Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 19, 1999
Grand Canyon Trip 1, 1999
Jeff and Louise wanted to be heading back, since one of them had to be in the office the next morning, and when they got back down to the boat launch Al told Jimmie he might as well head back to Flagstaff, too. The six of them remaining broke open a twelve-pack of beer and had a couple cans apiece as they sat around in the darkness. They didn't go late -- mostly because they all knew that they were going to be running on sun time for the next three weeks. It wasn't long before they dug out their night bags and prepared to crash.
The night bags were drybags with a sleeping bag and air mattress known as a "Paco Pad." They were all owned by the company and got washed after every trip, Crystal told her. Scooter had used Therm-a-Rest mattresses on her overnight hikes, but the Paco Pad proved to be a lot more comfortable and waterproof.
Several of them slept right on the rafts -- it was a boatman's prerogative -- but Crystal and Scooter unrolled their gear back in the little grove of tamarisks to one side of the river. "Crystal, this all seems neat as hell," Scooter whispered as they were settling down. "I just hope I can handle it."
"You shouldn't have much problem," Crystal told her. "The rafting is pretty straight forward. Al is right; an oar raft is simpler than a paddle raft. The rest of it, the camping and cooking and handling the customers, well, they like to do it their way, but we learned some of that at OLTA, and the rest is pretty simple. We'll be giving the customers some lectures on how to live on the river, and you want to listen to them, too, there are a few special things that only apply here."
As much as Scooter had camped out on the AT and elsewhere, she'd only rarely slept under the stars -- the bugs and the dew were too bad in the east, but Crystal told her there were few bugs here and no dew. "You can hang up something wet in the evening and it'll be dry in the morning most nights, since the air is so dry," she told her. So, in spite of all the hiking and camping and rafting, it was a new experience to be sleeping under the stars a few feet from the whisper of the river, and Scooter found herself hoping that it would only be the first of hundreds or thousands.
They were up and stirring early, just to get into the habit. They broke out the tables and cooking gear, fired up a noisy propane burner for coffee and hot water for cleaning, and started in on bacon and eggs for breakfast. Even though the crew was still shaking down, things went smoothly, mostly with Crystal at the grill, occasionally having to ask someone to do something. After a while, they cleaned up their stuff and put it away; then Al sat the other five of them down in the shade of the tamarisks and went through a safety lecture.
There was a hell of a lot. Most of it was obvious river-safety stuff, things that Scooter had learned long ago but was also one of those things that needed to be reviewed frequently -- and there were a few things that were done a little differently here. From there, it moved on into a review of operational procedures, Park Service rules, and the like.
One of the things that Scooter was happy to see was that they practiced "Leave No Trace" with a vengeance, to the point of carrying special containers called "rocket boxes" or "groovers" to carry out solid human waste. "You get right down to it," Charlie joked, "The swamper is mostly along for the ride. They earn their pay when they get back to Flagstaff and have to be the ones to empty the rocket boxes and hose them out. Sometimes the shit has been in the sun for three weeks, and stink! Holy Christ! The only saving grace in the deal is that you know everyone else in the party with more seniority has already done it, so they know how bad it is."
"Honestly, it could be worse," Al grinned. "Back in Vietnam, we used to shit into the cut-off ends of fifty-five-gallon drums, and when you'd get stuck on the shit detail every once in a while, you had to haul all that out into the boonies, dump diesel fuel on it and burn it. I honestly think emptying a rocket box isn't as bad." He grinned and continued, "But just by a hair."
"Well, if I have to, I have to," she shrugged.
"That's the spirit," Al grinned. "That much said, this probably will be the only trip where you'll be the junior swamper, at least till fall, so you might be able to get out of it in the future. Next trip, we'll have a college kid or two on their first season, and when we get into June we usually bring a high school kid sort of on tryout for the future."
By late in the morning, even that had wound down to nothing; the bus would soon be in with the customers, and Al said that they might as well take it easy since it would be the last chance for a while.
There had been an awful lot thrown her way in the past day, Scooter realized, and the time to relax and sort things out was welcome. She dug into the small drybag that had the things she'd want on the river, pulled out a cigar, sat down on the front of one of the rafts and lit it.
"Jesus, Scooter!" Crystal giggled, "Hasn't Leon broken you of that yet?"
"Mostly I broke him of bitching at me about it," she laughed.
"Good God," Al grinned, "I knew there was some reason I needed to hire you. Too bad we don't have Michelle on this trip, that'd balance her off perfectly. I somehow figured you were going to turn into one of those Canyon Tours characters."
"This sounds good," Scooter grinned. "Who's this Michelle?"
"Michelle is one of the boatmen on the trip ahead of us," Al explained. "In fact, she's the senior boatman in the company after Louise and me."
