Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 18, 1999
Flagstaff and Lee's Ferry, Arizona
There were some supplies that Scooter needed to fill out early the next morning, things like extra sunscreen, sunglasses, Chapstick, and tampons, but fortunately they were able to find them in a convenience store not far from the motel. The Canyon Tours business office proved to be a small building that had once been a house, with a large steel building in the back and a big parking lot. Crystal parked the Dodge along the back fence and got out.
Scooter got out of the car and checked out the scene. There was a short-bodied school bus, painted brown with a big "Canyon Tours" logo, and a big pickup truck with a flatbed trailer parked in front of the steel building. The trailer was stacked with five light blue rafts. They were bigger than the ones she was used to from back east, but they never carried any gear back there except maybe for a cooler full of drinks on hot days as the eastern runs were seldom long enough to bother with a lunch on the river. Scooter knew that even gear and food to backpack for three weeks without replenishment added up to a hell of a lot, and they probably didn't exactly do stuff like backpackers here. "Don't look like we're getting very close to started yet," Crystal commented. "Might as well see if Al and Louise are here."
They walked across the gravel parking lot and into the shade of the metal shed. "Morning, Crystal," they heard a woman's voice from one side, "I heard you were in the Burro last night. How's the head?"
"No head," Crystal grinned. "We had stuff to do, so we just held it to a couple. Louise, this is Scooter, the gal I was telling you about."
"Good to meet you," the woman said. As Scooter's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see that she was as big as Crystal, middle-aged, but in very good shape, with short brown hair. "Al," she called in a louder voice, "Crystal and the new swamper are here."
"Be right there," they heard a man's voice call from somewhere in the back of the building. In a moment, he appeared. He was a big man, somewhere over six feet, broad through the shoulders, skin on the darkish side, walking with a noticeable limp. "So you're Scooter," he said as he got closer. "Crystal has been telling us a lot about you. I don't know what she's told you about us, but I know Crystal isn't much of a bullshit artist."
"Well, I hope I can live up to what she's been telling you," Scooter grinned.
"You ran rafts with her back east, right?"
"Not actually with her, we worked for different outfits," Scooter explained, "But we ran on the Nanty and the Ocoee a fair amount and we hung out together off river quite a bit for a couple years there."
"All paddle raft, right?"
"Yeah, I've never actually been on a raft with oars. Been mostly on the Nanty, the Ocoee some, and one summer on the New. Eight years total."
"I've done it both ways, and prefer oars," Al said. "We get customers once in a while that want to paddle, so sometimes we run a trip with a paddle raft or two. I've tried to hold it down the last year or two since there's only been Louise and me that know how to run a paddle raft. Now, with Crystal here, and you, we might have to rethink that a little. She said that you were OLTA, like her, and had done the AT."
"OLTA in '91, and I can't believe it was that long ago. The AT in '93. I tried it two other times, but had bad knee problems and had to bomb out."
"Believe me, I know how that works," Al grinned. "I've got a bad one from Vietnam myself. Did Crystal tell you any about how we do things here?"
"She talked about it a little," Scooter nodded. "She said there was stuff you'd want to go over with me, so there was no point in hearing it twice. We had some catching up to do last night, anyway. I hadn't seen her for two years."
"I asked her to keep it down a little," Al nodded. "Mostly because there's stuff that I want to be sure you've been told. Here's the deal. I'm not going to commit to anything past this one trip right now. You're going to have to go as a swamper, a helper, and get stuck with some of the shit details, OK? Crystal will tell you everyone starts like that, just like she did. Hell, just like I did. I'll see that you get some time on the sticks, and see what you've got. If you pick it up, you'll probably get a lot of time on the sticks. There's a lot more to being a boatman than just rowing the raft. The days are long as hell, before dawn to after dark. We pretty well go all summer without much in the way of breaks, and we take our break over the winter. You get through the first trip OK, we'll talk about the rest of the summer. The insurance company likes to see four trips for people coming in from outside, but I can fuzz one or two if things get tight, so if you work out all right, and Louise and I think you can handle a raft, you'll get a raft sooner or later. That sort of depends on availability and seniority, but most likely before the season's over with. Sound like a reasonable deal?"
"Sounds a lot better than just having to do it cold, which is kind of the impression I got over the phone. It's got to be pretty different than the Nanty and the Ocoee."
"The rafts are still rubber," he grinned, "And the water is still wet. Crystal would tell you that the details are pretty different. Welcome to Canyon Tours, Scooter. I'll have to get you to sign some paperwork before we get out of here, so we might as well get that done now before we get busy with everything else we have to deal with on loading morning."
