Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
June 28 - July 8, 1999
Grand Canyon, Trip 4, 1999
Horn Creek, Granite, and Hermit were just as tough as ever, and possibly tougher since everyone knew that all the boatmen were down. Scooter just hoped the hell that everything would go all right, since with the mood that everyone was in, there was a bigger possibility of a screw-up. But then, everyone seemed to be aware of it. Fortunately nothing happened, and Scooter was happy to be off the river in a campsite a couple miles above Crystal Rapids. Maybe with a night to let it settle in, people would be in a little better mood to take on the monster in the morning.
It was still a pretty somber group that climbed out of the rafts at the campsite. It wasn't a particularly good place for interesting hikes or other diversions, although the afternoon was pretty well shot anyway because of the mood. Many of the group, both customers and crew, turned to making dinner for the sake of something to do as opposed to having nothing to do. But once dinner was served, the cleanup went quickly with many hands working on it, and it got quiet well before dark.
At one point, Scooter looked up and realized that Crystal wasn't around the camp. Taking a longer look, she saw her friend sitting by the river a ways downstream, just staring into the water. Though she realized that Crystal wanted to be alone, she also knew that it wasn't a good time to let her brood too much, either. She snagged a couple beers out of a drag bag on one of the rafts and headed down to join her. "Hi, Crystal," she said softly as she drew close, holding out one of the cans, "I thought you might need a drink."
"You're thinking the same thing I did," Crystal nodded, holding up a can of Pepsi. "This is about half vodka."
"Well, then, I need a drink," Scooter nodded, finding a fairly comfortable rock close to Crystal, and popping open one of the beers.
Crystal shook her head. "God, I hope Al made it up the hill all right."
"I'd feel better if we'd sent Barbie or Norma up with him," Scooter nodded, "But that came down so damn quick there wasn't time to get things set up. But, nothing to do about it now. God, what a downer this has been."
"You don't know the half of it," Crystal said somberly. "Do you know how long she's been on this river?"
"Over thirty years, she was talking about it the last trip we took with her."
"Scooter," Crystal asked sadly, "Do you know what my middle name is?"
"Louise," Crystal sighed. "She was the trip leader when my mom ran this river, back before I was born. Mom never has come out and said it, but Louise was the only Louise I ever heard her talk about, so I'm very sure I was named after her. It was some of those stories of that trip, and Louise, and the scrapbook that I just about grew up on that made me check out Canyon Tours in the first place, back last summer. Shit, it was stories about her that made me realize a woman could have a life in the outdoors, at least some. And then I got to make my first trip with Louise as the trip leader, just like my mom."
"I've heard you talk about that a little," Scooter nodded. "You said one time that you thought your mom named you after the rapids."
"Then you've also heard me say that I'm not sure how much of a favor it was since it makes it hard to bitch about," Crystal said slowly, but with a hint of a grin, the first one since Phantom.
"You ever hear from your mom?" Scooter asked in a deliberate attempt to change the subject away from the one Crystal was brooding over. At least it was a strong enough subject that it might do the job. Scooter had heard little about it since spring, but she knew from when she'd hiked with Crystal two years before that there was a lot of bad blood between her and her parents, especially her father.
"Not much," Crystal shrugged. "We talked on the phone last fall, and a couple times over the winter. I told her I'd been working for Canyon Tours, and expected to come back this spring, but I didn't say what I was doing. I didn't want her to get too excited about it and say something in front of Dad, since he'd get real pissed off. She's always wanted to come back here and do another trip, and he always was dead set against it. He could get pretty pissy about it." She let out a sigh, and continued, "Scooter, I'm not real happy with my mother since she let my dad get away with the shit he pulled on me. But I can't imagine what she would think if she knew that I was leading a trip that Louise was supposed to have led."
"Pretty ironic, when you think of it that way," Scooter smiled.
"Yeah, it is," she sighed. "Damn, I wish it didn't have to be like this. Scooter, I don't feel like I'm really ready for it. It's a hell of a lot of responsibility."
