Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

River Rat
Book 5 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2005, 2010



Chapter 19

August 29-30, 1999

Grand Canyon Trip 7

The shadows were getting long before they heard the sound they'd been hoping for -- the flucketa-flucketa-flucketa of a turbocharged helicopter dropping out of the sky, down from the rim. Randy and Mrs. Loveberry exchanged a few words with the paramedic on board -- no time for many, the light was going fast -- and soon the pilot pulled pitch and in a cloud of dust, Jerry was on his way out of the Canyon, still alive, and probably to recover, now. Scooter and the rest of the party knew it had been close -- but they'd brought it off.

"Damn helicopters," Al grunted as they stood panting in the deep shadows, watching the helicopter grow smaller in the sky. "Hate 'em and love 'em. They used to make a hell of a lot of racket before they banned overflights, just ruined the place. But every now and then . . . God, they're lifesavers. Saved mine, a couple times, back in Vietnam. Is everybody else as beat to shit as I am?"

"I think so," Crystal sighed. "We were beat before, but we're really beat now. I know we're not supposed to stay here, but the light sucks too bad to go on. Let's just set up here. If the rangers don't like it, tough."

"Crystal, everybody, you did good," Al smiled. "I think it's time for some emergency supplies." He headed over to his raft, dug down into the drybox, and emerged with a big bottle of Johnny Walker.

"Oh, those emergency supplies," Crystal grinned.

"I don't drink much," Al said as the bottle was being passed around the party -- there were others there who had been shaken by the afternoon. "But, there are times . . . what the hell was he doing free climbing in this place? What the hell was he thinking? Randy, Sandy, I'm just as glad as hell that you two were along."

"Randy, you never told me you were an EMT in Spearfish Lake last winter," Crystal protested.

"I wasn't. I only got the card a month ago. I'm on the ambulance crew now, sort of, except I had to take my name off the call list till we got the Albany River School done."

"Are you going to get talked into the Firefighter I class, too?"

"Probably," he said philosophically, the whiskey threading through him now. "But maybe not, I'm thinking of the paramedic classes. But, I've got some other things on my list, first. Like Nicole, and getting the house done."

In a couple minutes, the bottle made its way back around to Al. He poured himself another shot, and one for Randy. "Crystal, I know we're all beat to shit," he said. "But you're still the trip leader, and I gotta point out that we got a problem."

"Right," she said. "We're short a boatman, now. Probably the best thing to do is to hike back up to the ranger station, see if I can track down Michelle or Jeff, and see if they can find someone who can hike down in the morning." She let out a sigh, and went on, not thinking, "Knowing her, she'll leave Jeff in the office and come down herself."

"With that torn up shoulder she better not," Al said. "And there's things that need to be done topside that she'll have to be the one to do, starting at the hospital with Jerry. But she might not be able to find someone. After all, she couldn't last week or I wouldn't be here."

"But . . ." Crystal said, and all of a sudden remembered the story about Michelle's shoulder they'd had to use to twist Al's arm to get him to come at all. It was obviously not a good idea to admit it right now. "We need to try anyway," she finished. "But if that doesn't work, we could leave a raft here, spread the stuff from it out among the other rafts, and either pick it up on another trip, or deflate it and have it carried out on the mule train."

"Can't do that very well," Al said.

"Yeah," Crystal agreed after thinking about it a minute. "The frame would be a bitch, there'd be no way to handle the drybox, and who knows when we could get the mules. I don't want to do it, anyway. We'd have a hell of a load for four rafts. I only see one thing to do, and that's turn Randy into a boatman."

"Can't do that either," Al pointed out. "I've seen him; he's good with the raft, did well this afternoon. But the insurance won't let him."

"Well, yeah," Crystal said. "But according to Michelle that only means he can't carry passengers. Did she tell you how she and Dave and Mary turned Stan loose with a raft on Team 2? What do you say we move some of the load over to Jerry's raft, turn it into a gear boat, and let Randy have it? There's some tough stuff coming, but he can run most of what we face. The hard spots, like Crystal and Lava, one of us can walk back up and run it with him, or for him. Besides, I know Randy, he's good, and you see he doesn't panic easily."

"That'd be OK," Al nodded. "Randy, you up for it?"

The whiskey was getting to him a little, now. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I hate sitting on my ass and letting someone else do all the work."

