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 26

October 4 - November 11, 1999

Grand Canyon, Trips 9 & 10

A couple hours later, Karin was at the oars of Al's customer-loaded raft when he gave it a shove out into the current, with Tanisha and especially Jon watching from the shore in wide-eyed amazement, and Michelle looking on with obvious envy. Once they were out of earshot of shore, but floating along close together, Al commented that the only reason he'd let Michelle come up to Lee's at all was that she'd promised that she wouldn't brain one of the other boatmen so she'd get to go as a last-minute emergency replacement. She'd agreed, but said that wouldn't keep her from hoping for an honest accident.

When they floated under Navajo Bridge a while later, they looked up and saw three distant people looking down at them -- two white, and one dark black. It didn't take much looking for Scooter or anyone else to realize that two more Chladeks were going to be floating down the river on a Canyon Tours raft sooner or later.

Perversely, after the weather had been cool to the point of being downright chilly the previous trip, it warmed up noticeably for the first part of this one. It wasn't the fierce, blazing heat of summer, just a comfortable temperature. Swimsuits again made their appearance on the rafts, and the rain suits stayed in their daybags.

A little to Crystal's and Scooter's amazement, Karin spent a lot of time on the sticks, and not all on the flats. Even on the last trip she'd been on Al had let her run some of the milder rapids, but when she was on the sticks for both Badger and Soap Creek it was clear that things were going to be a little different this run. Al commented -- and the other boatmen soon agreed -- that while Karin wasn't anything like as strong as her daughter, she had a hell of an eye in the rapids and the knack for placing the raft exactly where it had to go to avoid needing a lot of that strength in the first place -- a finesse rafter, not a strength rafter. Al was picky about what rapids he'd let her run -- finesse would only go so far before there was a need for some strength, and some rapids have mandatory moves that require strength, but Karin was already talking about getting a gym membership in Flagstaff over the winter.

Scooter knew that Karin wasn't on the trip manifest as a customer, but was going as crew -- on the list as a swamper, the first one they'd had since Norma and Barbie had headed off to college. When they shoved off from Lee's, Scooter figured there was a little lip service in that, although Karin was obviously going to help out where she could -- but from the moment that Scooter noticed Karin and Bob setting up the rocket box and handwash station at Badger she began to have second thoughts about that. By the second day, it was clear that Karin intended to do everything a young junior swamper would be asked to do -- and do it cheerfully. She may have been getting a late start, but it looked like a clear-cut case of like daughter, like mother. After thinking about it a little, Scooter wouldn't have been surprised to see Karin running as a full boatman sometime in the next few years. She couldn't help wonder what Pete would think if he could see the two of them out there in the Grand Canyon.

When they were in private Crystal referred to Al as "Dad," especially to his face; the nicest thing she would call who she now knew to be her stepfather was "Pete," and often, even in public, she'd often refer to him as "that asshole Mom married."

That Al was in fact Crystal's father was still a secret known only to the four of them -- plus Jon and Tanisha, who had been told down in Phoenix. Early on the trip, they agreed that Michelle would also have to be told soon, since she was too close to all of them to keep the secret from her, and more than smart enough to figure things out from this and that hint.

Even though Al and Karin were trying to keep things "above board" -- and mostly succeeding -- it was clear to everyone on the trip that they were getting to be pretty close friends, with it just about as clear that it was heading toward being more serious than that. Scooter wondered a little just how "above board" things were going to be when she and Crystal and Michelle were gone over the winter.

Back up at Lee's, it had been worked out that they would have a big family Christmas at Al's -- and in this case, the family would include a few other Canyon Tours people who wintered around Flagstaff and didn't have families of their own in the area.

Karin suggested that Crystal might like to ask Myleigh to join them for Christmas. Myleigh was another one of their friends without a family -- she actually had one but had been totally estranged from them even before she'd met Crystal on their first day at college. She had usually spent the winter holidays with the Chladeks in Glen Ellyn when she'd been in undergraduate school. In the latter part of those days, Myleigh had been just about as close to Randy as Crystal had been, and Scooter understood that meant pretty damn close. But, like Crystal, Myleigh hadn't been willing to settle down with Randy in Spearfish Lake and preferred to chase her dream of a doctorate in English literature; she had achieved that dream over the summer, and was now teaching at Marienthal College in Kansas City. Myleigh would be at Randy and Nicole's wedding -- she'd be doing the music along with Jennifer, as Crystal called Jenny Easton, and Jennifer's boyfriend, Blake. But in the circumstances of a wedding it might not be the easiest thing to spend some time renewing a friendship. Scooter had once met Myleigh briefly and had found her rather prissy, but both Karin and Crystal told her, that if she thought that, she didn't know Myleigh well enough; she was a pretty unique and astonishing woman in her own right for someone who wasn't a rafter.