"Is your name actually Scooter?" Louise asked.
"No," Scooter grinned, "It's Rhonda, but I'm trying to forget it. Please, just call me Scooter."
"I'm afraid your paychecks are going to have to say Rhonda," Louise smiled. "But we'll try to keep it a secret. Did Crystal tell you what the deal is on pay?"
"No, all she said was that she was surprised as hell to get a paycheck after her first trip, she'd have paid to go if she'd had the money."
"It was a freebie when it started, but she proved she was worth it on that first trip," Louise nodded. "If you work out anywhere near as well, it'll be worth the money again. The deal is that you're taking a trip as a swamper, that's a flat thousand per trip. It's two once you have a raft, more if you're trip leader or assistant. It sounds like good money but if you work it out on a per-hour basis, it reeks, which is why we do it by the trip. On the other hand, you don't have any expenses on the river, you've got a place to stay, and the company covers meals. I know we've had kids go through here who don't spend two hundred bucks out of their pockets all season."
"And then they piss it away having a good time over the winter," Al grinned, "Like as not they're so broke they have to hitchhike back in the spring. I know I did a couple times way back when."
"Yeah, while I was working," Louise snorted. "Don't think I wasn't goddamn jealous of you, either. Come on, Scooter, let's go fill out the forms while they get started on loading."
The office proved to be small, what had been a none-too-large living room of a small house; the rest of the building was obviously gear storage of one sort or another, except for a small private office. "Usually, it's just Al and I who run the office," Louise explained. "We're short on trip leaders right now, so we're going to change off leading trips this year, and it won't be the first time. Al is leading this trip, and I'm staying back. Did Crystal explain to you how green this crew is going to be?"
"A little," Scooter nodded.
"It's really not the way we wanted to do it," she said, digging in a file cabinet for some paperwork. "But this is Dave and Mary's first year as trip leader and co-leader, so we didn't want to load them up on newbies too much. It gives Al and me a chance to keep a closer eye on the rest of you. Look, I'm going to be honest, we prefer to bring people up through the company, but sometimes we don't have enough people and just can't do that, and this is one of those times. Crystal worked out well for us last fall, and she seems to think highly of you, so we're taking a chance on you, considering you have the same sort of experience she has. I hope it works out well for you and you work out well for us."
"I'll do my damndest," Scooter nodded. "If I can't hack it, don't try to carry me, tell me up front, OK?"
"That's an attitude I like to hear," Louise grinned. "We get guys in here who are all full of shit and testosterone, think they know everything, and don't know shit. Women know they have to prove themselves, and frankly, we have to be better than the men to be considered equal. But that's the way it always was. They went a long time on this river before there were women boatmen or trip leaders, except for Georgie White, who ran her own outfit. Today, maybe a quarter of the boatmen are women. We've come a long way since I started back in the sixties."
"Wow, you've been at this a while."
"Over thirty years," Louise told her. "I ran my first trip as a swamper back in '67, and I had a hell of a time getting on the crew; it wouldn't have happened if my dad hadn't had Willie Stein over a barrel. I started my first trip as a boatman the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was the first woman boatman for Canyon Tours, and like the third on the river, counting Georgie. I was the second woman trip leader, again after Georgie, in '73. Long story about that, we don't have time for it now, Al will probably tell you, and if he doesn't, I'll tell you next trip."
Jesus, Scooter thought without saying anything. If I stayed on this river for that long I'd be pushing 60 before I have the kind of experience she has. "I'll be looking forward to hearing it," she grinned as Louise set several papers in front of her -- a W-4, several releases, things like that.
In a few minutes they were back outside. In that time, several other people had shown up, and there was a bustle of activity around the back of the bus and the trailer loaded with rafts. Crystal told Scooter she'd already loaded her gear on the bus, and they joined the rest of the group hauling stuff to the bus or the pickup. Several items were large, white coolers -- heavy ones -- but there were many drybags, too. It took a while, and there was some confusion, but after a while they seemed to be loaded.