"We'll have to see," Al said. "Crystal, I'll hike up and try to track down Michelle. There's something else I need to get her to set up anyway."

"What's that?" Crystal asked, hoping that Michelle would be able to keep up her end of the story.

"I should have learned my damn lesson the last time I was down here," he said, half ruefully and half angry. "Maybe I did, but I didn't have the chance to do anything about it. I always thought it was too expensive, but that was a false economy. This is the last damn trip Canyon Tours launches without a satellite telephone."

 

As it turned out, Al couldn't get hold of Michelle that evening, but he hiked back up to the ranger station in the morning to tell her to set up the phone system. By then, it was too late for her to send someone down from the rim; it'd take another day, if she could find someone at all.

What with having to rearrange the gear, and the phone call, it was later than normal when they got going, with Randy running in the middle of the party in the gear-filled raft, heading solo for the biggest water the Canyon had to offer. Scooter thought back a few weeks -- her first day as a full Grand Canyon boatman had started out right here, heading for Adrenaline Alley, but that had to be easier than the chore Randy faced. At least she'd seen the rapids before her promotion. Randy hadn't.

There were four rapids this day that Al and Crystal felt that Randy shouldn't try to run by himself, and to cut the running around down to a minimum, each of the boatmen agreed to run one of the rapids with Randy. It would be a long day, and they'd decided, partly from the heat of the Johnny Walker the night before, to try to get through them all this day, even if it meant pushing a little. After that, things would ease some.

It's less than a three-mile run down to Horn Creek, and soon much of the party stood on an outcrop, overlooking the rapids. The last couple trips they'd run it without scouting, but now they stopped for Randy's benefit, and to remind everyone to be careful.

Even though Crystal was the trip leader, Al decided that he wanted to see Randy in the big stuff for himself before he committed him to running any of the other big ones -- if not, one of the other boatmen could do it. So, he was the one who drew the duty at Horn Creek.

"Piece of cake," Al told him. "Just watch as the rest of us go through to get an idea of the line. You enter so you pass by the right of that big boulder up at the head, then you've got a clear run that'll keep you left of the main flow. Might not hurt to have a little momentum to carry you in behind the boulder, if you can get it."

Horn Creek always was a little tricky; it wasn't quite as easy to get behind that boulder as Al hinted; it took timing, luck, and catching the rapids right. Scooter, again on point, managed a decent run, then pulled up to the beach below to wait. Above her, she saw Randy standing alone on the outcrop, with a clear view of the other rafts' runs, and watched each of them pull madly as they approached the big boulder, saw them move hardly at all, and one, after another, saw each one of them washed down into the white turmoil, boats getting slopped with water as they bucked through it.

Al had the second raft down; he pulled up to the beach, and started back up to Randy and the gear boat, as everyone in the party, knowing just what drama was going on, stood on the beach or the rafts to watch. They saw the gear boat appear above the lip, come down the tongue just right, just right of the boulder, saw Randy pulling hard to the left before getting swept through the big waves and close to a big black rock downstream -- and then eddy out left and head for the beach where everyone was watching and cheering.

Al scrambled out of the raft and headed for his own, as Randy sat at the oars, breathing heavily. "Hey, Randy," they heard Al say, "Damn good run. Crystal's right, you can do this."

Dan drew the duty at Granite, farther downstream. It was as hard as Horn Creek and went on longer, but Randy ran it well, not totally clean and dry, but acceptably; each of the other boatmen knew they'd had worse runs there.

Farther on was Hermit, where it was Scooter's turn. She ran the rapids first, pulled up on shore, tied the raft off and started to hustle up along the bank to where Randy waited. It wasn't the easiest walk, and the others had long finished their runs by the time she got up to him. By now, she thought he might know something about what he was doing and was probably still a little nervous about it, so she just plopped down in the back of the boat, smiled, and said, "You've seen it, you've seen us run it, now do it."

And he did it -- again it wasn't the greatest run she'd ever seen there, but it was far from the worst. In only a couple of minutes, Randy was pulling for the cluster of rafts on the shore below the rapids. "Don't get too damn cocky," Scooter grinned, "Crystal and Crystal are next."