With Christmas tacked down, a couple other pieces of the schedule fell into place. After the wedding, Al, Karin, Crystal and Scooter would all fly to Florida and spend a few days surfing. Al figured that it was slow enough to let Jeff and his wife, Marjorie watch the office for a few days, so Michelle could join them in Florida. After a few days, Al and Karin would head back to Flagstaff, and the girls would head for the Bahamas.

Early on the trip, Crystal revealed -- not that she'd kept a secret, it was just there had been so damn much else going on at the time -- one of the reasons that Randy had made the trip in the late summer. On the last night of the trip, the same night that Crystal told Scooter about her mother and Al, Randy had come to her with a question he'd been saving the whole trip. Long before, he'd made a standing offer to marry Crystal, which she had never accepted; now he formally asked her to allow him to withdraw his offer, and her permission to marry Nicole. Crystal of course had immediately agreed. "If Nicole backs out," Scooter grinned, "I'm up for it. Now that's a gentleman."

That made the wedding a frequent topic of discussion, and in front of the customers. About every other campfire Scooter teased Crystal about having to wear a dress. Scooter was not sure when the last time was that she'd worn one herself, but it had been a long, long time. Crystal teased Scooter back, of course; the "Cover Girl" nickname was revived, and was the cause for some good-natured laughter. One night, when they were teasing Crystal about having to wear a dress, Crystal happened to mention that the wedding and the reception were going to be at the Methodist Church in Spearfish Lake. "Jeez," one of the customers laughed. "That means the reception will be as dry as a bone. I can't imagine raft guides going to a dry wedding."

Things like that made the first part of the trip notably good-natured. The crew usually had a lot of fun with the customers, but this was more light laughter and teasing than normal. That got everyone in a good mood, which was good, because worse days were to come.

They got no weather reports down in the Canyon, had never had them -- broadcast radio depends on line of sight, and they were well out of sight of most transmitters, which is why they'd started to carry the satellite telephones, which Al had ordered would stay snugly in their waterproof cases except for dire emergencies. They didn't have Norma, with her Indian weather sense, either, but Al and Crystal and some of the others could look at the mare's tails and cirrus in the sky and tell the very nice weather they'd been having was about to turn sour.

The sky looked especially cold and nasty on the morning of the day they started down Upper Granite Gorge, and along the way a dark gray cloud deck blew in and the temperature dropped considerably. They ran Hance and Sockdolager and Grapevine in a spitting rain, and by the time they made a brief stop at Phantom Ranch a steady rain was falling. It was wet and nasty, but they decided to press on for a while. The day was starting to wind down when they pulled into the good camping spot above Granite; there was no question now about putting up tents, and some tarps were rigged for rain flies to cook and eat under. The wind was strong enough that they had to rig a tarp upwind of the kitchen to keep the rain from blowing through it. There was no campfire that night and everyone turned in early.

The rain let up overnight but the sky was still gray and cold, with a strong wind blowing. A lot of stuff was wet, especially customer's clothes, and for once things didn't dry very fast. Spirits were down, and they still faced Granite, Hermit, and Crystal Rapids. The first two went reasonably well, but for some reason everyone had a wetter and rougher run of Crystal than normal; Dan came near as damnit to a flip, and he said later he had no idea why the raft didn't go all the way over.

The bottom line was that no one was any drier or warmer when they wrapped up Crystal.

By then everyone was pretty down, wet, and cold; Crystal was about ready to get off the water for the day and hope that things would improve tomorrow. The closest campsite was the one where Karin had revealed her secret, but with all the rain that had gone past and with the prospect of more on the way there was no way she was going to stop at a place where there was danger of a flash flood. In fact, the little stream was rolling pretty heavily when they went past. It was several miles on downstream to the first safe and decent campsite; the rain started again on the way and was going steadily when they finally pulled in to a site next to Bass Rapids.

If things had been wet before, they were wetter now. Scooter was of the opinion that it was by far the crappiest night she'd spent on the river this year, and even Al couldn't remember many that were worse.

