Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 19-20, 1999
Grand Canyon Trip 1, 1999
They drifted on down the river, with Al mostly talking about the history and the geology of the place -- it was new and interesting to her, too, and would be among the many things she had to learn, she knew without asking.
The wind was getting to her a little; so she dug around in her on-river drybag and pulled out a nylon rain jacket, that would help to keep the water off, and pulled it on. The Canyon walls were higher now, and closer together. As they drifted along Al explained that technically speaking, this was Marble Canyon and the actual Grand Canyon was still several days away; at least according to some, it didn't start until the Little Colorado, nearly sixty miles ahead. But, some of the most awesome sights of the trip would be in that first couple of days, where the walls were narrow and vertical, the red walls towering high overhead.
Eventually they swept around a bend, and Scooter could see Crystal pulling into a sandbar along the river-right shore, so she began to maneuver for a landing, wondering if Al would want to take over. Apparently not; he got up, partly uncoiled the bow line, and got set to jump out. As they drew close, Scooter pivoted the raft and pulled hard into the shoreline, within feet of Jerry's raft.
Soon, all five of the rafts were nosed into shore, with lines run up to nearby tamarisk trees to hold them there. "Good place for a break," Al called from up on the bank. "We usually stop here for lunch. That's usually enough to let people get a feeling for what's happening, so you'll be a little better prepared to understand the stuff you need to know. We've come a little less than half of what I'd hoped to do today."
People began to stand up and clamber off the rafts to join the few already on shore. Crystal began to untie the tarp on her raft, and a couple of other boatmen went over to help her unload a table, a couple boxes and a cooler. Scooter went over to see what she could do to help, but Crystal told her to pay attention to Al right now instead.
"This is probably a good place to explain something," Al continued. "This is a desert, and the environment is fragile. If you have to urinate, you might have noticed there aren't any bathrooms around here, so the Park Service rule is that you do it in the river. The basic rule is easy to remember -- men upriver, women down. Just like your pants. There's a little room to spread out here, but there may not be at some places we stop, so if everybody will just kind of turn your backs and extend a little courtesy, it'll work out."
As Crystal and the other boatmen pulled bread and chips and lunch meat from the food boxes, Al continued his orientation, including stuff like the fact that cooking and wash water came from the river, and was always boiled or filtered before use. He warned people against sunburns -- they happened easily and were no fun to live with when out on the river day after day, and told people to keep an eye on each other to see if they were burning.
He also explained that since the air was very dry, there was a very real danger of dehydration, especially on hot days. "Drink lots," he said. "We have plenty of water with us, we have lots of sodas, and I know several of you brought some beer. Mostly that stuff rides in the bottom of the raft, but each day we'll hang some over the side in drag bags to keep it cool. There is no reason to go thirsty, and it's dangerous if you do."
By the time Al had finished his orientation -- he said there would be more when they got into camp -- lunch was all laid out and ready to go. The boatmen let the customers have the first crack at the food, but soon everyone had a sandwich, a can of pop, and some cookies, and most were looking for some place to stand or sit and eat. Some people used the river, both upstream and down, and after a while Scooter helped the rest of the boatmen reload Crystal's raft. People began to drift back to the rafts for the next part of the journey. "Al, you want to row?" she asked as they began to get organized on the raft.
"Not particularly, unless you need the break," he smiled. "You're doing fine, Scooter. I'll push us off if you like."
A few minutes later they were on the river. "Not a bad pit stop," Al smiled. "We got a crew that hasn't worked together before on the first trip of the season, so there are a few rough spots to work out. I always figure it takes about three days on the river to get shaken down into river mode."
"Sure will be neat," Scooter smiled. "I've never had that luxury. We did two- to three-hour trips on the Nanty, sometimes four a day. Usually only two if we went over to the Ocoee, and just one back on the New because that's a longer run. We hardly ever got to know the customers, even their names."
"Then you're going to be surprised to see how well folks can pull together after a couple weeks," Al grinned. "People sometimes get to be awful good friends in that amount of time. Sometime you really hate to see them go when the trip is over with. I have to be honest, though; sometimes you get someone that you're counting the days till it ends, but not often. People that take oar or paddle trips usually know what they're getting in for."