The extra time to stop and hike back up to the gear boat at all the big rapids made things go slowly; it was after noon when they reached the site below Hermit that they frequently used to camp. They pulled in there for lunch and a breather, then got back on the water for the biggest challenge of the day.

They might have skipped scouting some of the bigger rapids some trips, but they never missed scouting Crystal. It went on a long, long way; people could get into debates over whether Crystal or Lava was tougher, but each of them was the toughest in their own way. The whole group stood there watching, and Scooter heard Crystal say, "Mom, you really did name me for this, didn't you?"

"I did," Karin grinned.

"Thanks, Mom," she smiled sarcastically.

Crystal led this time, a rough, bucking run down through the stoppers, then riding a long, long ways downstream before things smoothed out and she was able to pull in to a landing. Scooter watched her climb out of the boat and start back upstream, then started her own run. It wasn't Scooter's prettiest run of the monster; even though she had things well under control, she ran out of luck on a couple of waves and got the boat thoroughly washed down, filled and emptied several times as the passengers held on grimly. And then finally it was Alive Below Crystal again.

It was a long hike back for Crystal up to where Randy waited with the gear boat, and Scooter wondered if that gave him too much time to think about it. You can study a rapids too long, she'd learned clear back at OLTA; there are times when you just have to pick your line and run it or you'll psych yourself up too much, enough to make mistakes.

Finally they could see Crystal reach him, then both head out of sight to where they knew the gear boat sat waiting. There was a sneak route down the river right side of the rapids that Scooter half expected Crystal to guide him down, but when they appeared, she could see that they were heading for the normal route -- a lot rougher ride than the sneak route, but one that took less precise maneuvering and much more holding on. The gear boat raced down the tongue, nosed into the first big stopper then rose high above it, then over the top and through a second before plunging into a cauldron of white water where there wasn't much that a boatman could do but hold on and try to keep the boat going straight. As the gear boat got closer, they could see Crystal sitting in the back, just yelling with excitement as Randy worked the oars. By the time it was over with, it was probably the cleanest run any of them made of the monster rapids.

"Holy shit," they heard Randy say as he pulled up to the shore.

"Yeah, a little wild," Crystal said, soaked to the skin in her bikini and PFD from the water that had crashed through the raft. "Alive Below Crystal. Crystal is a bitch."

"I'm glad you said it, and not me," he laughed.

"I used to think it was neat that Mom named me for this," she laughed back. "But it makes it a bitch to swear at. You done good, Randy. I think I could make a boatman out of you if I tried."

Because of the late start, and a boatman having to hike back up in each of the major rapids, they were running slowly. By now, it was getting along in the afternoon, and everyone was a little wasted, both from the adrenaline of the four big rapids, and from the fact that people still hadn't recovered from the day before. After breathing hard for a moment, Crystal spoke up. "Al," she said. "I'd just as soon get everybody off the water and recovering, but I know we're heading off to where there's not a lot of places to camp. You know any good places to stop right around here?"

"Yeah," he said. "There's one a little ways down, on the left bank. Don't use it much, anymore. Not a real big beach, it's washed out some from what it used to be, maybe the size of Lonetree where we stopped yesterday. It ought to be big enough for us if we're willing to be a little cozy. A nice, easy hike out of there, too."

"I'm not sure where you're talking about," she said. "Why don't you take point?

The place Al headed for was a mile or two downstream, around a major bend, and just past a small pour-over of a rapids. The beach was indeed small, with a tiny stream running right through the middle of it, a narrow slot of a side canyon leading upward. Not far away, around the point, they could see a steep cliff with an overhanging rock, and the hint of a smaller side canyon. "This ain't a place I'd stop if I thought there was any danger of a flash flood," Al said. "But it don't seem to get flushed out very often, either."

"Yeah," Scooter replied. "I remember you pointing it out to us last spring as one of those places we wanted to be real sure about stopping at."

"I don't camp here much, for just that reason," he nodded. "But it makes a good lunch stop, and I don't think we need to worry about thunderstorms tonight."

A few minutes later, the boats pulled up onto the sandbar, and the boatmen tied them off. Everybody pulled off PFDs and started pitching in on the unloading. Scooter cracked open a drag bag and passed out a ration of cold beer to anyone who wanted it. Most of them did; they collapsed on the bank in the shade of a few scrubby tamarisk trees along the shore.

