, but soon they lay naked in each otherís arms.
As they pulled each other tight, Nicole whispered, "Randy, can I ask you something?"
"Sure," he said. "What?"
"Randy, I donít want you to take this wrong, because Iím afraid youíre going to be hurt, or that itís really going to piss you off, and I donít want to do that. If the answer is no, Iíll understand and I wonít ask again."
This seemed strange. "Nicole, what is it?" he asked, wondering a little.
"Randy, will you let me do it again?"
"Do what?" he asked, almost sure in his gut he knew what the question was.
She pulled him closer and asked in a small voice. "Randy, Iím really, really ashamed at how chickenshit I was at the start of this trip. And Iím ashamed that I walked House Rock, and was so wasted through Upper Granite Gorge that I barely noticed I was on the river. Randy, I want to run it again and not miss anything this time."
"Sure, we can do it again," he said. "Lord knows when weíre going to get the chance, though. Itís like we were talking about this morning. It was a miracle we could jimmy a hole to do this one."
"I know," she said. "I donít want it to be years. I want to do it while I still remember how chickenshit I was, so I can wash away the shame. Look, this is the part that Iím afraid thatís going to piss you off. I was talking with Al and Crystal tonight. If I cut out of Mosquito Valley a couple days early and fly out from Detroit and get back the night before school starts, I can just squeeze in a full trip with Crystal. The schedule is full, but Al says I can go as a swamper."
"Oh, shit," Randy said sorrowfully. "Nicole, I really canít say no, but . . . damn."
"I know," she said. "Look, we agreed after you got back from the last one that the long solo trips are going to have to be over with. Letís face it, itís not going to work. Al says heíll squeeze you into a fall or spring trip if the chance comes up, and Crystal is still thinking about that January trip. But Randy, if you can think of someplace else you want to go in the winter, go and do it. I donít care if itís with Crystal and Scooter and Michelle, or whoever, whatever. I trust you, and thatís all that matters to me. Maybe you can think of something else, but I donít want to hold you back just because we canít make our schedules work to do it together."
"It wouldnít be the same without you, babe," he said.
"I know," she said. "It wonít be the same running the Canyon without you, either. But thatís how weíre going to have to do it, and after the way I left you sitting at home alone so I could do the AT and jerked you around so many other times, Iím way ahead of you. You deserve to catch up a little."
"Go ahead and plan on running," he said. "Maybe I can think of something if I canít get another trip down here figured out." He took a deep breath. "There is one idea I have thought about a bit."
"Whatís that?" she smiled.
"You and Crystal, and now Scooter, have crammed that OLTA shit down my throat for years. Iím wondering if maybe a winter mountaineering course or something like that wouldnít pull a bubble-line run on all of you."
"Oh, Randy," she giggled. "You say the sexiest things!"