Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
November 11 - 15, 1999
The normal procedure when returning from a trip was to unload the gear right away, clean what needed to be cleaned and repair what needed to be repaired before heading to the Burro for a beer and a bar burger, then to a hot shower and a real bed. But on this one trip, the last of the year, they did it a little differently. There was no real rush, and the unloading, cleaning, and repairing was much more serious, and would go on for several days -- Dave and Mary and a couple members of their crew were still picking away at work that needed to be done on gear from their run that ended a week ago.
After hearing about them all season, Dave proved to be plain-looking, large, and big-boned, but had a mild speech impediment so didn't talk any more than he had to. Mary made up for it, though; she was talkative and friendly. She was smaller, more slender than Dave if still solid and muscular, with long, dark red hair that hung most of the way down her back in twin braids, wore funny-looking big round glasses, and had an acne problem.
This had been Mary's seventh summer with Canyon Tours, five of them as a boatman, and was next in seniority behind Michelle. Three summers before, she'd become friendly with Dave while on breaks at the Burro; he was a boatman for another company but was one day off of the same schedule, so they were on break at the same time all summer. One thing led to another, and they decided to winter over together at a place she knew in Mexico. When spring came, they went to both Al and the boss at Dave's company and said they didn't want to piss anyone off but wanted to run together. Al and the manager of the other company finally wound up having to flip a coin over it. Mary was an assistant trip leader that year, and Dave would have been a trip leader if he'd stayed with his old company, but the position was already filled at Canyon Tours.
When the end-of-summer shuffle with the changeover to the fall schedule happened at about the time Crystal showed up at Canyon Tours, they were shorthanded on trip leaders, so Mary was promoted to trip leader with Dave her assistant. As they were getting set for the spring, they worked out a deal with Al and Louise where at least on paper and in their paychecks they'd swap off being trip leader every other trip. Al had explained to Scooter long before that they actually split up the responsibilities much differently, and he thought of them as co-leaders. It was a little unorthodox, but he was willing to put up with it because they both told him flatly that they didn't plan on leaving the Canyon any decade soon. Al had been there with Louise and had done that, knew how it worked, and was more than happy to accommodate them.
The next morning, everyone was back and turned to the job of unloading most of the Team 3 equipment and storing it in the barn; the rafts would stay loaded on the flatbed for a while until some more Team 2 work had been completed.
Along in the middle of the morning, when the work was pretty well along, Al had Michelle and Karin come out to the barn and join the people who had been working out there: Dave, Mary, Ben, and Tom from Team 2, and Crystal, Scooter, Jerry, and Dan from Team 3. He brought a big box of doughnuts and a graniteware pot of coffee, and had everyone find a place to get comfortable; they wound up sitting on rafts, the floor, and other reasonably level surfaces.
"Most of you know that we usually have an end-of-season meeting of the trip leaders and assistants," he began, "But I figure since we've pretty much got the hard-core hard cores here already, we might as well get everybody in on it before we have the season closer party tomorrow night and people start to split. I've talked to some Team 1 summer people on the phone.
The first thing I want to say is that I really appreciate the way all of you have hung tough this year. It has not been an easy year, and it's been a tragic one for me. I know I wasn't much help for a couple months there. Now, people have in the past gotten down on me because I can get a little picky about my people, and I'll admit it; I have. This season has shown why I've been picky. When I dropped the ball, the rest of you picked it up and did what had to be done. Jeff and Michelle, especially, did a really super job of keeping things going. Things were done so well that this fall I've wondered if I really should be running this outfit, anyway."
"Al," Michelle snorted, "Talk sweet all you want, but you're not going to stick me in the office permanently."
"I'm not planning on it," he laughed. "Mostly because I don't think I could do it, anyway. Michelle, as valuable as you were in the office this summer, in many ways you're more valuable out on the river. Like I told you a couple trips back, I'm going to have you on the water as much as possible next summer, but it probably won't be every trip."
"Good," she smiled. "I was beginning to wonder. At least I got in the last trip to remind myself of where I belong."
"Be that as it may, you did a heckuva job on something you didn't want to do. Now I know those of you that didn't know each other before the season at least got introduced last night, but I'm not sure everyone picked up on Karin, here. Karin is Crystal's mother, and she ran as a swamper on the last two Team 3 trips, did a heckuva good job. I mean, this morning I happened to notice that she was acting like a good swamper by dumping and cleaning the groovers without anyone asking her to. Now, my original idea wasn't that she was going to be a swamper, because she's a long-time corporate bookkeeper and office manager, and I figured I was going to have her doing that here. However, the last two Team 3 trips have proved to me that I'm going to have just as hard a time keeping her off the river as I have with Michelle, so maybe I haven't got the office problem solved after all."