The beers went fast; they were a relief. It was still fairly early, and they could have run more, but no one was up for it. "Never been here before," Crystal said. "I don't know about hikes."

"Good one up the side canyon," Al said. "Pretty easy, not a lot of climbing till you get back a ways. Nice little pool before that, with a waterfall. Kind of pretty."

"I'm up for it," Randy said. "I think I've had enough river to hold me for today."

"Me, too," Scooter said. "Anybody else?"

Most of the party proved to be up for it, even the Loveberrys, who rarely went on the hikes. Only a handful stayed behind, including Al. Crystal stayed back, which was surprising since she tried to make most hikes, especially to places they weren't sure about. Scooter was toward the end of the party, and noticed Karin was staying back, too. Maybe it was time for another mother-daughter, she thought as she started up the little side canyon.

 

It was a fairly easy walk, fairly flat, but it wound around a lot, stepping back and forth across a tiny stream, occasionally having to walk through it as the trail wound upward. Finally, they reached a tiny, shady little glen, where a small waterfall plunged downward a few feet. There was moss and greenery on the rocks, and some shrubs, a bit of a relief after the barren rock that they'd mostly seen for days.

"Neat little place," Dan said. "You'd never have known a place like this was back here. I suppose it takes hanging around this Canyon as much as Al has to know all the little nooks and crannies like this."

"If he even knows them all," Scooter commented. "The more I learn about this place the more I realize how much more there is to learn. I suspect by the time you get to the place where you know as much as he does, you'd realize you really know nothing after all."

"Scooter," Randy grinned. "I know I don't know you very well, but I never figured you for being a Zen Buddhist."

"I'm not," she grinned. "But this Canyon warps your thinking a little, sometimes."

It was cool back in the little opening, welcome on a hot day like today, and there wasn't a lot of room, so people were pretty crowded. Scooter was wearing just a bikini and sandals, and decided to make a little space by getting into the pool to cool off and relax.

It was cool, and not particularly cold; several other people soon joined her, some of them wearing boat clothing and not swimsuits -- after all, wet clothes could be expected to dry quickly and would feel good in the heat. They sat around for a while, reliving events of the day, the last two days, wondering how Jerry was getting along. After a time, people began drifting back down to the beach, one by one and two by two; Scooter just sat back in the pool near the tiny trickle of a waterfall and let her mind go blank. It had been a tough couple of days; Adrenaline Alley was always tough, but with Jerry and what followed this had been worse than normal, in its way even worse than back in June when they'd heard about Louise.

Maybe the worst is over with for this trip, she thought. Although Lava was still far down river, it was a different kind of challenge. The next few days had the prospect of being fairly easy; with everybody tuned to the river, they were often the best part of the trip. Lord knew what else could happen on this trip!

"Hey, Scooter," she heard Dallas say. "I thought I'd let you know that I'm heading back."

"Huh? Wha . . . ?" she stammered. Apparently she'd been so zoned out that she dozed off; she glanced around and saw that Dallas was the only other person left there besides her.

"I thought maybe I'd better let you know I was leaving you by yourself," he said apologetically. "I'm sorry if I woke you up."

"Oh, don't be sorry," she smiled. "I really shouldn't have checked out, anyway."

"I can't blame you," he shrugged. "I don't know how you do it, how any of you boatmen do it. God, the responsibility you have for people is awesome; the chance of screwing up is so great."

"Sometimes I wonder how we do it myself," she nodded. "Usually when I'm standing on that overlook above Crystal." She let out a sigh. "I suppose I've been doing it enough to realize it. Now, you take a kid like Jerry who thinks he's invincible, they get through it on sheer testosterone; they don't have the experience to stop and realize just how tough it is. Al has a lot of turnover of boatmen, and I think at least part of it is that they finally realize what kind of risk and responsibility they're dealing with."

"Then I guess I admire you even more," Dallas said softly. "To be able to face up to things like that. I told you the other day that I envy you the life you lead, the things you do."

"It isn't all wonderful," Scooter said, rolling to stand up so she could get out of the water. "Among those things that are a fact of life for me is that my home is the trunk of Crystal's car and whatever sand bar I happen to unroll my sleeping bag on. I guess that's part of the price I pay to lead the life I do."

"Have you ever thought about getting married, having a regular home, and like that?"