"We don't have a lot of choice," she replied. "And really, Crystal, under the circumstances, who better than you and me? I mean, we may not have a lot of time in the Canyon, but we've had a hell of a lot of time with our butts in rafts; we've been through OLTA; we've both been in hairy situations before."
"I keep telling myself that," Crystal nodded. "So here I am, drinking a Pepsi that's half vodka. Before you came over here I was sitting here thinking about the last time I did that."
"When was that?"
"That time those two kayakers attacked me," Crystal said. It was a story that Scooter knew well; years before, when Crystal had been a guide on the Ocoee, a kayaker pulled out in front of her raft as she was going down the drop into Hell Hole. She tried to miss him, but couldn't and wound up running over him. The guy was pretty drunk, and he and an equally buzzed buddy followed them down to the takeout and attacked her with knives. The attack didn't get very far, since Crystal's boyfriend Randy greeted her at the takeout, and both of them were black belts. The attackers were carried off in an ambulance and later did hard time, but both Crystal and Randy were devastated because they'd actually had to use their skills to hurt someone. "Randy wasn't twenty-one yet, so he had to camouflage one of these."
"Maybe there's a lesson there," Scooter offered, realizing that her friend needed to be bucked out of her moroseness, for the sake of the customer's safety, if nothing else. "I mean, I wasn't there, but when the challenge came up, you two didn't think about it or brood about it, you kicked ass and let the brooding go till later. Like I said, Crystal, we're OLTA graduates, now it's time to lead. Crystal, you and I aren't thinkers, we're doers. We're just going to have to do it."
"Yeah, you're right." Crystal sighed. "You know, last fall I told Randy that I thought everything I've done had been to prepare me for the Grand Canyon. Now I guess we find out how well prepared I am." She let out another sigh and took a long pull at the Pepsi can. "I would love to sit here and get shitfaced, but I guess it's going to have to wait until the trip's over with. I think I'm beginning to understand why rafters head for the bar when the trip is done. When you actually have to face up to the responsibility, it's not easy."
"I can feel the stress, too," Scooter agreed. "I'll do everything I can to help."
"I know you will," Crystal said, putting out her hand and resting it on her friend's shoulder. "Shit, Scooter, I'm just glad as hell you decided to come out here."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Scooter said, "And an even better idea now. I'm really glad I came."
Perhaps it was just the fact that it was a new day that made the next day start out better, or the challenge of the big rapids not far ahead putting the concerns of the day before to the side. Whatever it was, there wasn't the depressing spirit that had hung over the party coming down from Phantom Ranch. As always, they got out on river right to look Crystal Rapids over, and to psych themselves up for it.
Although Scooter had run Crystal three times now and knew she could do it, she still had a lot of respect for the long, tough drop. As in any tough rapids, the normal procedure was for the leader to go through first, mostly because they would have the best chance of getting to the bottom safely so someone would be there to rescue the results of any upsets. Today Scooter was just as glad that Crystal was going first; the sooner she ran the monster, the sooner she could quit worrying about it. And, normally the assistant trip leader ran last, in case some rescue was needed in the rapids, although in this one it didn't make a lot of sense since there wasn't much that could be done in the middle but wait to get flushed to the bottom.
Once the rapids had been scouted, the whole party gathered around the rafts. "There's no reason we can't do this safely," Crystal told the group. "But considering the circumstances, if anyone wants to walk down and get picked up at the bottom, it's fine with me."
Archie, the guy who played the great guitar, spoke up, "Crystal, I can't speak for everyone else, but I'll ride anywhere you're willing to row. I trust you and the rest of the boatmen, and I'm not going to worry about it."
There was a chorus of affirmative agreements, a huge vote of confidence at a critical time. "All right," Crystal said in obvious relief, "Get on the rafts, snug up your life jackets, make sure there are no loose lines or straps that you could get tangled in if the raft spills." She waited a second and added, "Let's head 'em up and move 'em out."