Al called everyone around the back of the bus, and said, "Well, I hope we got everything. I spent a lot of time last week going over the checklists, so we should be OK, so long as we haven't forgotten to bring the oars or something stupid like that. I know everyone just sort of started pitching in so there hasn't been much chance for introductions. I usually like crews to know each other better than we've got to this trip, but we're just going to have to make do. You all know me and Louise; I'll be leading this time, Louise the next time. Jeff is driving the bus as usual, and Jimmie will drive the pickup this trip. Louise will ride back with one of them. I figure with everybody being green and not having worked together, we can use the extra hands. Jeff is going to come back tonight most likely, and Jimmie in the morning. Now, we're taking five rafts this trip. Dan and Jerry, I know you don't know Crystal, she came to us last summer, but she's had a lot of experience back east and done a few special things. She ran as a boatman the last trip last year. She's gonna be assistant trip leader on account of her age and other experience, although it's as much a learning thing for her as it is for you. Crystal, this is gonna be Dan and Jerry's first full season, but they ran as swampers two summers now, and Louise and I think they're ready for rafts of their own and are gonna be all right. The two of you have run together before, haven't you?"
"The year before last," Dan nodded.
"I was thinking that," Al smiled. "OK, after two summers, you ought to pretty well know the drill of how we do stuff the Canyon Tours way, so you're going to have to help Charlie, our other boatman. He's just a fill-in for this trip; he usually runs a motor rig for Grand Canyon Rafters runs an oar trip once in a while so he knows how it's done on the water, but he's used to doing things a little different on land. GCR doesn't start their first regular trip until a few days after we get off this one, and he'll be gone then, but the next trip we'll have a college kid with about the experience of Dan and Jerry replacing him. It could be one of three guys, and I ain't sure yet who. Finally, our last person on this trip is Scooter here, our swamper for this run. I just met her in the last hour or so, and she's a total newbie to the Canyon, but she's run rafts in the east even longer than Crystal, so I'm hoping she picks up the Canyon Tours way of doing things right quick. Now, we might as well get moving since we have a lot to do up at Lee's, especially with this being the first trip of the season. Before we get going though, I just want to say that I want everyone to have a safe season, and if you do, it'll be a good one. All of you are pretty new, especially to being boatmen, so if you have any question, do the safe thing. I'll talk a lot more about it tonight and tomorrow morning before the customers show up."
Another trip on a bus, and this was more of a school bus, not a big comfortable diesel pusher. But this was special; they were heading for the river, and not just any river. Scooter realized that in the process she could be heading for a new life as well, much different than anything she could have dreamed of a week ago.
It was a fairly long ride out to the put-in at Lee's Ferry, close to three hours on roads that weren't very good pavement. They quickly got out of the pine country around Flagstaff, and were soon in a brushwood desert, running much of the way through a valley with steep red walls and talus slopes lying at their bases. Here and there were tiny villages -- they were going through the Navajo reservation before long -- and in several places along the road were collections of rude souvenir stands, mostly empty. It seemed a long, long way from North Carolina. Eventually, they turned off the main road and descended to Navajo Bridge -- actually, a pair of bridges, one now used only as a footbridge. As they passed over the vehicular bridge, they could see the green waters of the Colorado below, far down at the bottom of a canyon with nearly vertical sides. Shortly afterward, they turned off onto a side road and descended steeply, coming out at Lee's Ferry, the last place to put rafts in before reaching the Grand Canyon. The place was named for a Mormon who had once run a rowboat ferry service across the river -- there was a lot more story than that, Crystal told her, maybe she'd have the time to tell it later.
Lee's Ferry proved to mostly be an asphalt parking lot, nestled between a cliff to the east, a cliff to the south, and a steep hill that the road wound down to the northwest. It was pretty, redrock country; there was a little fringe of tamarisk trees, and a river that seemed blue as the sky. Whenever she'd thought about the Colorado, she'd thought "muddy," and commented about it to Crystal.
"It was muddy until about thirty years ago, when they closed Glen Canyon Dam a few miles upstream," she explained. "It made considerable changes to the ecology, and Al or Louise can bitch about it for hours. The river runs pretty clear, but it's like the Nanty; they take the water out of the bottom of the dam and it's colder than hell, usually about forty-five. In the height of the summer it can be as much as fifty down at the takeout at Diamond Creek."
"And thank God for that," Charlie said from over the seat. "You get days down here that the cold of the river is the only thing that keeps you going. You know it's fucking hot when you take a sheet, soak it in river water and wrap up in it to sleep."
"That's what I hear," Crystal nodded. "I didn't get here till past the peak of the heat last year, and it was still fucking hot sometimes, especially my first trip."
"All right, people," Al spoke up from the front of the bus. "We've got plenty of time; let's take the time we need to be safe and do it right."
