Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
June 21 - 28, 1999
Grand Canyon, Trip 4, 1999
By the start of her fourth trip down the Grand Canyon three and a half weeks later, it had become a tradition, a good luck charm, for Scooter to be smoking a cigar when the customer bus pulled in. She might only go through two or three on the whole trip, but it seemed important to get the trip off on a good start.
This time it seemed even more important than ever to get off on a good start. The last trip, with Al leading, had gone well. They'd been caught by thunderstorms three times, which made life a little more exciting, and had watched a side canyon stream running heavy with mud as the rain quickly ran off. Al had been a little more picky about not getting into camp sites at the mouths of side canyons than he had on the last trip, and pointed out to Crystal and Scooter several places to avoid for their flash flood dangers.
This was one trip that Scooter was going to be a little happier to have at an end; when it was over, she'd have her insurance qualifications in to be a boatman. Al had explained that when she actually got a raft was a little up in the air; a boatman could leave at any time and she would be the first replacement called, especially if the change was on Team 3. The team had been stable for the last two trips and would be for this one; the same group was back. But that wouldn't last forever; Glenn would be leaving to go back to school after two more trips, and there were several boatmen on the other two teams who would be leaving, as well. Toward the end of August, the three teams broke down into two for the fall season, and Al expected to have trouble filling them out. He'd told Scooter that whatever happened, she'd be making at least the last four trips of the year as a boatman, which would make a significant increase in her income -- not quite up to what she'd made at NOC last year, but living expenses were a lot less, and she'd have time to do something else over the slow winter season.
As Scooter sat on the nose of a raft with her cigar going, she had a feeling that wasn't good. One of the important characteristics a good boatman has is the ability to smell trouble brewing, and Scooter smelled it strongly right now. Louise had been supposed to lead this trip; it was her turn, but she hadn't even come up to Lee's for the rigging, and Al was going to lead it again. Both Scooter and Crystal asked him if it was something to do with her health, but mostly they'd gotten brushed off. That was so unlike Al that it was troubling.
She took a drag on her cigar and let the heavy, bitter smoke drift upriver in a strong morning breeze. Most of the crew was back in the tammies -- at least partly to stay out of the sun, and Scooter, the only smoker on the crew, was respecting enough of them to stay a ways away, although Crystal sat on the next raft upwind. Neither of them were saying much of anything; across the way, they could see Al standing at a pay phone, presumably talking with Louise. Eventually, he hung up the phone and started for the rafts. Even at a distance, they could see that he really wasn't a happy camper. "Are you about ready to go?" he asked as he came close.
"Just waiting for the customer bus," Crystal told him. "Al, you look like something's the matter."
"I don't know," he said, the frustration evident. "I sure wish I could sit this one out."
"Louise isn't feeling any better, is she?" Scooter asked quietly.
Al shook his head. "She says she isn't feeling any better, but she's not feeling any worse, either. She's going in for more tests in the next few days, but doesn't seem too concerned. But damn it, I know her well enough to know that she's feeling worse than she says and is trying to not let on."
"Probably nothing much," Crystal said hopefully.
"I hope to Christ not," he sighed. "Damn, I should have done it, but it's too late now."
"Done what?" Scooter asked.
"I thought real hard about having you hike down the Bright Angel and replace Michelle on Team 2," he said. "There's a damn good reason why Michelle isn't a trip leader, you know about that, but I thought real hard about letting Crystal lead this trip and have Michelle back her up so I could stay back with Louise. But we'd have had to set it up Saturday, and Louise talked me out of it; she says she doesn't feel that bad, and I might as well take this trip. Now I wish I'd gone ahead and done it."
"Wouldn't have worked anyway," Scooter shrugged. "I'm still not qualified as a boatman with the insurance company."
"You are now, I bent the rules," Al said. "I set that up last week when I was thinking of swapping you and Michelle. Damn it, if I knew something was wrong there's things I could do, but the options are running out pretty quick, and I'm going to be stuck on the river."