A little later they swept around a bend to see the twin silver arches of Navajo Bridge in the distance downstream. "Except for a little bit down near Phantom Ranch and airplanes flying overhead, that'll be the last we'll see of civilization for over two weeks," Al smiled. "This is still one of the wild places of the earth, and we try to keep it that way."
They drew perceptibly closer to the bridge as the current carried them along, Scooter moving the raft with oar strokes to the side of the river with the strongest current. Before long, it was high overhead. There were actually two bridges, nearly twins; the downstream one was a little wider and much newer; the older bridge a few yards upstream was now merely used as a footbridge. They could see a handful of people looking down from the railing, probably some of them wishing they were down in the rafts, heading for over two weeks of beauty and adventure.
They drifted onward for another hour, usually in moderately fast water, occasionally going through riffles or small rapids. "Scooter, Badger's not far ahead," Al told her. "I can take it if you want to, but I'd like to see how you do in it. Shouldn't be anything you can't handle."
"Sure, if you think so," she smiled.
"Good enough. We can stop and look it over if you like, but this one we usually don't bother. Just go straight down the tongue and get set to pull to the right. I told Crystal we want to get in to one of the camps just below unless there's someone there, and there shouldn't be."
Not far ahead, there was a low rumble, and she could look downstream and see the river drop away, with white water rearing up beyond the lip of the drop. There were other rafts ahead drifting sideways, and one by one she could see the boatman take a couple of big strokes to turn the raft endways before it nosed down and disappeared over the drop, only to raise on the big standing wave behind it. Not a particularly bad one, she thought; it's gonna be easier than Hell Hole on the Ocoee, nowhere near as tricky as Lesser Wesser on the Nanty.
The raft drifted up close to the lip, and like the others, Scooter gave a couple strokes to straighten it out just before it plunged down the drop. The boat slid down a slick tongue of water and dropped into the roar. Waves built in front of them and to the side. They rode smoothly over the first, only to have the next crash over the nose of the raft. Some water washed through, not a lot, nothing to be concerned about, she thought -- it'd drain right out of this self-bailing raft. The raft bucked and twisted as it rode over the top of the wave, and on over the next one, not taking as much water. She noticed the other rafts pulling into a beach over on river right, and she began to pull to the side, where there was some flat water. "Nothing wrong with that," Al smiled. "I guess Crystal knew what she was talking about."
A couple minutes later the raft was pulled up on shore along with the others. "Well, let's get unloaded and started on the orientation." Al said as he stood in front of where the rafts were nosed into the bank.
"OK, folks, looks like this is home for the night," he told them. "There's a nice hike out of here up that side canyon, it takes us up to a nice overlook of the camp and the river. It's iffy enough that we want to do it before it gets dark, but we'll have some time before supper to go take a look. Now, I know a couple people here that have done this trip before, so they pretty well know the drill, but a lot of people haven't, so I'm going to take it from the top. What we're going to do in the next hour is pretty much how it'll be handled every night on the trip, so I'm going to take you through it step by step, and cover a few other things along the way. First thing, we'll get the rafts unloaded. Then we'll take you through the rest of the orientation about setting up camp, and some of the other stuff. Now, the way we're going to unload is to start at the first raft, and we'll all form a line and hand stuff up, hand to hand. We call that a duffel line, and it goes better if everybody pitches in. Each boatman is responsible for unloading his own raft, since some stuff stays on board and some doesn't. So, the boatmen will get started getting the tarps off while everybody else gets out and stretches their legs and we get the line set up."
In a few minutes, the duffel line was under way. There was a lot of gear to pass up. In addition to everyone's daybag, which held little items that would be needed during the day, there was a night bag that was stowed under the tarps. That was bigger, and held spare clothing and the like. There was a camp bag, bigger yet, that held a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, a ground cloth and other items. There were four tent bags scattered around the boats, holding four tents each. And, there was a pile of kitchen gear, some loose, some large items, like folding tables, some in boxes that had been stored under the gear pile. With everybody working together, it didn't take long for the gear to be piled in scattered heaps along the shore.