Scooter felt the vote of confidence, too, and thought it needed to be commemorated. "Crystal, hold up just a second," she said. "Let me get the camera, get down on that little rise and get a shot of you going over that first stopper."
"Sounds reasonable," Crystal nodded. "Everybody else, get loaded."
Scooter quickly grabbed the cheap little waterproof camera she'd bought at K-Mart before the previous trip. She'd only shot a handful of photos on it, nothing artistic like Andrea or Debby would have done, just snapshots of some of the people, a couple of scenery things. Moving quickly, she got out on a little point overlooking the rapids just as someone pushed Crystal's loaded raft into the backwater above the drop. Scooter watched her friend take a few strokes to get herself established in the current. Crystal hit her marks; the raft slid down the tongue, into the hole and up onto the top of the big stopper wave just as Scooter pressed the button. She could see the raft dive nose first into the following roller, taking a lot of water aboard, but it drained out quickly as Crystal fought to keep it straight. Although she knew she needed to be getting back to her own raft, Scooter couldn't help but stand and watch her friend's run, almost automatically advancing the camera and snapping a couple shots farther down river. Only when she knew that Crystal was far enough down that the rest of the run would be successful did she start for her raft, just as Jerry started his run.
It was a hustle to get back to her raft; Glenn was just pulling out as she got there, the next to last. She stuffed the camera under her life jacket, gave the raft a heave to get it out into the water, scrambled over the nose and onto the boatman's box, grabbed the oars and started to get set herself. For once, there wasn't time to work up a good worry before the raft was heading down the tongue and into the big hole.
As always, Crystal was a rough, wet ride that seemed to go on longer than it had any right to. Scooter did her best to keep the raft straight and out of the worst spots. Eventually -- really, it couldn't have been more than a minute although it seemed like a couple hours -- they were flushed out the bottom of the rapids, where the other four rafts were pulled up into the eddy to wait. "Woooo-hoooo!" she yelled. "Alive Below Crystal!"
"Good enough!" the human Crystal yelled back, excitement showing. "Dudes and dudettes, we dood it! Now, let's run some river! Head 'em up and moooove 'em out!"
The successful run of Crystal washed away a lot of the somber feelings that had struck the party at Phantom Ranch the day before. It was never far from the minds of any of the crew, but it more or less took a back seat as they proceeded on down the river, running through several other smaller but still-memorable rapids. The last week and a half of the trip wasn't the best trip that Scooter had been on, but it wasn't bad; the customers seemed to have a good time, Archie made the campfires go well, there were a few neat hikes and the fishing continued to be good.
It wasn't until they were down at Granite Springs the last night on the river that spirits drooped. The last night was always a little hard on the customers with the realization that a great trip was at an end and it might be a while before they saw the new friends they'd made, if ever. But the crew knew that they'd been without news from topside for ten days, and none of them were expecting good news, although nothing much was said.
But it made for everyone feeling especially somber when they floated around the bend above Diamond Creek Wash and saw the pickup, flatbed, and crew bus sitting there. As they drew closer, they could see Jeff and Jimmie waiting for them, as usual -- but there was a third person there, a slender, medium-height long-haired blonde that Scooter didn't recognize. "That's Michelle!" Scooter heard Barbie say. "If she's here, I don't think it's good."
"Jeff!" Crystal's voice split the air even before her raft was up to the gravel beach, "What's the word on Louise and Al?"
"It ain't simple," the old bus driver said. "Let's get everybody landed."
One by one, the rafts pulled up on shore, and people began to pile out. "Jeff, Michelle," Crystal said again as the last raft, Scooter's, pulled up to shore and Barbie got out with a bow line. "What happened?"
"Louise is dead," Jeff said simply, with obvious pain in his voice. "Yesterday. The funeral is tomorrow in Flag."
"Is Al all right?"