"Al, I wish I knew what to tell you," Crystal said. "I wish I could say that Scooter and I can handle it, and I think we could do it if we had to, but this is your company and it's a decision you have to make."
"I know," he sighed. "I'll tell you this much. If Louise isn't better when we get off the river, you're going to be leading the next one unless I can get a guy that led for us a couple years ago to take a trip. I doubt it like hell, he's got a real job now, and his wife would blow a fuse if he took off for something like that. Scooter, we might try the trick of swapping you with Michelle, but I'll have to make up my mind damn quick when we get back, and it'll be a burnaround for both of you if we do it."
"With any kind of luck, she'll be all better and raring to get back between the walls again," Scooter said hopefully, with more optimism than she felt.
"I sure hope you're right," he sighed. "Look, I'd just as soon we kept this among ourselves and didn't let the rest of the crew or the customers know."
"Sure, Al," Crystal said, "Look, let's try to think positive."
"Yeah, you're right," Al nodded. "I'm probably down enough that I better not do the check-in and briefing. You want to handle that?"
"Sure, no problem," she nodded. "And here comes the bus now. Look, Al, we know you're worried, but maybe you'll feel better when you get out on the water."
"I sure hope so," Al nodded glumly. "I'll go over and wake up the rest of the crew."
Crystal and Scooter walked up toward the approaching bus as Al walked off. "There is a man who's not a happy camper," Crystal said softly. "And I don't know if there's a goddamn thing we can do about it."
"Not now, anyway," Scooter sighed. "We're just plain out of time."
As always, the customers had come in from Las Vegas on a charter bus that sighed to a stop not far from the rafts. As the customers got off the bus, Crystal checked them off the passenger manifest, while Scooter helped the bus driver unload their gear from the baggage compartment. By now, Scooter and the rest of the crew had become used to this part of the routine -- getting the customers' gear packed in dry bags, getting life jackets fit to everyone, going through introductions, and the first safety briefing. It still took most of an hour before they were out on the water.
Like the last trip, Scooter figured on rowing most of the trip and all of the hard stuff, although Norma and Barbie were getting more time at the sticks and in somewhat harder conditions, although nothing dangerous. The normal progression at Canyon Tours was that swampers would row the rafts increasing amounts over their first two to three seasons, depending on the talent of the swamper and whether they were around to run spring and fall seasons. Though rank beginners now, with luck they'd be boatmen for their last couple college summers. Some might stay on another few years to provide a part of the more experienced boatmen that Canyon Tours needed -- like Dan and Jerry, who had graduated from college in the spring and who planned on getting in a few more years on the river.
Al didn't seem quite so glum once they were out on the water. "Didn't see you hanging around town much on break," he grinned to Scooter once they'd gotten a couple bends below Lee's Ferry.
"Well, we weren't," Scooter told him. "Crystal and I drove down to Phoenix to see a couple gals who were on the trip before last."
"The photographers?" Al smiled. "Louise told me about that." The grin on his face indicated that Louise had told him quite a bit about it, but it wasn't something he was going to comment on before new customers.
"Yeah," Scooter admitted, "Real neat gals, and they got some gorgeous shots." They had indeed; the majority of the photography was of Andrea and Debby, of course, but Scooter had been real impressed with the photos that the two had taken of Crystal and her. There was one shot of her rowing hard in a rapids that had been taken from a low angle with a waterproof camera. There was something about the timing and the light that had made her look both awesomely powerful and in control, and everyone had been impressed with it. It was enough so that both Crystal and Scooter had signed model releases and told the two to have fun trying to sell their photos, and if they did get into print to let them know.
"Louise seemed pretty impressed with them two," Al said, almost with a tease on his voice. "It's not a big rush item, but sometime we need to build some new brochures. Might be they have something we could use."
"They might," Scooter smiled back. Most of the nude shots had been tasteful and artistic, not dirty -- well, there were a few that were a little dirty, but those were unintentional, mostly timing errors. "Some of them might make for a really memorable brochure."