There was some discussion of just sitting the day out and hoping for better weather tomorrow, but it was clear that they weren't going to be much wetter if they went ahead down the river. It was a day that they didn't have many big rapids, although they had a couple. Fortunately the rain quit and the sun came through broken clouds for a while later in the day, and they pulled into the first decent sand bar they could find to camp on and do their best to dry out.

They were drier, if not real dry, when they pressed on the next day. For the next four days they had rain at least part of the day; the skies were almost always a leaden gray, and there was usually a cold wind blowing. Every stream they passed was flowing deep and muddy, and there was water running in places that it was only rarely seen. Just above Havasu Creek, they stopped at a tiny, cramped sand bar; there were few camps in the area, and many of them had heavy stream flows going through them, with obvious flash-flood dangers. Over supper that night, eaten under tarps again, Crystal announced that if it was raining or the creek was running hard they'd skip the stop there, a disappointment since it was a popular spot and a nice hike. "On the other hand," Crystal said, "If we give it a good push tomorrow, we'll hit Lava along late in the afternoon. That's going to be really wet, but let's figure on running it and camping right below since we'll be pretty wet anyway if this weather keeps up. I'm not going to be concerned if anyone wants to walk Lava to keep from getting wetter than they already are."

It was raining and Havasu Creek was running high and dirty brown when they passed it the next morning, so they just kept going, with a brief lunch stop and a couple leg stretching and bladder emptying stops. Things were looking up a little when they reached Lava, and about half the customers walked once they saw the raging monster, which looks positively foreboding when the water is muddy. The river was up much more than normal, and Crystal made the strong suggestion that nobody try the Bubble Line Run, which everyone followed, since no one wanted to get any wetter than they were already. They pulled into camp immediately below -- it was fairly open, but rocky, not one of their more favorite campsites. In a quiet moment once they landed, Al, Scooter, and Crystal got their heads together and kicked around the notion of pushing hard the next three days and calling on the sat phone to have Jeff and Jimmie come pick them up a couple days early, especially if the weather stayed bad.

Not long after they pulled in, the sky started to clear, and the sun broke through a little. That night, Scooter had to get up in the middle of the night to empty her bladder; when she poked her head out of her tent the stars were shining brightly. Everyone was still wet and chilly the next morning, but the sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky. Over breakfast, Crystal asked if people would like to just hole up here for the morning and try to dry things out, and everyone agreed enthusiastically. Things warmed up and dried out considerably over the course of the morning, and spirits improved. As it turned out, after some discussion of loading up and running a few miles for the sake of doing it, it was decided to just call a day off to dry out the rest of the way. It was the laziest day that Crystal or Scooter had spent in the Canyon, but by the next morning, things were pretty well dry, people were in better spirits, and everyone was happy to be on the move again.

The last days of the trip were not the nicest weather anyone had ever seen, but so much better than the preceding days that it wasn't funny. Lack of hiking due to weather and pushing ahead with the notion of pulling in early had put them well ahead of schedule, so those last days were taken slow and easy. By the time it was over with, everyone was in almost as good a mood as they'd been upriver -- maybe a little better, since they knew they'd been through some hard times and made it all right. There'd be a few special stories to tell when they got back home.

Nevertheless, it was good for once to pull around the last bend above Diamond Creek and see the bus and the pickup sitting there. This was one trip that was good to have behind them.

 

Where a number of the break days between the recent trips had provided momentous events, this one was really pretty quiet, going into the end of the rafting season. The next trip would be among the last commercial trips of the year, and would be the last of the year for the company. Canyon Tours had in the past started trips even later, well into the first part of November, but the way the schedule had worked around this year they had managed to avoid that, mostly due to starting the season a little early.

One of the more momentous events of this break came just as they started unloading in the Canyon Tours back lot and cleaning up, when without any discussion, Karin as the junior swamper, loaded the full rocket boxes on a cart, hauled them out back and started to dump them out and clean them. She'd taken being a part of the crew seriously the whole trip and was carrying through to the end -- and this left little doubt where she was heading.

With the three of them anxious to use the shower as much as they could, Al took pity on them and invited them over to make use of the big water heater in his house. They ran that one cold before heading back to what they'd come to refer to occasionally as "the girl's house" to differentiate it from Al's. It was very good to get back to the little house, to be warm and dry, to eat junk food, and not go outside very much. Without discussing it with each other, both Scooter and Crystal decided that they'd dig out their kayaking wet suits and take them with them on the next trip -- that'd prepare them for cold and wet a little better than they'd been.