"No," he replied, "He's pretty wiped out. He was beat to crap when he got topside, but I got him in the truck and we rolled for Phoenix." He fought back an obvious sob. "I managed to get him there while she was still conscious. He pretty much sat up with her till she died."
The reality was every bit as bad as they'd expected. There just wasn't much anyone could say, and there were tears on several faces, many of them customers who knew what had been hanging over the crew for the last week and a half. Again, it was Glenn who broke the silence with The Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven . . ."
After a long moment of silence, Crystal spoke up, the sadness obvious in her voice. "All right, folks, let's take a minute to pull ourselves together and then get started loading up. The sooner we're back in Flag, the sooner we're back in Flag."
"I know you have all been under a lot of stress," Archie spoke up. "And I'd personally like to thank you all for hanging in there. As far as I'm concerned, the best thanks we can be is to help you get loaded. I don't think anybody is that anxious to get back to Las Vegas."
"Your help would be appreciated," Crystal replied quietly. "Let's get a duffel line going."
"Crystal," Jeff said as people started heading for the rafts, "Before you get started, Michelle and I need to talk to you and the rest of your crew for a minute."
"I guess," Crystal nodded, and asked the crew to hang around.
"Hi, Scooter," the blonde said as the crew gathered around, "I'm Michelle, I guess they told you about me."
"I've heard stories," Scooter nodded, taking a look at her for the first time. Even though she was a little older than Crystal, most of the stories about Michelle had her looking about fourteen, and Scooter decided they had to be an exaggeration -- she couldn't be a day over sixteen. Well, maybe seventeen, tops.
"Al and Louise and Jeff have all told me that you're awful damn good," Michelle said. "I'm glad to meet you, but I'd really rather it wasn't this way."
"Me either," Scooter nodded. "In fact, it's about the lousiest way possible."
"I better explain what happened," Jeff said, a little louder so the whole crew could hear. "Al is totally out of it; he doesn't want to think about the company, and I don't blame him a damn bit. Marjorie or Jimmie or I can answer the phone, but we don't know shit about running the office. Michelle has worked in the office winters for several years, so when Team 2 came off the water last week I grabbed her. She's the senior boatman, so I figure she's in charge till Al gets himself back into good enough shape to tell us different."
"Jeff and I are trying to keep things going," Michelle explained. "It's real simple; we have to keep the schedule going or there won't be a company for Al to come back to."
"As we was going down to Phoenix," Jeff added, "Al told me that he'd told Crystal and Scooter to run Team 3, and he had a lot of confidence in them, he just wished he'd told them to go ahead and do it back up at Lee's."
"What we're asking all of you is if you can stay with it," Michelle said. "All of you, especially with Crystal and Scooter in charge. We can't tell you to do it, but there's no backups for them short of canceling the next trip."
Scooter glanced at Crystal, and gave a little nod. Her friend nodded back, and said, "I don't think we want it this way any more than you want it, but like back at Phantom, we don't have a hell of a lot of choice whether we like it or not."
"What she said," Scooter agreed quietly.
"How about the rest of you?" Michelle asked. "We don't have any backup boatmen available, at least from Canyon Tours. There might be one or two I could borrow from one of the other companies on an emergency basis, but that's not a sure thing this time of year."
"So long as they're leading, I'm willing to follow," Jerry said.
"Same here," Dan agreed. "Al would want it that way."
"Wouldn't want it any other way," Glenn nodded. Barbie and Norma were quick to agree, too.
"Thanks, people," Crystal nodded. "I'll try to be worthy of your confidence. Is that all for now, Michelle? Jeff?"
"Yeah," Michelle replied, "Except that I want to thank you all for agreeing to stick with it. We're going to have some tough times, but if we hang in there, things will smooth out eventually."
"OK, people, we need to get loading," Crystal said. "I don't know if any of us have clothes for a funeral, so we'd better get moving so we've got time to go shopping. Let's head 'em up and move 'em out."