Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
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River Rat
Book 5 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2005, 2010

Chapter 17

August 23-24, 1999

Grand Canyon Trip 7

It was good to be out on the river. It was a comfortable day, not too hot; they got under way into a comfortable breeze that made things just about perfect. Scooter spent a couple minutes talking about John Doyle Lee, the Mormon assassin with nineteen wives who founded the Ferry back in the 1870s, the only place the river could be crossed for hundreds of miles in those days, and pointed out the old roadbed that led up the far Canyon wall. They ran around a slight curve and bounced through Paria Riffle; Scooter swung the boat sideways and looked back upriver, to see Randy already at the oars of Crystal's raft. Didn't waste any time, she grinned. This trip's just getting started and it's already one for the books. "Take a long look back, folks," she said to the people on her raft. "That's civilization we're leaving behind."

Like most trips, they didn't run far, only to Cathedral Wash, where Crystal had them pull up onto shore and break out lunch. That was a little awkward; Scooter had become used to having Norma and Barbie do a lot of that, and they weren't with them this time. As people worked on their sandwiches and cans of soda, Crystal spent a lot more time going over the orientation to get people set for the river, and warned them there would be another go around when they got into camp. There were things she'd go over again as needed, she told them.

Soon, they were back on the water. After running a couple miles more, they floated under the twin steel arches of Navajo Bridge. "And that really is the last we'll see of civilization for a while," Scooter told her passengers. "Now the good part begins."

A few miles later they came to Badger Rapids, which they ran with only a little water slopped aboard. Back at lunch, Crystal and Scooter had agreed they wanted to run just down to Badger so there'd be plenty of time for the camp orientation, supper, and some getting acquainted. On the real hot days of the last few trips, they'd tried to get into the sand bar on river right just below the rapids, the Badger Creek side, because it was a little cooler and seemed to catch an upstream breeze a little better. But this day was cool by comparison, so cool that Scooter hadn't even stripped down to her swimsuit, and on those kinds of days, both she and Crystal agreed that they preferred the river left side, the Jackass Creek side. Even as she was coming down the wave train, Scooter glanced over to see that the river left site was open, so she pulled into the eddy and headed for the beach, with the other rafts following one by one. She was not surprised in the slightest to see Randy at the oars of Crystal's raft as they ran Badger.

As always, the first night on the river, the orientation and everything was strange to the customers and made things take three times as long as they would in a couple days when everyone was used to the routine. It was a busy time for a while, but finally things settled down and the crew got started on dinner: halibut steaks and dirty rice. As things slowed down, Scooter noticed Karin and Al sitting apart from the rest of the group a little, having a long conversation. She was really trying not to snoop, but she had to slide down to the river for a bucket of water at one point, and heard Al talking about Louise. Of course, Karin would have known her, Scooter thought with naming her daughter after her. Although Al still seemed pretty solemn, he seemed to be perking up a little, in spite of everything. Apparently, they had some memories to compare and some notes to share, she thought.

The dinner was very good, of course; they liked to get off to a good start, and halibut didn't keep on ice too well, so it was the usual first night dinner. As they got down toward the end of the trip there wouldn't be the abundance of fresh food, but by then no one noticed, either.

After the cleanup was pretty well complete, Scooter got the fire pan out of her raft, set it up on a likely spot on the beach, and used part of one of the several small bundles of firewood they'd brought and a part of a Presto-log to get the first of their evening campfires going. Randy was sitting nearby, not doing anything in particular, so Scooter asked how he liked running an oar raft.

"It's a new experience," he admitted. "I was only in a raft with Crystal once, on the Ocoee. While it's a lot different than a kayak, I think it's easier. It's just that it handles like a loaded concrete truck on an icy road."

"Yeah," Scooter nodded thoughtfully, "That sounds like a fair description. I don't have the kayak time that I have the raft time, but they are pretty different. What you have to remember is that you have to figure out what the raft really wants to do and then try to help it."

"Crystal said that," he snickered. "We were going down that rapids right before we got off the river, and she said, 'Randy, this ain't a playboat so don't be trying any enders on us, OK?"