"On occasion I feel like I ought to do something like that," she smiled. "But when that comes along, I've learned to go and lie down until the feeling goes away."

"Maybe that's wise," he nodded somberly. "I wish I'd had that wisdom years ago. I guess that's something that comes with experience, too."

Scooter had talked with Dallas on several occasions, but only a few times and briefly one-on-one; usually there had been other people around. She'd thought she'd detected some pain, and maybe this was the time to probe a little. "So, you went straight, huh?" she said as she went over and sat down next to him on the rock ledge where he'd been sitting for a while. "I mean, rather than becoming a river guide or something?"

"Sailor," he nodded. "I had plans to sail around the world, just live aboard a boat. I mean, I grew up on Chesapeake Bay; I saw skipjacks out sailing around out there looking for oysters when I was a little kid. Maybe I even saw you out there, I don't know. But then I fell in love, and got married."

"It didn't work out, huh?"

"Exactly the opposite," he sighed. "Scooter, I loved my wife more than I could have ever dreamed. She had the dream, too, we worked for several years to save money, were close to buying a boat . . ."

He couldn't go on. He sat there silently for a moment until Scooter prompted him. "Dallas, what happened?"

"She'd never been very healthy, always a little shaky, unsure of herself. And then she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease." He let out a sigh. "If I'd had a lick of sense we'd have gone out and taken a shot at our dream while she still was able to get around some. But we listened to the doctors; they thought they could lick it, at least put off the deterioration that comes with it. And, slowly she slid downhill, and we couldn't do it anymore. First she was in a wheelchair, she was for years, and finally in a hospital bed at home, then, when I couldn't manage anymore, in a nursing home. She died last spring, Scooter."

"Oh, God, Dallas, I'm sorry to hear that. I knew you were on this trip alone, but I had no idea of that."

"It was a gift," he replied. "Years ago, back when she was in a wheelchair and we realized she wasn't going to get any better, she made me promise to do something after she was gone to make up for what we couldn't do. I knew that I couldn't stand to do a sailing trip without her; we'd dreamed of it so long, and, well, she suggested here. It was something else we'd talked about doing but never got around to." He let out a sigh, and continued, "And then I get out here, and I see people like you and Crystal, women who are so strong and brave and alive . . ."

"It doesn't seem fair, does it?"

"No," he said slowly. "God, Scooter, I miss her. I nursed her for years, knowing that she'd never be better, and I don't begrudge a minute of it. But I look at you and Crystal and sort of see what might have been. I . . . I guess I haven't gotten over it yet."

"Dallas, the boatmen have all agreed to keep quiet about this, because it's something customers don't need to know. I'll tell you if you don't pass it on, OK?"

"Sure, Scooter. What is it?"

"This trip has been awful hard for us, too. When this year started, Al and his wife Louise were trading off leading this team. This is Al's first trip since she died. Cancer. Al has been hurting, and the rest of us have been hurting right along with him. He was really, badly depressed for a long time, until we convinced him to get down in the Canyon again, since it might heal him. It's doing it."

"I didn't know any of that," Dallas replied.

"Like I said, we all agreed it's something the customers don't need to know. You're here to have a good time, and you pretty much have, haven't you?"

"Yes," he nodded. "But I can't help but wish Julie were here to share it with me."

"We, all of the boatmen, including Al, can't help but wish that Louise was leading this trip," Scooter said. "But we've come to realize that it can't be, and we have to get past it. It hasn't been easy for Al to learn. But Dallas, it's something you're going to have to do."

"I know," he sighed. "I guess maybe you understand a little."

"More than you think," she grinned, putting her arm around him in a friendly hug. "Dallas, you're all right, you really are," she smiled. "But when Julie told you to go on this trip, wasn't she telling you that it would be time to put the past behind you?"

"Maybe she was, Scooter," he smiled, swinging around to put his arm around her. "Scooter, you're all right, too. Thank you for listening."

"Any time, Dallas," she smiled, feeling the warmth of his body close to hers, raising some feelings there that she doubted this was the appropriate time to pursue. "But right now, I think maybe we'd better get back down and get started on dinner."

"Sure," he said. "You have to do what you have to."

"Yeah, that's true," she said, breaking the hug and standing up, realizing that she had some thinking to do. "Maybe some other time, down the river."


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