Al told a couple boatmen to go set up the rocket box in a cul-de-sac in the tamarisks above and just downstream from camp, then started to explain camping.
Usually, people just spread out their sleeping arrangements where they felt like it, but he pointed out that it usually wasn't a good idea to be too close to the kitchen or the groover. "Usually, the boatmen sleep on the boats, so we don't figure into the looking for a camp spot," he explained. "Usually, it's best if you're not real close to the kitchen, and you shouldn't be in view of the rocket box. Some people like to be down near the river, some like to be away from it a bit. You should never be real, real close to the river. As you might know, the level of the river is controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam upstream. They release higher levels during the day, and then cut it back at night. We've pretty much been running on the first few hours or so of high water all day, but they'll dial it back about dark, so it'll start falling here about three in the morning, and it'll probably go down a foot or so. Now, that changes as we go downstream. By the time we get to Phantom, we'll be about a day behind the dam. We call this the 'tides.' When we pull in each night, I'll try to remember to tell you what the deal is on the tides at that location."
"It's your choice if you want to set up a tent or not," he continued. "Most nights, most of us don't bother, but if the weather is threatening, it's probably a good idea. So just on the theory that we're going to hit a spell of bad weather sooner or later I might as well explain a couple tricks about setting up one of these tents." Once he'd worked his way through that demo, he went on to explain some of the details about setting up the individual camp gear, unrolling the "Paco Pads," and several other odds and ends involved with it.
"So, go pick out a place and at least leave your camp bags there," he said. "Then those that want to go on the hike, it'll leave in a few minutes. Two or three of the boatmen will go with you. That's pretty much the orientation for now, but there's more when we get to dinner, about how we handle dishes and the like. Now folks, I do want to say that many hands make light work, so if you want to hang around camp and help with dinner and the dishes afterward, well, your boatmen will appreciate it."
People began to drift off, and Crystal came over to her. "You can set up on shore, or share out a spot on my raft," she offered. "It'd get a little snug if we do, though."
"I can stay on shore somewhere," Scooter shrugged. "No big deal."
"So, how are you liking it so far?"
"Crystal, it beats the hell out of the Nanty already, and I'm sure there has to be better stuff to come."
It was still dark the next morning when Scooter felt Crystal give her shoulder a shake. "Come on, sleepyhead!" she whispered, "Time to wake up the roosters."
She was already far enough along that she was able to be of some use in the kitchen. There was quite a bit of water to be hauled and heated for dishes and coffee, so she helped with that, then turned to help Jerry peel potatoes that would be needed for breakfast.
Much of the cooking was done on a big propane stove, powered from a twenty-five-pound tank, and the water was heated on a very noisy propane burner. On another burner was a big graniteware pot filled most of the way with water; a pound can of coffee had been dumped into it without ceremony and the whole thing boiled until steam was rolling off. The noise of the burner pretty well had the rest of the camp awakened and tearing down by the time the coffee was judged to be ready. They used a sieve to strain out most of the coffee grounds, but the resulting coffee was strong enough to put hair on a baby's chest.
"Trust me, you'll get used to it," Crystal grinned when Scooter made a face at the resulting mixture.
"Crystal, you've been saying 'trust me' so much that you sound like a boy with his hand under a girl's bra in the back seat at a drive-in movie."
"Worth the effort though, wasn't it?" she grinned. "Come on Scooter, I know you used to do some sportfucking down around Ducktown and Wesser too."
"Well, yeah, keeps life interesting," Scooter shrugged. "Been a while, though."
"Been a while for me, too," Crystal shrugged. "But you never know; the summer is yet young." She dropped her voice a little and added, "Louise says it's usually not a good idea to play around with guys on the crew unless you're pretty damn serious, because if someone gets jealous, it could cause problems. No rules about customers, but she says if you think you have to, keep it toward the end of the trip when they're going to be going home soon. In any case, don't cause problems."
"I'm not exactly that desperate," Scooter smiled. "I mean, I could stand some action sooner or later but there's other things to worry about right now."