They shot the bull for a couple minutes, mostly talking about the finer points of handling rafts, and Scooter had a couple funny stories. They were so wrapped up that they hardly noticed Crystal tuning up her guitar, and then playing a couple of campfire songs, not very well -- she was hardly the world's greatest guitar player but she could perk up a campfire with it, a skill Scooter wished she had.

"Aw, I don't know what I'm doing picking away on this thing when we've got a real guitar player with us," Crystal said finally, handing it over to Randy. "Folks, like I said earlier, Randy and I have been around a few blocks together. He and I used to be considered the craziest people at Northern Michigan University. You all know that this river is pretty cold, and like I said today, if you get washed out, don't chase the raft, but get to shore and get out of the water. Randy and I know what cold water is. We used to go surfing on Lake Superior when the water was so cold our surfboards would ice up, right Randy?"

"Yeah," he grinned. "We'd have to sit under the car heater to get the ice out of our wetsuit zippers so we could get them off. I suppose you're fishing for Edmund Fitzgerald? They don't let you carry a guitar onto the NMU campus unless you can play that."

He shook his head, and started in on Edmund Fitzgerald. "It's a big lake, and it's cold, and it has a cold heart," Crystal said quietly at the end of the song, and took the opportunity to drive home a little safety message. "Randy and I got to play on it some, but we learned to respect it, like I've learned to respect this river. We can play on it, and we can have fun, but we have to respect its power. That's why we insist on life jackets. Randy, do you remember Dawnwalker?"

"Of course, I remember it," he said. "But I can't play it here. Myleigh's not here with her harp, and that's a woman's song, anyway."

"Oh, all right, I'll sing it if you play it," Crystal said. "Folks, Myleigh was my roommate in college. That was a while ago -- she's got her Ph.D. now, and she's a college professor. Her hobby was playing the Celtic harp, and she was pretty good. If any of you are Jenny Easton fans, it's her playing the harp in Jennifer's recording of this song, and I was there when they cut part of it. Sorry, folks, but I'm afraid you're going to hear a lot of Jenny Easton stuff around these campfires, especially if we let Randy play very much. I don't sing much like Myleigh, let alone Jennifer, but Randy, let's take a swing at it."

Dawnwalker was familiar to some of the group; it had been on the charts a couple years ago. It was a sad, haunting song of an Irish fisherman's wife walking along the seashore in the dawn, looking for her husband's fishing boat, almost certain it's never returning but hoping against hope. Crystal was right, she didn't sing like Jenny Easton, but down here it didn't sound too bad. As they wrapped it up, Scooter figured that Crystal would draw a story and a message out of it, and she did.

"Most of us have folks at home, wondering how we're doing," Crystal started. "Like that Irish woman, they're walking the beach in the dawn, waiting for our return. I know what the other side of that coin is like. Scooter mentioned that I worked a fishing boat in Alaska. Well, one day Chuck and I were crossing Queen Charlotte Strait in a storm. It was rough out there, huge waves, bigger than anything on this river, cold and dangerous, the ocean at full roar. Our fishing boat, the Glacier Bay, got swept by a wave and got beaten up pretty badly, and Chuck -- he was the skipper -- he got knocked unconscious. He was hurting, in a lot of pain, and I couldn't leave the wheel to help him, since there was only him and me. I fought it out the best I could for hours, thinking I was going to die in every wave, until finally I could get the boat into the lee of some islands and get him down to his bunk and stabilize him a little. Then I had to go out and fight the ocean some more, until finally I could get us into a little harbor with the best name in the world: God's Pocket."

She let out a big sigh and continued. "It may have been the closest I've ever been to buying it, but I learned something out there. Don't give up when you're in trouble. If you get washed out of a boat in a rapids, don't give up. The rapids don't last forever, ride them out. Swim hard, keep your head up, try to get out of the fast current, keep your feet downstream if you're in rocks, and try to get to shore as soon as you can, because this water is cold enough to kill you pretty quick. This ain't the ocean, we're not out there alone, like Chuck and I were. If there's a swimmer in the water and you're in a boat, try to pick them up. If you're in the water, try to help yourself, but someone will come for you."

