Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 30 - May 20, 2000
Grand Canyon, 2000: Spring Season Trip 2
The final loading for the trip came on Sunday morning, and once again there were extra hands there to help with it; some would ride up to the river to help with the rigging and come back after dark. Karin was one of them, of course, but so were Bill and Michelle.
It was a busy morning, a three ring-circus, and Scooter had to ride herd on everything. She'd done pieces of it before, but now it was in her lap. She thought about the story of Josh leaving for Alaska without the dogsleds again. This wasn't quite that critical, but it would be embarrassing if someone had to make an emergency run up from Flagstaff in the morning, so she was trying to check everything. Understandably, she didn't notice a few details that didn't matter much. She knew Michelle was running around being helpful, and she hoped to find a few minutes to wish her luck and find out what her reaction was, but there just hadn't been time for it.
Scooter was really thinking about something else when she heard Michelle yell, "Hey, Kevin!" to the Team 1 swamper who was helping out. "Toss me that roll of duct tape, would you?"
It was a perfectly normal statement, but there was something to it that wasn't quite the same. Scooter couldn't figure out what it was, and it didn't really bother her too much since her mind was on other things. Over the next several minutes she heard Michelle speak several more times, and something was still not adding up. Finally, it struck her -- she didn't sound quite right. Her voice was a little more clear; she'd lost some of that fuzzy soft-palate sound. And, what's more, she was dressed in regular jeans and a nondescript T-shirt, rather than bell bottoms and a Disney-character belly shirt. "Michelle," she said, "Look at me."
Michelle stopped what she was doing and smiled at her. "All right, kid," Scooter grinned, "What happened to the braces?"
"I had them taken off, at least for the summer," Michelle grinned. "I may have them put back on when the season's over, and I may not. We'll have to see."
"And I haven't like heard the word 'like' out of you all morning," Scooter laughed. "Are you like going to leave the bubble gum like home, too?"
"Hell no, I have to like draw the line somewhere," Michelle laughed. "I may cut down. I may even pull a page out of your book and be smoking a cigar when the customer bus pulls in."
"You don't smoke."
"I can fake it for a few minutes; I've watched you long enough." She let out a sigh, and continued, "I really don't want to be assistant trip leader, but there's just no one else who's up for it, so I guess I'll have to fake it. Al and Bill and I agreed that I need to try to look and act a little more mature. What the hell, it's only for a few months."
Maybe some of it will rub off too, Scooter thought. Crystal had it right -- Michelle could be a lot of fun, but her immaturity act could be irritating. "Maybe we'll get to run together in the fall," she said. "We'll have to get our heads together and make some plans for winter. We probably ought to be thinking about reserving a bareboat before too much longer, though."
"I think we can wait until we switch back to the fall schedule," Michelle replied. "I mean, if we can't get the Phoebe Lee on the schedule we want, there are other boats and other places to go."
"I'll kick it around with Crystal," Scooter nodded. "We can pass notes back and forth if we have to. Hey, Michelle, you have a good summer and help Bill all you can. At least this way you get a lot of trips between the walls."
"I realize that. It sure beats sitting in the office, though." She smirked, and continued. "Now the interesting question is going to be how well Al can keep Karin in the office."
"Yeah, that could be an interesting question," Scooter admitted. "We could start a pool on how many trips she's going to get this season. I have dibs on five, but let's not start it now. We can wait till we're on the bus. Let's get back to work."
"Dibs on three," Michelle grinned. "I know Al is going to try to keep her in the office."
Rigging at Lee's was a little less confusing than the first trip, mostly because it wasn't the first rig of the season for at least some of the crew. This was the dozenth time she'd rigged a Team 3 trip, and she'd been up to help other teams rig this spring. It was a little different, though, because the need for decisions kept coming to her, but in all it seemed pretty familiar.
It wasn't until after she'd lit her cigar when she saw the customer bus coming over the rise that she realized she was going to have to be the one to take the lead on greeting people and checking them in. She'd helped Crystal with it before, but this time it was her baby. There were a few double-takes from the passengers at seeing a cigar-smoking woman boatman greeting them -- nothing like the reactions that passengers first meeting Michelle got when they realized that this bubble-gum chomping teenybopper was not only a boatman, but their boatman.