"Nobody ever believes it, either," Jerry smirked. "Too bad we won't be running with her till fall, probably."
"Boy, that's the truth," Al laughed. "Scooter, Michelle started running as a swamper at the age of fifteen. I don't usually start kids that young, but her folks were both Canyon Tours boatmen, and they sort of twisted my arm. Our insurance company wouldn't let her have a raft until she was eighteen. Louise and I let her have it on her birthday. It was the second day on the river, and I took the raft the first day and hiked out Badger Canyon the next morning, after I turned her over my knee after breakfast. Technically, she should be a trip leader but she doesn't want to be, which is good, since she looks so young people have a hard time taking her seriously."
"People hardly ever take her seriously when they find out she's a boatman," Crystal laughed. "Mostly because she looks like she's about fourteen and ought to be wearing her junior high cheerleader's outfit. She has that soft-palate kid voice, talks like a Valley-girl teenybopper, and is a serious bubble gum addict."
"We just about have to take an extra raft when she runs," Al grinned, "to carry all the bubble gum. I have seen some of the wildest looks on customers' faces when she pops a big old wad of Double Bubble and announces that she's their boatman."
"Oh, God yes," Dan laughed. "What a scream! She's actually, what, twenty-four?"
"Something like that," Al agreed, "Give or take a year. In some respects I think she may be a better boatman than Louise or me, but youth and strength have something to do with it. Like Crystal said, she looks like a skinny little fourteen year old, but she's just about as strong as a mule."
"She can also drink any two boatmen on the river under the table," Charlie grinned. "I know, I've tried, and I've never been so drunk in my life."
"She's also a black belt who can kick my ass," Crystal said. "We sparred around a bit last fall when we had some time to kill. I've got a black belt but I'm rusty, and she's quick as hell. Terrific reflexes, it has something to do with how she can do so well in a raft. Not all of it though. She's a whiz at reading water."
"The point is," Al grinned, "There you sit smoking a cigar. That ought to be butch enough to balance off the bubble gum. Smoking that cigar makes you look about as tough as she really is."
"I sure hope that we can run with her some when we shake back to the fall schedule," Crystal grinned. "She is a ball to run with."
"That she is," Al laughed. "I put her with Dave and Mary since they're new trip leaders and have a couple kids along that are pretty green otherwise, although not quite as bad as here. But who knows what'll happen when the fall schedule rolls around? There could be a lot of changes between now and then." He glanced up the valley and added, "And here comes the customer bus, a little early, so they'll get a nice introduction to their butch swamper."
"Hey, Al," Scooter protested. "I do like guys, you know."
"Yeah, so long as they buy you cigars instead of flowers. You about ready to get started?" Crystal asked as they got up.
"Crystal," Scooter shook her head, "All I can say is don't pinch me."
"I really don't want to wake up from this dream and discover I'm really still back at NOC."
"Trust me, Scoot, you're not at NOC," Crystal grinned. "And it gets way better."
The next hour was busy. There were nineteen customers on the big diesel bus from Las Vegas, not a bad-sized party, although Al commented that they'd have up to twenty-four when things got busy later in the summer. Part of the process was familiar, getting people organized, getting names, issuing life jackets, giving a safety orientation. But, there were things that were new, too -- like having the customers pack their gear in dry bags and loading them on the raft. Scooter tried to hang back and help where she could, letting Al and Dan and Jerry and Crystal answer most of the questions.
Finally, with the rafts loaded and everything tied down, Al said, rather loudly, "Guess there ain't nothin' to do but do it. We're gonna get out and run for an hour or two, then stop and have lunch, so get yourselves a seat and we'll be on our way. Let's try to break it out so there's four customers to a raft, and three on the one that I'm on."
People began to get moving toward the rafts. "Scooter, give people a shove off," Al said, "And then ride with me."
"Can do, Chief," she said, and turned to help an older couple get onto Dan's raft. In a couple minutes, she was down at the end of the line, where the customers were getting settled in on Crystal's raft. "You ready for a shove, Crystal?"
"Yeah, let's get this show on the road," the bigger girl replied. "It's been a long time since November, and I'm tired of waiting."
"OK, get set," Scooter said, picking up the bow line that had been tied to keep the raft from drifting off, coiling it lightly and laying it over the bow of the raft. She bent down, got a shoulder on the bow, and gave a heave; in a second, Crystal was on the water.
It was only a matter of a couple minutes before she tossed the bow line of Al's raft aboard, shoved the boat out onto the water, and scrambled over the bow herself. Whatever happened, she was on her way down the Grand Canyon -- something she wouldn't have ever dreamed she'd be doing, even a week before. And getting paid for it, no less.
Al took a couple strokes with the oars to back the raft into the current, then pivoted it to run on the river. Before she could find a place to sit, Al spoke up, "Well, that's it. Scooter, would you like to get on the sticks for a while since it's still nice and easy?"