"You never told me that story," Karin said from the edge of the group.

"Lots of stories I never told you, Mom," Crystal said softly. "You'll hear some of them on this trip."

Clear back to her first trip, Scooter and Crystal had gotten in the habit of trying to get off by themselves for a few minutes on most nights, just to let their hair down with each other a little, something they could do as friends that they often couldn't do with the rest of the crew and hardly ever with the customers. After the horrible day when Crystal had become a trip leader and Scooter a boatman and assistant trip leader, they went out of their way to make it a habit; they used the opportunity to discuss problems and make plans.

But this evening, after the stories and the singing wound down and the fire burned low, and people began to drift off to their beds, Karin and Crystal continued to sit in front of the fire, looking at the few tiny flickers of remaining flame and glowing coals in the fire pan. Even before the last people left, Scooter had gotten the message that this private time was going to have to be for mother and daughter, so headed off to her raft to give them some space.

But she didn't really feel like sleeping, which was strange. Rather than get into her sleeping bag, she sat on the bottom of the raft, leaning up against a tube and staring up at the stars. There'd been a boatman way back on the New who'd been an astronomy buff, and he'd taught her some of the major constellations and brighter stars. That was Cygnus standing high overhead, she thought; down here in the dark of the Canyon the Milky Way stood out like a sore thumb, the galaxy seen from inside.

She looked up for quite a while, just thinking about the way this trip had gone so far. From what little she'd dealt with Al since supper, he seemed to be in the best mood he'd been in since Louise died, and that was all to the good. Just by sheer damn luck, Karin's appearance seemed to be perking him up a little, probably bringing back memories of good days long ago, she suspected.

With sleep still evading her, she rolled over, popped the lid on her boatman's box, and pulled out the small drybag that held her trip's supply of cigars. Right now it would taste good, and it might help her think. About the future, about what she was doing. It had been good luck that had Crystal call her to come here, and she was glad she'd come. Though the winter seemed iffy and the future fuzzy, it seemed likely that she'd be able to stay on this river for a while, until she got tired of it, if she ever did. She thought back to the day she'd been standing at the counter at NOC, about ready to give up the outdoor life, get married and have kids if she could have found someone to marry her. And then Crystal called, and her life changed, probably forever, certainly forever if she could manage it. Admittedly, there was a part of her that would like to have a guy, a home to go home to. She hadn't had much of a home for years, since long before her mother died -- just the tiny little travel trailer near NOC, and a rental at that. Since leaving North Carolina she'd been technically homeless, she realized, her only home whatever Grand Canyon sand bar she happened to spread her sleeping bag on. Realistically, that problem was going to have to be dealt with sooner or later; in a few months for part of it. She'd yet to meet Dave and Mary, the husband and wife who co-led Team 2, but knew that they wintered over in some little village down in Mexico, somewhere down on the Gulf of California. Not a bad deal, she thought; maybe she and Crystal could work out something like that.

Or maybe not. There was no telling what Karin's surprise appearance was going to affect. From the little bit that Scooter had picked up, Karin's marriage was pretty close to over, so that could really mess up the idea of spending the winter in some warm spot with Crystal. But, it was nothing worth worrying about right now until she could see how it developed.

She was still lightly smoking her cigar, looking at the stars and letting her mind wander when she felt Crystal get onto the raft next to hers. Seeing the glow of the tip of the cigar, Crystal said softly enough to try to avoid waking anyone nearby, "I thought you'd be sawing logs by now."

"No," Scooter said. "I'm not really sleepy. How'd it go with your mom?"

"It went," Crystal grumped. "She says she hasn't absolutely made up her mind to divorce Dad, but all the stuff that's important to her is sitting in her car at O'Hare, so that option is wide open. She's to the point where she can buy up her outstanding retirement and bag it, but doesn't have any idea of what she's going to do."

"That's good news, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Crystal sighed. "She should have done it years ago. But she hung on a lot longer than she should have, and frankly she pissed me off in the process, and apparently pissed my brother off as well. I haven't seen him since before I did the AT, and she's only seen him once since. She thinks he's somewhere down in Phoenix, but doesn't know where."