The fact that she was the trip leader this time didn't really hit her until after everyone was checked in, and now it was up to her to climb up on the dry box of her raft and get things going. She took a deep breath and started, "Hey, people, listen up. We've got a fair amount of getting our acts together before we get on the water, so I'll try to keep this brief. My name is Scooter Whitsell, and I'm your trip leader. Now, before anyone asks, Scooter isn't the name my mom gave me when I was born, and I'm not going to tell you what it is just so you don't get confused. Scooter is what I answer to. We're all going to get to know each other pretty well over the next two and a half weeks, so let's get on with the introductions."
She went on to briefly introduce Crystal as assistant trip leader, and Ben and Charlie as two of the other boatmen, not bothering to explain that Ben was pretty new and Charlie was mostly a motor rig driver; those items could come out down river.
"Our last boatman," she went on, "Is pretty special. He's Al Buck; he owns this company, and I have to be honest and say that he was running this river before any of the rest of the crew was born. He's not going along as trip leader, but our insurance says he has to observe the people he hires from time to time while they're on the river, and as long as he was going we figured he might as well do something useful." It was technically a white lie but a simpler explanation than what was really happening, and it was usually used when Al had been along the past year.
"I don't imagine he'll actually be rowing much," she explained, "Since there's three people on this trip who he's also checking to see if they're ready to be promoted to boatman, and he'll probably be letting them row every stroke of the way. Those guys will probably be rowing some of the other rafts a little, too. This is how we train people folks, right in the saddle with a watchful eye on them, but these three -- we call 'em 'swampers' or 'helpers' -- are pretty far along. One of them is Duane MacRae, who's pretty new to this river but has a lot of experience in a raft on rivers back east. I used to run with him there, and I know he's good. Our second swamper is Andy Roney; he's in his second summer on the river and coming along pretty well. Finally, we have Jim Griffin, who isn't even a Canyon Tours guy at all. He works for another company but came along to steal some of our special Canyon Tours tricks from Al, and maybe pick up a few pointers. You'll get to know us all a lot better before the trip is over with."
She went on to have all of the customers introduce themselves -- saying that she wasn't real good at names, she might have to ask a few times, but she'd know everyone in a few days -- and then went on into the first orientation session. This was pretty familiar, since Crystal had had her do most of the orientations on the previous trip. Then she assigned people to a boatman to get their gear organized and loaded on the rafts. "OK, one last time, let's count noses," she said. "I think we've got everybody, but we don't want to leave anyone up at the restrooms because it'd be a long swim. Boatmen, tell me the number of people you have on your rafts, counting yourselves."
With six or seven people on a raft, it came down to thirty-two -- usually the maximum size that Canyon Tours took with five boats and a couple people more than they liked. "All right," Scooter said finally. "I guess we better get out of here before someone changes their mind. All right people, let's be about it."
It wasn't as if Scooter hadn't led trips before, because she had, probably hundreds of them -- but those were all two- to three-hour thrill rides down the Nanty and Ocoee, and if anything went seriously wrong there were usually other rafts around and a highway right alongside the river. Many of the decisions were much the same, it was just that the scale, and the consequences were a lot higher. And, there were plenty of routine decisions that fell to her to be made.
For instance, all the Canyon Tours leaders liked to stop at one of the two camps at Badger the first night out. It was about the right length run for half a day with people not used to the river, and it gave them plenty of time for the camp orientations. But this trip, for the first time in either Scooter or Crystal's experience, both of the camps were full, one with a private party and one with a single motor-rig outfit, although what a motor rig would be doing stopping this early was beyond her. Soap Creek was three miles farther on, and was a pretty reasonable place, but there were two smaller sandbars before getting there that could be squeezed onto -- but with a party this size, it would be a tight fit. The first sandbar was open when they came up on it, it was getting late, and the question was, bird in the hand or two in the bush? Knowing who had departed Lee's made the odds unlikely that Soap Creek would be occupied, unless someone leaving the day before had decided to make an early layover day -- not an impossibility, but improbable. It was a long run past Soap Creek to the next spot and it would be getting late. Still, she decided to go with the bird in the bush and risk the better campsite. As it was she was relieved to come up on Soap Creek and find the spot empty, but it was the kind of decision that would be faced over and over again on this and future trips. But that was what being a trip leader was all about -- having to make the tough calls -- and why they were paid more.