Getting breakfast, cleaning up, and loading the rafts took a couple hours, at least partly because some customers were slow getting around, but at one point Al commented that they'd get the hang of it in a couple days. Finally, the rafts were pretty well loaded. Then after Dan and Scooter tore down the rocket box and handwash system and packed them on the rafts, Al called everyone together, made a couple comments about things that could be done more efficiently in other mornings to get around a little better, and left it at that. "Should be a pretty interesting day today, there's some neat stuff coming up, two, maybe three big rapids, depending on how far we get. One of them is a top ten for difficulty, at least in my book; so we'll get out and take a look at it, especially considering it's the first trip of the year for all of us on the crew. We'll take some breaks, a couple short hikes, and if we wind up tonight where I want to go there'll be a good longer one. Campsites down here are first come, first serve, and if we get squeezed out of there, we'll run on downstream for a ways and wind up where we wind up, we've got time enough to be a little flexible on this end."
He continued for a few minutes, talking about the geology of the area, how rapids are formed, and a little bit of Canyon history: the next major rapids they came to was the last to be run on the river, but that one had tamed down over the years. From memory, he gave a short quotation from John Wesley Powell as a thought for the day, then said, "Everyone ready?" There was a chorus of affirmative responses, so he replied, "Well then, I guess there ain't nothin' to do but do it. Crystal, why don't you take sweep today? Scooter and I'll take point."
"Fine with me," Crystal grinned as the people who had stayed on the bank started to get aboard the boats. "I'll give you a shove."
"Fine with me," he nodded. "Scooter, why don't you get on the sticks? I'll spell you some on the flats if you need it."
"Sure, fine with me," she grinned, wondering a little if she was going to be rowing all day again today, not that she minded if she did.
They got on the river; it was still cool, but warmed up considerably as the day went on. They made a couple stops to stretch their legs, then stopped for lunch and a short hike. After lunch, the river began to change as the Canyon walls grew deeper. They looked to be a thousand feet high now, and the sky narrowed to a dark band of the deepest blue, as they were embraced by a world of rock and water. Even the flat water began to dance as the Colorado glided and swirled along the sculptured dark red sandstone walls jutting into the river.
Along in the afternoon they pulled in on river right above House Rock Rapids so the boatmen could look it over before they ran it. "OK, it's pretty straightforward, so long as you stay on the right side of the wave train," Al told Scooter, but loud enough that the other boatmen could hear, if they needed a memory refresher. "The problem here is that big reflecting wave that comes in off river left. You're going to have to run right then pull hard right as soon as you get past the lip."
"Looks like it can be done," Scooter nodded.
"You want to try it?"
"Hell, yes," she smiled. "It don't look that damn bad."
In a few minutes, they were out on the river, the first raft to run the rapids. The tongue of House Rock flowed fast, but smooth. Like she'd done many times before on other rafts on other rivers, Scooter ferried down, bow to the left, pulling the boat backward to the right. Ahead, the white water dropped away from them. Waves rose to either side, and with a couple of mighty pulls, she pivoted the raft to ride bow first, and pushed hard. Then, there was white water, huge waves, and steep. The raft rode them well, but the waves grew bigger and bigger, even enormous, no longer simple waves but a confused mass of churning white foam. Then the bigger wall of wave and foam was surging in from the left, and the raft rode up on it, slewed around almost broadside. Scooter's muscles bulged as she strained at the oars, trying to straighten the raft out, but they were still broadside on, lifting up and up on a massive pale green wall of water, filled with little white air bubbles, but somehow she managed to get it twisted enough to take it more or less endways. The raft quivered in midair, then they were on the crest of the green-white wave, and the raft was easing back to normal . . . then they were riding over waves no more than huge, but with no danger of flipping, and the incredible noise of the rushing water began to ease.
"Told you that reflecting wave was a pain in the butt," Al grinned.
"Yeah, I see what you mean," Scooter nodded. "There's one on the New that's about that big of a whoopee, and I don't think it's much worse than going straight through Hell Hole on the Ocoee."
"Scooter, we do have some worse ones on this river," Al smiled at her.
"Good, looking forward to them," she grinned back. "I've been hearing about this river ever since I've been running rafts, and I want to see if it lives up to its reputation."