Bob had to take off after this trip -- he had a winter job lined up at a ski resort in the east -- but after some agonizing and indecision Al agreed that Jerry could make this trip to replace him. Jerry was getting back into pretty decent shape, and his doctor said it was OK, but his doctor wouldn't be down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon if something went wrong, either.

Michelle was definitely going this trip -- no one would have blamed her for busting someone's head to be an emergency replacement this time. She was up and excited to be going, actually a little hyper, like it was to be her first trip, not her eighty-fifth, which it was.

When the customer bus pulled into Lee's Ferry, Scooter was smoking her usual cigar, and getting the usual "what are we getting ourselves into" looks. The customers got a second and more serious dose a few minutes later when Michelle was introduced as one of the boatmen for the trip. "Michelle?" Crystal asked, "What's your principal going to say when she finds out you skipped school to make this trip?"

Michelle popped a big old wad of Double Bubble and replied, "Oh, you know me, I'll do anything to like get out of algebra."

They batted a couple more teenager jokes back and forth to increasingly incredulous looks until Crystal finally came clean and explained the truth about the cute little blonde -- that she was nearly twice as old as she looked, strong as a mule, capable of drinking any two boatmen on the river under the table, was actually the company's senior boatman after Al, and had a reputation as "Michelle Rawson, the wild woman of the Grand Canyon." None of the customers believed that! For that matter, Scooter wouldn't have believed it either, except for all the stories about her and the fact that she'd seen her in action at the Burro and elsewhere.

Karin and Al came up to Lee's Ferry to help the trip get off, of course. To everyone's surprise, especially Al's and probably hers, after the customer bus came in Karin announced she was signing onto the manifest as a swamper and going again, leaving Al behind! And she meant it; a few minutes later she was at the oars of Crystal's raft while Al stood on shore with a rather stunned expression on his face. She later admitted she'd been in an agony of indecision about it since before the previous trip and really didn't make her mind up until the last minutes, but had packed her gear just in case. There'd be plenty of time to be with Al over the winter, she reasoned, but only so many Canyon trips.

Karin spent a lot of time at the sticks, probably more than half the trip. Crystal was a little more picky than Al about the rapids she let her mother run -- "She is my mother after all, I have to look out for her" -- but the ones she ran, she ran cleanly. She wasn't just in Crystal's raft, though; a good percentage of the time she was rowing Scooter's, and she was with Dan or Jerry at times as well. However, there was just no getting Michelle off the oars of her raft for the whole trip, not by Karin or anyone else -- she was trying to catch up, what with winter coming on, so she was taking this trip with a vengeance.

There was one innovation that Scooter had thought of on the previous trip when she'd spent hours watching wet, cold, and miserable customers who could stand a little exercise to help them warm up. While they were loading on Sunday, she scrounged around in the barn and found half a dozen long raft paddles. She remembered Al saying clear back in the spring that Canyon Tours occasionally ran paddle trips but they hadn't done one this season. She threw in the paddles on the theory that somewhere along the trip there might be a few customers who might like to try paddling the raft for a while. She suggested it the second day and got a lot of takers; before the trip was over with all of the customers had at least tried helping to paddle a raft once, and there were enough that wanted to do it that they had to set up a rotation.

Since it had been her idea, Scooter got to captain the paddle raft first, and she spent quite a bit of time on the trip on the stern steering position she'd used on the eastern rivers for so many years. There were people who picked it up well enough that by the time they got down to Upper Granite Gorge Scooter decided to run Adrenaline Alley in paddle mode; they made it through without mishap to the enormous satisfaction of everyone involved. She was nice to a rather jealous Crystal, who hadn't thought about taking paddles but who had also been a paddle rafter for years, and let her captain the paddle raft once in a while.

Scooter had spent a lot of time with cheap and heavy Carlisle paddles in her hands, but these were some off-the-wall Chinese knockoffs that were even cheaper and heavier. From that she rationalized that Al didn't actually know that much about paddle rafts, and made up her mind to campaign for some decent paddles over the winter and not do a trip again without a set for at least one raft.

After the really snotty weather of much of the previous trip, it was a relief when the weather was reasonable for late October and early November. They had a few gray, cold, windy and nasty-looking days, but the rain held off except for a few drops one afternoon -- it was the day they ran Crystal, and it was hard to tell if the wet stuff was rain or river spray. Neither Scooter nor Crystal actually used the wet suits they'd surreptitiously loaded aboard their rafts, and it was late in the trip before they revealed to each other that they'd even brought them. But, they decided that they'd take wet suits on early spring and late fall trips in the future on the theory that if they had them along, they wouldn't need them, but if they didn't take them, they'd be sorry.