Still, it was a thrill to sit down on her raft while the crew was working on dinner, and for the first time fill out the trip leader's daily report. It wasn't complicated -- just a listing of where they stopped for lunch, for the night, weather conditions, any incidents or unusual occurrences, and a brief summary of the day. On a normal day it was at most a five-minute job, but Al had stressed to Crystal several times the previous year and to her this year that it had to be done every day. Scooter suspected that as much as anything it was intended to keep the trip leader straight on what day it was; there had been times over the past year that she'd been a little vague about how many days they'd been out or how many there were left to run.
As on the last couple trips, on the second day Scooter broke out the paddles and asked if anyone would like to help paddle. There were, and as on the last trips, most people on the trip tried it at least once, and there were a few who really got into it. Some days Scooter switched rafts with Crystal, so she could take the paddlers, and sometimes when Duane was with her, she sat him in the stern and let him have the steersman spot -- after all, he had a lot of paddle raft experience of his own. That set her to musing -- Al had some paddle raft experience, so did Duane, Carl presumably had some, and she and Crystal had lots -- maybe he could advertise an all-paddle trip some time.
Scooter was right about one thing -- Al didn't row a stroke on the first day, or any other one as it turned out, just like a year before when she'd rowed most of the trip. Usually, he had Duane rowing, but every other day or so he'd take Jim or Andy; Scooter and Crystal usually had the swampers who weren't with him, but occasionally Ben or Charlie drew the duty. Duane rowed all the really hard rapids, usually with Al but several times with Scooter. After the last trip Scooter had been of the opinion that Duane was pretty close to ready, he just needed to see the Canyon some more and get used to it; the other skills were there. Jim was pretty good, too; it was clear that if Al was going to give a recommendation, he wanted it to be an honest one, and the hard stuff that Duane didn't row, he did. Andy was a little further behind, still picking up the skills, but Scooter figured that with plenty of time on the sticks, he'd be ready to be a summer boatman another year.
The weather was notably warmer than it had been the last trip, and there were some swimsuit days on the raft, some hot afternoons when it felt good to be splashed down. It was just getting to the point of being tedious when a cool day came along, just in time for Upper Granite Gorge. Once again, Scooter was satisfied enough with her main group of paddlers that she let them run the big stuff at the paddles, but this time with Crystal in the steersman's spot. It went reasonably well, and when they got down to Phantom Al volunteered to make the mail run, saying that he wanted to check in at the office. If there was any news, he didn't pass it along. They got back on the river and ran down to the spot above Granite. The camp was empty, and Scooter called it a day right on the spot -- it was a good one, and the next few downstream weren't as nice and were often taken, anyway.
The days flowed on, pretty much routine. One day a customer took a mild fall on a rock slope; nothing was broken but he was skinned up pretty heavily here and there -- nothing like bad enough to bother calling a helicopter for, Scooter reasoned. Once he'd been patched up a little he was ready to go on, although careful about climbing for the rest of the trip. That was the biggest incident of the trip.
After two and a half weeks the trip wound down. They had the traditional big feast and farewell party at Granite Springs, then got up the next morning and floated on down to Diamond Creek, where Jeff and Jimmie and the vehicles were waiting. As usual, there were the last good-byes as the customers loaded up on the crew bus for the ride up the hill while the boatmen and swampers worked on loading the truck and the flatbed with the rafts.
As was often the case, they had the chore wrapped up before Jeff got back, so they sat down in the shade of some cottonwoods by the shore. "As long as we're here," Scooter said. "Let's take a minute to go over some things before the crew bus gets back, since we might not have the chance when we get back to Flag. The biggest thing is that I want to thank you for doing well for me. Being a trip leader is a new experience, and you eased me into it. I don't know what or even if Al has worked out who's going on the next trip, but I'll just say that I'd be happy to run with any of you again."
"Scooter, since you've got everybody's attention," Al replied. "You done good, kid. Although we didn't have any major incidents, and I'm just as happy about that, the minor ones we had, plus what I've seen of you in the past make me feel you can handle them. I've been saying for a year that you're going to make a trip leader and now you've proved it."