"Sure, I don't mind, you're the boss," she grinned as Al got up from the seat on the white boatman's box, and she took his place. As she sat down, she took a look around, took a tentative stroke or two on the oars, then gave them a couple hard strokes to move into somewhat-faster water, then a quick scull to keep it there.
Although Scooter had never run an oar raft before, she knew the principle, and it really wasn't that different from the paddle rafts she'd run for years. As heavy as the raft was, the oars were less for power than they were for steering, trying to keep the raft where the current was strongest, letting the water do the work. The raft was just about as happy going down the river sideways as it was endwards -- in fact, she knew well, that's how they often ran on bigger rivers when maneuvering was necessary. While the raft didn't exactly turn on a dime, it did turn pretty easily, and running sideways, it could move across the river into a promising line easily. In the heaviest water, they did run end on, but only after getting onto a promising line in the first place. Only on the slowest of flats or in strong headwinds would it be rowed in the normal way, oarsman facing upstream.
She took a look around, and reflected on how different things were from what she was used to back in North Carolina. Except for a few scrubby trees near the landing, there was nothing here that could be called a forest. It was all rock, desert rock, as far away from the woodlands that she'd been used to as she could imagine.
"We're off to see the wizard at last," Al smiled as he found a seat on the gear pile. "Folks, this fall I'll have been doing this for thirty years, and I still ain't too good at getting names right at the beginning. What's your names?"
The customers all introduced themselves again, and he continued, "I'm Al, and the young lady on the sticks is Scooter. She's new to this river, but she's been around rafts for a long time. This is how we train people, right in the saddle."
They bounced through a small riffle, nothing to match the roaring water that Scooter knew was to come, but the first fast water. That was just a warmup, she knew; there would be worse. Lots worse. Now, the walls began to climb, but the river flowed wide, flat, and steady. For better or worse, they were on their way.
Al shot the bull with the customers for the next couple minutes. He was obviously keeping an eye on her but apparently hadn't had any reason to comment. Ahead there was the whisper of water over a small rapids. She wasn't perfectly happy with how she was set up to run them, so pivoted the raft a little and took a couple strokes to improve her position, then pivoted it again to take the standing wave of the rapids on the nose. The bow of the raft rode upward on the standing wave, then dropped down into the next one; a thin blast of spray came up over the blunt nose of the raft, and a few drops carried by the strong wind sprayed on her.
"Paria Riffle, the first rapids," Al said laconically. "One down, a hundred and sixty to go. Scooter, you're doing pretty good for never having been on an oar raft."
"I only said I'd never been on an oar raft," she smiled. "But I've seen my fair share of rafts and oars."
"I can tell from the way you move that you know how to row," he nodded with a touch of curiosity. "Where'd you pick that up?"
"From my great-uncle, mostly," she replied. "I spent the summers in middle school and high school working with him. He was a waterman out of Bengal Island on Chesapeake Bay."
"You mean, like a commercial fisherman?"
"Oysterman, mostly," she smiled, remembering some happy days of long before. "'Course, he'd been known to drop a hook over the side once in a while."
One of the customers, a guy in his fifties, maybe, looked up at her with undisguised curiosity. "Don't I remember that there's a state law that won't let you use motors to get oysters?"
"Yeah." she nodded, turning her head from looking at the trace of an old road that worked its way upward along the far side of the river, the old access road to Lee's Ferry, then looked down river at the four sky blue rafts ahead of them. Behind them, Lee's Ferry was slipping out of sight around a bend. "And they even restrict sail to some days of the week. The days we couldn't use the sailboat we'd be out in a skiff. Those could get to be long days, but I really liked the being outside."
"You worked those sailboats, too?" the customer asked.
"Oh yeah," Scooter smiled, "Actually, just the one, the Bluebill, my uncle's forty-five-foot Skipjack. Started going out with him the year before I was in seventh grade. He'd have me on the helm when they were drudging; I was just a little squirt and didn't have the strength to handle tongs."
Al shook his head. "Scooter," he said with a grin, "Crystal told me a lot about you, but she didn't tell me that."
"Can't say as I can recall I ever told her," Scooter shrugged. "I never talked about it much, even when I was in school. Nobody believed me. After he died, well, it was hard to think that those days were gone."
"Jeez-o-peet," Al shook his head and turned to the customers. "Folks, there's something about this place that attracts people that have been there and done that. Scooter's buddy Crystal, up on the lead raft, she worked an Alaskan salmon boat once. Scooter, did she tell you that story?"
"All she said was that she came down the Inside Passage on a salmon boat, must have been the year before last."
"Then she hasn't told you the story," Al grinned. "We'll have to drag it out of her when we're sitting around in the evening shooting the bull sometime. But I'll bet you have some stories to tell, too."