"That's kind of what Louise was saying," Al grinned, both of them wearing expressions that said they knew exactly what the other was talking about but weren't about to say it in front of the customers.
They moved on down the river. By now, they'd gotten to the point where they'd stayed at several campsites where they'd spent a night on previous trips, and Al commented that there weren't many sand bars that he hadn't stopped at or camped on at one time or another.
As they got down the river a ways, Al seemed to snap out of his depression, although both Scooter and Crystal were pretty sure it was just a good front and that he was still pretty worried. "You know Scoot," he said one day from out of the middle of nowhere. "I always thought it was a waste of money to carry those Iridium satellite phones, so I never did it. I always figured the aviation VHF to raise an overflight would be all we'd ever need, and those satphones cost a large base charge and five bucks a minute. Now I sure wish I'd signed up for them."
"It would be handy in a real emergency," she said neutrally, knowing just exactly what he was talking about.
"Yeah, maybe I'll have to rethink that," he said distantly. "The problem with one of those things is when someone wants to keep an eye on the stock market or something. Hell, one of the reasons I always liked to be out here was to get away from the telephone."
They usually had someone on most trips who did some fishing, but there were more fishermen than normal on this trip, both men and women who would rather fish than hike, so that gave things a little different spin. The fishing was pretty good, and most nights there were fish being fried along with the regular dinner. Then, of course, most evenings there was a small fire. Some nights on other trips Crystal would get out her battered old guitar and do a few songs, just traditional campfire songs. There was a guy on this trip who brought his own guitar and he was darn good, so Crystal was off music duty this time, and just told a couple stories on her old college roommate, who played the Celtic Harp. Scooter had met Myleigh once and heard her play the harp. The girl was dynamite -- a real character, if not boatman material; she was supposed to be finishing up her doctorate in English literature this summer, and already had a job teaching at a college in Kansas City lined up for the fall. One of the things on Crystal's list as soon as the season was over with was to take a swing by there and see her old roommate with her dream of years achieved.
Just as things worked out, they got a little out of their normal phase. It was a little early when they got to the start of Upper Granite Gorge. They usually stopped a little short of the place so they could hit it in the morning, but this time without much thinking they decided to go a little farther than normal. They ran Unkar, Hance and Sockdolager, but pulled in for the night at a campsite right above Grapevine. It would mean having to kick off the day with a fairly tough rapids, but the crew wasn't quite as green now and everyone thought they could handle it with enough river coffee in them.
The next morning, they got up, got around, had a good breakfast and loaded up, tying things down tightly. Grapevine made a pretty stiff start to the day, but it allowed them to run the awesome black gneiss formations above Phantom and take their time, drinking in the views. Just about noon, they pulled into Phantom Ranch. "Set up lunch," Al told the crew. "I'll hike up to the ranger station and check our box." Crystal and Scooter glanced at each other silently; they knew that the only phone at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was at the ranger station.
They were just serving lunch when Crystal looked up to see Al hurrying back. "Uh-oh," she said in a small voice to Scooter.
"Right," Scooter said, as they tore away from the crowd around the serving table and headed over to Al. Even at a distance, they could see that he was upset, white as a sheet.
"Al!" Crystal asked as soon as they got into reasonable talking distance, "Is something the matter?"
"My God yes," he said. "Louise."
"There was a note to call the office or Jeff immediately," he said, clearly both depressed and upset. "He said that she's in the hospital in Phoenix and not expected to make it. Cancer."
"Oh, Al," Crystal shook her head, "Damn, I'm sorry."
"Crystal, I have to go, there's no choice," he said. "You and Scooter get 'em down safely. Jeff's meeting me up at the rim."
"Al, listen to me," Scooter said firmly, "You can make it, but don't kill yourself in the process. It's going to be hot up there. Take your time."