"Why pissed you off?"

"Just because she let my dad get away with all the shit he handed me, what he also handed Jon, and I guess he even handed a bit to little fair-haired, can-do-no-wrong Nanci." She sighed, and went on. "It's built up some walls, and I'm not too damn sure how much I want her in my life right now, I have enough other shit going on, like Al, and trying to be a good trip leader. That's important to my future. She's out of a past I left behind and have been trying to put behind me."

"Crystal," Scooter sighed. "I don't want to sound like I'm lecturing you, and I'm not looking for a pity party, but I wish the hell I had a mother who I could even think about making up with, and I wish the hell I'd made up with mine before she got killed. I know it's hard, but don't kiss her off."

"I know," she replied bitterly. "But damn it, I can't get over going home from college, proud that I graduated with a Cum Laude and getting treated so much like shit that I was out the door. She could have tried to keep a lid on it, she could have said something, but she let him get away with it. I mean, I really tried to keep my temper with her, but I kept thinking about that night. I changed the topic several times but it always drifted back there." She let out a sigh. "One time we even got to talking about Louise, and she said that I'm a lot like her, or at least like she remembers Louise when she was about my age, proud to be a woman breaking into a man's world, doing things better than a man could. And I felt honored and proud to hear her say it. Then five sentences later we were back at the night I got thrown out of the house, and I'm not sure how we got there."

"Crystal, listen," Scooter told her. "We've got two and a half weeks. Try to keep it cool, and try to work toward putting it back together."

"I suppose," she sighed. "The only problem is that I'm not sure it can be, and I'm not too sure how much I want to."

"I know it's going to be hard," Scooter told her. "Look, maybe you need someone as sort of a go-between. I'm willing. I'll bet Randy would be, and from what I picked up he knows her a little. Hell, maybe even Al."

"I don't want to bother Al with my problem; he's got enough of his own."

"That's something that's going right," Scooter replied, being tired of the previous subject and realizing it was going nowhere. "The way he acted today, I think the Canyon is healing him."

"He's a long way from being all the way well," Crystal said. "But it's definitely heading up now, which is one thing to be happy about." She let out a sigh. "Guess I better get some sleep, although I'm not too sure I can."

Early the next morning Scooter and Jerry had the gas stove going with a griddle full of potatoes and bacon, Dan was working a huge fry pan of scrambled eggs, and all kept one ear on the coffee pot sitting on the roaring propane burner. While the idea was to get it near boiling, it wasn't a good idea to let it boil over. The noise of the burner was getting the camp stirring, and people were getting around. Pretty soon Randy wandered over. "Anything I can do to help?" he asked.

"No, not really," Scooter told him. "We've got things pretty well under control."

"Where's Crystal?"

"Still sleeping," Scooter grinned. "She and her mom were up pretty late. Guess they had things to talk over."

"Yeah, I suppose they do," Randy said, probably aware of some of the issues, maybe some better than she knew -- but it was not the time or place to say anything.

"Here, Randy," Dan called. "Stir these eggs while I turn down the coffee a little and do a couple other things."

"Sure thing," Randy smiled. He was in the middle of the breakfast making from that point on, and helped serve as people began to gather. He may have been a customer, but he acted like a swamper, and if he wanted to, it was fine with Scooter.

Crystal eventually appeared. "How ya doin', Randy?" she asked, a little listlessly.

"Pretty good," he smiled. "How about you?"

"Oh, I'm OK," she said. "Randy, you did real well in the raft yesterday. You want to row some more today?"

"Sure," he said. "That was my one concern about this trip. I didn't want to come along just for the ride."

"All right," she told him. "I think I'll just ride along and take it easy today. It's mostly easy water. We've got two big ones, Soap Creek and House Rock. I may let you run Soap Creek, I'll have to see how you're doing when we get there. House Rock, no way. We'll take it easy today, and camp before we hit the Roaring Twenties. Tomorrow's going to be a tough one, and I probably'll have to be at the oars some of the way."

"Whatever you say, Crystal, you're running this train, after all."

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