Michelle brought along a guitar -- she'd carried one on every trip she'd taken, clear back to her maiden voyage as a swamper at the age of fifteen. She was very good, right up with the quality of Randy's playing if not better, and she had a good stock of lighthearted, fun songs, some of them just cute like her slightly modified Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Tiny Yellow Thong Bikini; some of them were on the rowdy side, like Jimmy Buffet's Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw and Margaritaville, along with many others, most of which Scooter had never heard before.

Once it got established early in the trip that no one was offended at some of the rougher stuff, she let it get rougher yet. By the time they were coming up on Lava things were getting pretty wild. The night before they ran Lava she announced that she'd do some stuff from an album that a former customer had sent her as a gift. The album was called Redlite Women, and it had been recorded live at the Redlite Ranch by two women who billed themselves as "Lucille and Minnie, the Nation's Greatest Licensed Prostitute Band." None of the boatmen had any doubt who'd sent her the album either, although they let it be a little obscure to the customers. All of the songs were about prostitution in one way or another; some really were pretty mild, but others would blister paint at fifteen paces. If that wasn't enough, around the campfire on the next to the last night out Michelle recited from memory the full, unexpurgated version of Eskimo Nell, which seemed especially incongruous coming from this seemingly innocent teenage bubble-gum addict.

By then, the customers had long realized the truth about Michelle, and they'd learned that wild was usually something that was pretty closely affiliated with her. Out on the river she was five times the cowboy that Jerry had ever dreamed of being; whenever a big, tough run was coming up, those customers who wanted a thrilling run got on her raft, because thrilling was what they were going to get. Her incredible water-reading skill, boatmanship, and unbelievable if not visible strength allowed her to take rafts into places and do things with them that most of the other boatmen would not have tried on a bet, and she always came out unscathed, though sometimes it was a close thing.

Jerry, on the other hand, was now pretty conservative. He really wasn't all the way recovered yet and occasionally seemed to be in pain, but never said anything about it. It looked to Scooter that a lot of the cowboy in him that had irritated her a little earlier in the season had been knocked out of him in the tumble at Lonetree Wash. In quiet talks here and there it became clear that he'd learned how much he'd missed the Canyon by having to watch trips leave without him, and he was planning on being back next season and probably would be staying with rafting for a while. Michelle assured him that he'd be welcome; she knew from firsthand experience that the boatman situation for next year was iffy as ever, and an experienced rafter would be welcome. Dan also was planning on being back next season and would be welcome; even though he and Scooter had struck sparks from time to time, he was reliable and solid, and she knew she'd be glad to run with him another summer.

So, what with everything, it was a good trip to end the year on a high note. There were no great adventures or thrilling stories to come out of it, which was good -- the kind of stories that make good telling in the Burro on break usually involve things going wrong, like Jerry's fall and rescue back in the summer. Looked at that way, no one was complaining.

There finally came a warm, mellow day when they floated under cerulean skies around the bend above Diamond Creek Wash to see the crew bus, pickup, and flatbed sitting there to haul them away from the river for the last time this season. Al, Jimmie, and Jeff were waiting for them, along with a couple Scooter had never met before but had heard about all season: Dave and Mary, the co-leaders of Team 2. They had always been a week ahead of them on the river; they'd gotten off the river the week before, and had taken the opportunity to ride out for this pickup to get one last river fix that would have to carry them through the winter.

The end of the trip was always sad, from having to say goodbye to new friends who most likely would not be seen again, and Scooter had learned early in the season that the toughest part of any trip was the bus ride up from Diamond Creek Wash and back to Flagstaff. Breaks were short, were often busy and boring when they weren't, and it was always good to be back on the river. Now, it wouldn't be three days, but five months, and Scooter wasn't sure she could handle the withdrawal symptoms.

It was slower than normal getting the customers onto the crew bus and heading up the hill; much slower than normal to get the rafts and the rest of the gear loaded. Even when that was done, everyone on the crew had difficulty tearing themselves away from the river and loading onto the crew bus. Finally, Crystal and Scooter settled into a back seat on the bus, and turned to look out the window at what they could see of the river the Spaniards named after the color red for the mud it had once carried. "Jesus, Scooter," Crystal sighed when the blue of the river was out of sight. "It's even worse than last year. What the fuck are we going to do all winter?"


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To be continued . . .

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