The first project was to unload the rafts from the trailer. They were large, and nearly completely rigged out with frames, seats, and dryboxes, and each one obviously weighed several hundred pounds. Scooter couldn't see how they were going to do it -- back on the Nanty, the rafts were a lot smaller and lighter, and they just manhandled them off the flatbed. It proved to be pretty simple, though -- nestled almost unnoticeably around the front of the trailer was a heavy pipe shear leg arrangement with a winch. It was a matter of minutes to unload one raft, then move the rig a few feet sideways to unload the next one. In no more than half an hour the five rafts were sitting side by side in the river, with only their noses up on shore.
Then the real work began. There were five rafts to load with the gear and the food from the back of the pickup and the bus -- and things had to be sorted out and organized, then rigged into their separate places on each raft. Scooter mostly tried to stay out of the way and hand stuff to someone when she was asked. There was some confusion, less than there had been back at the lot earlier in the morning, and the sun was getting low in the sky before they were done. "Well, that went better than it had any right to," Al commented. "Maybe that's a good omen about the trip. Let's head up to Marble Canyon, have some dinner and a couple beers."
They left Jimmie, the truck driver, sitting back with the rafts to keep an eye on them while everyone else loaded on the bus. It was several miles back out to the highway at the wide spot in the road called Marble Canyon, where there was a small bar and restaurant. The group of them gathered around a large table, ordered a couple pitchers, and everyone made their dinner orders. "Eat hearty, Scooter," Al grinned. "This is the last time in three weeks you don't have to eat river cooking."
"We usually eat pretty good out on the river," Crystal explained. "But we have to cook it ourselves. What's worse, we have to clean up afterward, too!"
"There's a lot of things we have to do in a special way," Al explained. "Some of it is Park Service regulation, and some of it is just stuff that we've learned over the years is the best way to do something. Usually we try not to kill ourselves because the Canyon is trying to do it anyway. We've never had a death on the river, and only a couple serious accidents, mostly because we've learned how to do things efficiently and safely. But, there's still enough times that things go wrong or unexpected stuff happens to keep things interesting."
"How many times have you made this trip?" Scooter asked him.
"Oh, hell, no way of telling. Over a couple hundred, anyway. It's a little hard to say because there usually is a half trip or two every season for one reason or another. So what do you think so far?"
"It looks pretty well organized," Scooter smiled. "The river looks interesting, almost placid, like it does at the put-in on the Ocoee. You have to go around a couple bends before it gets nuts."
"Same thing here, it gets wilder downstream," Al nodded. "Like I said, I've made over 200 trips, and I still haven't seen it all. On every trip there's something new, something I haven't seen before. Scooter, it's going to be all new to you and expect to have your jaw hanging open now and then, because the Canyon is absolutely the most awesome landscape on the face of the earth. Over 200 times I've ridden up from Diamond Creek, and every time I can't wait till I get out on the river again. It's been since November, and that's longer than I like. This is going to be pretty much a learning trip for you. We'll all try to show you how stuff is done, but when you have questions, ask."
"How'd you wind up doing this?" she asked with curiosity.
"Pretty much like Crystal," he explained. "After I got out of the Army in '69, I was kind of bumming around, and I happened to wind up in Flag one day. I saw the sign for Canyon Tours and stopped in to see what it would cost to take a trip. It was a hell of a lot cheaper then, three fifty, as I recall, but I hadn't seen that much money in my jeans at one time in a hell of a long time. But Willie, he owned the company, he saw me limping and asked what happened, and I told him my leg got torn up in Vietnam. Now, Scooter, you probably ain't old enough to understand it, but back in those days there wasn't a lot of honor from having been a Vietnam veteran. In fact, a lot of us wouldn't even admit to it, things were that bad. But Willy, he'd been through World War II in the Pacific and then Korea; he realized it, so he offered to let me go for free if I worked my way. So, I started on the river as a swamper, just like you, except I'd never seen a raft, let alone been in one. It happened to be Louise's first trip as a boatman; I thought she was one cool lady, even though she was married. Well, I ran the rest of the season, and was on the sticks a lot, and Willy asked me back the next year. Along in the middle of the year a boatman quit, and I became a boatman. Basically I've been one ever since."
"I'd gotten married the previous fall," Louise explained. "I liked being on the river, and we needed the money, so it made a pretty cool summer job, especially after Willy made me a boatman. Like I said, I was the third woman boatman on the river, and that really was an honor. Back in those days, I only ran summers so I could go to college, and then after I graduated I got a job teaching down in Mesa, so I could still run summers. Well, running the Canyon was all right with my husband for a while, but not long after, he started to get pissed at me being gone all summer. I got off the river at the tail end of the summer in 1974; I was a trip leader by then, and went home. My husband wasn't there, just a note that said, 'You can have me or the Canyon, but not both.' Well, I picked up the phone, called the school, told them I was quitting, found a lawyer to get rolling on my divorce, hopped back in the car, and drove back up to Flag. The trip was already set; Al was going to lead it, so I signed on as a swamper."