There was a small round of applause before Al continued. "As to your crew for the next trip, not all the pieces are in place yet and won't be until we get back to Flag and I can see what happened. You're going to be losing Charlie, of course, but you knew that when the season started. Charlie, you've done a good job for us again, and we'll call on you in the future if we can work you in and you're available. I expect Team 3 will be waving at you when you pass them on your baloney boat starting Sunday. On kind of the same subject, Jim, you've done a helluva job and I'll tell Marty that. I'm also going to tell him that if he won't schedule you, I'll be glad to."
"It's not my first oar trip and I think I prefer them to the motor rigs," Jim nodded. "They're quieter, you get to know people better, and you get the feel of the Canyon better."
"I've always said that," Al said. "I've always admitted there's a place for motor trips, too, since some people just can't take what amounts to three weeks to come down here. But I've always been of the opinion that the oar-trip experience is more satisfying to the customers. But let's debate that some other time, maybe. Now, you remember when I said back before we started that this trip was going to have to be a freebie?"
"Yeah," Jim smiled, expecting what was coming.
"I lied," Al grinned. "Don't just split when we get back, stop at the office and I'll have Karin cut you a check."
"Thanks, Al," he grinned. "I really wasn't expecting it. The experience was pay enough."
"You earned it," Al chuckled. "Jim, you have a good summer. If Marty gives you a raft, either an oar boat or a motor rig, let me know, and I'll put you on the list of people we can call on as fill-in boatmen off season."
"As far as I know I'm supposed to have a motor rig at least a couple trips," he nodded. "I'll let you know."
"I'll be waiting," Al nodded. "Now, speaking of off-season: Andy, you're coming along. I know you're going to be going back to school, but I suspect if you weren't I'd be looking to put you in a raft come fall. If that doesn't work, figure on having one next spring; I think you'll be ready. You're coming along fine, you just need to simmer and season a little more. But that's next year, and I'm sure Crystal and Scooter are more concerned with their next trip. Duane, the insurance says people coming in from outside have to make four trips before I can turn them loose, although I can waive one of them. Would you be up to taking your last qualifier trip in a gear boat starting Monday?"
"Al, if you think I'm ready, I'm ready."
"It's going to be Crystal and Scooter's decision if you can take passengers the trip after that, since I won't be along. I think that you're going to do fine. You've got talent, you've got experience, and Crystal and Scooter have soft spots in their heads for people that have thru-hiked the AT, so you got that going for you. Don't let them down. I'm figuring on leaving you on Team 3 the rest of the summer if I possibly can. Scooter and Crystal still have stuff to teach you, so learn it while you can."
"Thanks, Al," he said. "I appreciate your confidence and I'll do the best I can."
"Al," Crystal asked. "How about our fifth boatman? And are we going to get another swamper or two to replace Duane?"
"As far as the fifth boatman goes, I don't know," he said. "And I may not know for a little bit after we get back. I'll just leave it that there'll be somebody at Lee's come Monday. It may be me, but I'm hoping not. Swampers, as far as I know you'll probably be getting two first-season kids. I ain't totally sure yet and won't know till tomorrow, most likely."
As it worked out, they found out who their fifth boatman was going to be when they went in to do the groceries Saturday morning. One of the people who showed up was Glenn, the rather religious kid who'd been on Team 3 most of the summer last year. "Does the fact that you're here mean that you're going to run with us?" Crystal asked.
"I guess," he smiled. "The deal was that if Dave and Mary decided that Carl could run a gear boat next trip, either Dan or I was supposed to stay back to be picked up by you. Mary and I kind of rub on each other a little, so here I am."
Damn, Scooter thought, I'll bet Al planned that, too. Dave and Mary had a reputation for liking to keep an ace in the hole, so that probably gave them a little extra incentive to promote Carl.
"Well, good," Crystal smiled. "It was a little rocky getting here, but that means we should have a darn good crew for the rest of the summer."
"Darn right," Scooter nodded. Like Mary, her patience with Glenn's religion was limited, but she liked the solid reliability the kid had, and his trick of calm when things went bad. As much as anyone, it had been him who had brought Team 3 to its senses after Al found out about Louise last summer. "Under the circumstances, I don't think we could ask for much better."