There was a round of laughter; at the Burro the previous night the story had gone around about Karin rowing Crystal's raft away from the ramp while Al stood there shaking his head in surprise.
"It's too early to tell about next year," Al said. "But my hope is that I won't be on the regular schedule for any team. I had intended to ride with each team at least some this year, but obviously it didn't happen, mostly because we were short on trip leaders in the spring. Right now, it doesn't look like we're going to hurt there next year. I talked to Dave and Mary earlier this week, and they said they're going to be back unless they get run over by a truck or something, and that's pretty much what Crystal told me. Bill is back in school but I called him the first part of the week. He's not dead sure, but it's maybe two chances out of three he'll be back next year, but just for the summer session. It depends on class work and other stuff he can't control. But, he also told me that he's about dead certain it will be his last summer, unless we get lucky and he flunks out or something."
Again there was a laugh; the story that had been told around the company was that his extremely high grades in law school were the only thing that allowed him to break free to work in the summers at all.
"To top it off," Al smiled, "He's gotten himself engaged to some girl who's another law student and not a rafter, and I expect she'll have something to say about him taking off on her. Fortunately, we got real lucky at the first part of the season when Crystal and I asked Scooter to come out here. Now, for those of you from Team 2, this is Scooter's first season on the river, but she has more raft experience than Crystal or Dave or Mary, and is right up around Michelle somewhere. If both she and Crystal had showed up at the same time she'd have been promoted to trip leader instead, and I don't think anyone will mind if I say that. Now, Scooter, you're planning on being back next year, aren't you?"
"Sure am," she grinned. "I mean, I'm right there with Dave and Mary; it'd take being run over by a truck to stop me."
"I pretty well knew that," Al smiled. "If Bill doesn't show up, you take over Team 1 next year. If he does, you're the first alternate. Now, I haven't got everything all worked out in my mind yet and it may not work, but if Bill shows up I may still have you run a trip or two so the other trip leaders can get a week or two off. I know damn well it gets hard going all season with the tiny breaks you get. But we'll play it however it is when next spring rolls around."
"Honestly, Al," Scooter said, "It's no major skin off my butt if I'm an assistant again next year. The experience won't hurt."
"Good," Al said, "Because we're not quite set as pretty with assistant trip leaders. Terry, the kid that was assistant on Team 1 this summer did OK, but only OK, if you know what I mean, but he almost certainly won't be back next year. So that means that the Team 1 assistant leader is probably sitting here right now. I haven't made up my mind who that's going to be yet. One possibility, and she ain't gonna like hearing this, is that we find some doctor that has some patch or pill or something to clear up a bubble gum addiction, and maybe a dentist to get the braces off her teeth so she maybe looks nineteen or twenty."
"Al," Michelle protested. "I think I'd almost rather be in the office."
"Michelle," he smiled, "You can't evade responsibility forever. Like I said, you did a heckuva job this summer."
"I can be responsible when I have to," she said firmly. "That doesn't mean I want to."
"We're going to have to talk about that some time," he smiled. "But now's not the time. Besides, it's gonna depend some on how the office schedule works out, too. Next spring is still a long way off. Anyway, at this point I'm sorta leaning toward Ben or Tom, but that'll depend on if they're back next year, or what. Have you guys thought about it anymore?"
"Like I told you the other day," Tom spoke up. "I really can't commit either way at this point. It's a family issue."
"Ninety percent yes," he replied, "Excluding the run-over-by-a-truck factor, of course. I should be able to give you a solid answer along the first part of the year."
"We all have things we can't control, and I know that better than most this year," Al sighed. "And you can never be dead certain who's going to be on a trip till the rafts pull out from shore. Just let me know as soon as you can. Jerry, before you ran that last trip you said you wanted to come back. That still good?"
"If you'll have me. But there's the truck factor, of course."
"Or falling off a cliff, in your case," Al nodded. "Are you going to be up for it?"
"I wasn't all the way back together the last trip but I think I did OK. I should be back in shape by spring."
"OK, I'll figure you as a most likely. Dan?"