"You chose the Canyon," Scooter smiled.
"Best decision I ever made," Louise nodded. "Well, I won't go into the ins and outs, but Al and I were pretty good friends already, and it got serious right after that. I'd watched Al have a few Canyon romances with customers over the years, so we set off a pretty hot one of our own. So, anyway, I ran with him all fall, then in the winter we moved in together down in Phoenix, just working winter junk jobs while my divorce was going through, and as soon as it was settled we hopped in his old clunker, drove to Vegas, and got married. I guess we thought of ourselves as a pair of river bums and figured that was how we were going to live our lives."
"After the divorce, it was pretty clear that it was the only way we were going to stay together," Al added. "So, yeah, we did commit ourselves to being a couple river bums, and never figured on having much more than a couple nickels to rub together. Well, we got back to Flag from Vegas, and found out that Willie was getting set to sell the company; he had ulcers and his doctors wouldn't let him run anymore. Now, back in those days, it really wasn't all that big a deal, a few rafts and gear, and the office, the same one as today but with a tumbledown old garage rather than the steel building. Today the concession to run in the park is worth a hell of a lot more than all the property the company owns, but it was the other way around back then. We still didn't have any money except for a small settlement Louise got from her ex, but her dad was pretty good friends with Willie, so we got pretty good terms, and her dad helped us out more than a little. We've been here ever since, twenty-five years this year. We had some adventures, some ups and downs and ins and outs, but it wasn't long ago we were offered three and a half million for a business we paid $35,000 for. No way we'd sell out, though. It'd mean we'd have to leave the Canyon, and that was part of the deal from the beginning; our lives had to include the Canyon. So yeah, Louise and I understand outdoor bums like you and Crystal, since we've been down the same road. Each of us has been at it way longer than the two of you put together."
"Sounds like an interesting life," Scooter said with real admiration. They seemed to have figured out how to make it work.
"Mostly has been," Al nodded. "Wouldn't have minded if a few things had gone differently, like if we'd had kids, but we decided early on that having kids would screw up living in the Canyon, so we didn't. Figured it was worth the sacrifice."
"I learned as a teacher that I really didn't like kids," Louise smiled. "That helped me choose the Canyon."
"We've had the good luck to have had a lot of good people with us along the way," Al said. "We probably get more turnovers among boatmen than most of the companies since I like to work with college kids. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't, but we need to have a core of people that can work full seasons, and that's where Crystal and I hope you come in. I like to have them a little more experienced so they can balance off the college kids some. But, we've got other good people, too. Jeff over there," he pointed at the bus driver, "He came to us after he retired; he was looking for something to do so he wouldn't have to listen to his wife's soap operas all day. Well, he'd been a bus driver for years, had a CDL, and I figured after dealing with kids for all those years he ought to be almost capable of putting up with a bunch of raft guides with hangovers coming off of break. One of the better moves I ever made; he's our utility infielder for everything, even though he's never been in a raft."
"Never?" Scooter smiled across the table at the balding man in his seventies.
"Hell no, I ain't crazy like some people I know," Jeff grinned. "I mean, someone has to keep their ass out of a raft so they'll know what's going on."
"I honestly think Jeff runs the company more than Louise and me," Al grinned. "We get along. Like I said, I've been lucky enough to have good people, and loyal ones. Part of that comes from bringing people up through the company when we can, but you and Crystal are proof that we can't always do that. In fact, it's like that with most of the Colorado rafting companies, which is why we have a reputation for being hard to get into. We have sort of an unwritten agreement among the companies to not poach each other's employees, since what goes around comes around, but we loan people back and forth, like Charlie, and there's always a little movement, like some guy and some girl want to run together. That's what happened with Dave and Mary, they're the leaders of the trip ahead of us."
"Scooter, I'll tell you this," Charlie smiled. "Most of the people in most of the companies like to think that theirs is the best, but this really is one of the better ones, mostly because it's owned and run by people who like to have their butts out on the water. I can tell you that they all aren't like that. I've got a good deal with GCR. I don't want to change and I get more of a home life, since I'm married, and we run most motor trips eight days on and two to four off. We work a shorter season, so it gets a little harder in the winters. Fortunately, I work as a ski instructor in the winters so it works out pretty good. But one of the neatest things you have here is that you get to run with Al and Louise, and they have a million stories after all their years on the river."