"Right," Crystal added, "Take plenty of water. You may be the river expert, but Scoot and I are the hikers. Stop and rest if you get overheated, don't push it."
Scooter broke away from the two of them and ran over to the table. "Barbie, Norma," she said in a flat order. "Find a day pack, put at least a gallon of water in bottles and some salt tablets in it. Right now ain't soon enough. Boatmen only, come with me, right now."
She headed back over to Al and Crystal with the boatmen trailing behind, to find the two of them with their arms around each other, and tears were flowing from both. "We're getting you a daypack and some water," Scooter told him. "Should only be a minute."
"What's up, Al?" Jerry asked.
"Louise," he said sadly, the words torn from him. "I gotta go topside. Crystal's leading, Scooter's assistant, you all pretty well know why. Try to help them, don't give them any shit, and keep the customers safe."
"God, Al, I'm sorry," Jerry said, "I wish there was something more we can do."
"Just be safe and keep your heads," he said as Barbie came running up with an orange daypack.
"Al," Scooter told him, "The same goes for you. It won't help Louise if you kill yourself trying to get topside, and remember that you've got a knee that's as bad as mine are. Would you like me to go with you for a little bit? Or we could send Barbie or Norma to the top with you."
"No, better not," he said as he pulled on the daypack. "You best stay with the customers."
He turned for the Bright Angel Bridge as Scooter took off after him. "Al, one last time," she said, "Take it easy, it's not going to make things a damn bit better if you kill yourself getting topside."
"I know, Scooter," he said. "God damn!"
"I'm sorry, Al. God damn, I'm sorry. I don't know anything more I can tell you besides hang in there."
"Thanks, Scooter," he said. "Sorry you had to become a boatman like this."
"Not as sorry as I am," she said. "Be safe, Al." She stopped, and watched him walk quickly across the bridge. She turned back to where Crystal and the boatmen were heading over to the table, where the customers were gathered around.
As she got to the edge of the group, Crystal called out, "OK, listen up, everyone. Al just got a message that his wife is in the hospital in bad shape, so he's headed topside to be with her. I'll be taking over leading, and Scooter will be my assistant. Most of you know that she and I haven't been in the Canyon very long, but we've both been messing around the outdoors in general and rafts in particular longer than just about anyone else in the company but Al and his wife. There's no reason we can't do this safely, and everyone can still have a good time. Just do me a favor, listen to your boatmen and try not to hassle them much. Al's wife was the trip leader of this crew earlier this season, and we all know her and love her and are worried about her, so we're all going to be a little stressed."
The rather religious junior boatman, Glenn, spoke up. "Crystal, I think this would be a good time for a prayer."
"You're right," Crystal said. "Some of you may not be praying people, but if you aren't, put up with the rest of us. Glenn, you lead."
"Precious Heavenly Father," he said. "Be with Louise in the hospital, and be with Al as he goes to her. Please leave Your hand upon us as we run Your river, guide our hands to do right, watch over us all. There may be times when we're too busy to think of You, but please think of us when those times come. Leave your Son to guide us, as He taught us to pray, 'Our Father, who art in Heaven'" . . . most of the party joined in the ancient words as he continued, "'Hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts aswe forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever, Amen.'"
A chorus of "Amens" followed from most of the party.
"OK, folks," Crystal said after a moment's silence, "Let's finish our lunches, even those of us who don't feel much like eating. We can't stay here anyway, and I think we'll all feel better if we get back on the water. The plan was to run Horn Creek, Granite, and probably Hermit today, leave Crystal for the morning, and we'll stay with it. We're gonna stop and scout all of them, just on general principles. We'll run down to one of those camps around mile 96, 97, along in there; that'll give us all a chance to get the kinks out before we hit the big one tomorrow. Look, I know we're all bummed about this, and that's an even better reason to take our time and stay safe. Everyone, not just boatmen, do the conservative thing. This is not a day for cowboy stuff. So, let's eat up, load up, head 'em up and move 'em out."