"Yeah, except for the truck thing."
"OK, that means that we've got Dave, Mary, Crystal, Scooter, Michelle, Ben, Jerry and Dan as most likely for next spring, that's eight, Tom as maybe, maybe not, and me as an alternate. That's actually a little better than we were this year. We may be able to get through the spring without pickups, maybe one or two at the most. Summer crew, we've got Bill maybe, Emily and Gerry from Team 1 and Glenn from Team 3. Dave, Mary -- I didn't get a chance to talk to you about it, but how did that deal with Stan work out?"
"Better than I expected; he grew into it a lot," Mary replied. "I'd say he could be a boatman next summer."
"Assuming he's back and he's up for it, he's a boatman then," Al smiled. "Bill had a swamper, Mike, that he said is pretty close to ready, too. The other swamper he had, Andy, isn't going to be ready to be a boatman yet. Dave and Mary, again, how about that other swamper you had over the summer, Kevin?"
"Uhhh, maybe," Dave said.
"We put him in the gear boat to spell Stan some," Mary reported. "I don't know if I'd want to start him out with passengers. He could do it, but it's a confidence thing. Maybe he could do a trip in a gear boat first."
"That's a possibility," Al said. "I don't want to get in the habit of doing the gear-boat thing, but it'll work in a pinch. It's an insurance issue; the policy is a little vague, and I don't want to draw the agent's attention to it. Crystal, those kids you had, Norma and Barbie, how'd they work out?"
"Real well," Crystal nodded. "Real hard workers, picked up the rafts well. But they're not ready to be boatmen next year. Gear boat, well, maybe, and I think I'd want to pick Barbie first, but only if I had to right now."
"OK," Al said. "Just looking at things then, that gives us Emily, Gerry, Glenn, Stan, and maybe Bill and Mike for the summer crew, although I'd like to fudge it around so that at least a couple long-season people go onto Team 1, like this year, and Norma, Barbie, Kevin, and Andy as senior swampers. Jeez, I can't believe it. If Tom and those people from the summer crew come back, we're covered for next year. But the odds are way against it working out that way, and there's no alternates or senior swampers ready to rumble. Looking up the road another summer we probably lose all the summer boatmen I just mentioned except Stan, and Mike, assuming he's booted up to summer boatman by then, but there's four swampers that should be ready to take over a raft by then. That's still a little thin, and no alternates except me available. You all know the story of how we got lucky on one trip and had a customer that could fill in on a gear boat. In the future, I'd like to have every trip, on or off season, to have a senior swamper that could take over a gear boat in a pinch, just in case something crazy like that happens again. But that's a reach in the short term."
"Looks like a little recruiting is going to be needed," Mary nodded.
"That's what I think," Al agreed. "You all pretty well know that I don't like to recruit boatmen from other companies rafting in the Canyon unless it's a special situation like Dave, and it was only the way the coin fell that kept us from losing a trip leader on that deal. But sometimes one of the other companies has someone that deserves a promotion but there's no place to promote him to, and sometimes we can scratch each other's backs. Beyond that, does anyone have any ideas of someone that could come in from outside as a senior swamper that would pretty well be ready to take over a raft like Scooter did?"
There was a lot of silence and some head shaking.
"Scooter," Al asked. "I'm pointing that one at you, since only you and Crystal have much experience with outside companies, and hers is getting to be a while back."
"It's not as easy as it sounds," Scooter said. "The first thing you have to remember is that I was pretty senior as a boatman for NOC, except for some instructors and stuff who are on a different pay deal. I wasn't technically full time, I had two rotating seasonal jobs, and it didn't pay anything like as well. The summer rafters there are pretty much college kids like Crystal was at Ocoee Adventures, it's a summer job, then they graduated, went into the real world, and we never saw them again. From what you're saying, it happens here, too."
"It does," Al agreed. "And it's why for years I've tried to work toward people that can work a full season."
"I understand," Scooter nodded. "That much said, I can think of a couple college kids at NOC who were first-year last summer out of high school, so after this summer they'd have two summers to go. If they had a good year this summer I could probably whisper the words "Grand Canyon" in their ears and they'd be out here quicker than I made it. You probably couldn't put them in a raft next summer, because you're talking four or five summer trips, and that would barely get the insurance requirement covered. The following summer they'd be ready to rumble, but they'd only be here one year, unless they get hooked, of course."
"Still might be worth a look," Al said. "Can you think of someone that's a little more senior that might go full-season?"
"Not right off the top of my head," Scooter replied. "The people who would have the kind of qualifications pretty much have something else tying them down. Like there's a high school teacher . . . well, maybe, but she wouldn't go full season, and I think she was getting set to get married anyway. Let me think about it some, maybe make a few phone calls and nose around a little."
"Like I said a few minutes ago, we've got eight pretty well for sure for next year," Al explained "I have to set the schedules for the year after next in the next couple months. If I knew I had a dozen full-season boatmen, I'd tighten the schedule up some, start a little later and end a little sooner to cut down on the bad weather and get a little better loads, too. I can usually find three qualified fill-ins off season from the motor-rig outfits, especially if it's only a trip or two. Seven is a different story; we had a couple this year that were on the marginal side. So, I guess we run the extended season the year after next."
Karin stuck her hand up. "I can't believe," she said, "That there aren't places on the Internet where you could run a classified ad that said something to the effect of 'Boatman wanted, experience required, long hours, low pay, hot days, no benefits, Grand Canyon' and find all the people you need."
There were several rueful laughs -- every boatman in the room had balanced the Grand Canyon part against the rest of the equation, and the Canyon had won -- as it was obviously winning with her.
"As far as that goes," Mary grinned as the laughter died down, "You could run pretty much the same ad for 'apprentice boatman.'"
"There's reasons why we haven't advertised like that," Al protested. "I'm not saying they're good ones. It needs some thinking."
"What I'm thinking," Mary replied, "Is that we often run the summer kids through from total newbie to becoming a boatman in two summers. Couldn't we do it in one full season with the idea of finding someone to work full season? That way you wouldn't be raiding another company, and would still be working with people who planned to work full seasons."
"Good thought," Al said. "And worth some thinking about. We may have to carry a heavier swamper load in future years to help build up the full-season boatmen, but there are practical limits to how many swampers we can send, too. Two plus the occasional high school tryout seems to be about right."
They talked around the question of staff for several minutes longer without reaching any real conclusions, then turned to the gear work that needed to be accomplished over the winter.
There was quite a bit. Scooter had been involved with winter raft maintenance at NOC but it was a bigger deal here because the rafts were bigger, carried more gear, and were out on the water for two and a half weeks at a stretch rather than two and a half hours. In the turnaround between trips during the season the rafts had to be largely unloaded, but some things were left set up. Now, each raft had to be fully derigged, the frame that kept it from buckling removed along with the large dryboxes and other accessories, and the raft fully inspected before being stored for the winter. Almost always there were repairs to be made, especially up around the front of the raft on the bottom, where it was beached every night. Sometimes the decision was made to replace the whole raft; there were some replaced most years. Marginal ones might be kept around as a spare if needed; ever since the incident where a damaged raft blew out on the ramp at Lee's, one of the older ones was kept set up and mostly inflated all summer just in case. The rafts themselves usually needed their paint touched up a little and several needed complete repainting. Painting, especially a complete repainting, was a major pain in the neck since the Hypalon paint used was nasty stuff and many precautions needed to be taken, including respirators and a specially ventilated paint room in the barn.
There was more than that. Oars, frames, dryboxes and the like needed to be inspected, often painted and repaired or sometimes replaced, as well as the rest of the gear. Each trip demanded thirty-two clean sleeping bags, for example. There were four sets; in high summer three would be in use while Jeff and Jimmie worked at washing and drying the fourth set for the next trip. Now, all the sleeping bags needed to be inspected and repaired if necessary, again, some were replaced every year, as well. The list of things to do in the winter went on and on. Usually a couple long-term boatmen who didn't have anything better to do in the winter were kept on with not quite enough hours to screw up their unemployment insurance to pick away at the work list. This winter Jerry, Dan, and Ben were going to share it out, and share out a small apartment for the winter as well. The rest of the boatmen, including Crystal and Scooter, had some other plans for the winter, but if the work list was falling behind, they might have to pitch in as next season neared.
As would happen in any organization, there was some discussion about this or that raft or piece of equipment, with the trip leaders swearing it was a total piece of shit and Al insisting that they could squeeze one more season out of it. Al realized the importance of having clean, good-appearing equipment in proper working order, so he often came out on the short end of these discussions. Scooter made a pitch about a set or two of decent raft paddles, and Al said he'd look into it.