Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
March 24 - April 5, 2001
The Park Service Trip
A couple days later, Al drove Karin, Crystal, and Scooter up to Lee's Ferry for the Park Service trip. Two motor rigs from different companies were rigging on the ramp when they arrived. "You three have fun," Al said. "Just plan on washing that gas smell off when you get back."
The trip was unusual in a number of ways. It was very cheap for a Canyon trip; the motor rig companies provided the rafts at essentially cost, which was gas, food, trucking the rafts to the put in and take out, and other base expenses. Even the trip leader was going for free, but was getting the course as part of the deal. Since everyone on the trip was a boatman, except for a few people from the Park Service, the deal was that people would share out the running of the rafts, and of course everyone would pitch in with the chores.
While Crystal, Scooter and Karin had seen motor rigs before, it was the first time any of them had been on one. They were huge, compared to what they were used to -- twice as long, with a center section as wide as the oar rafts and sitting up considerably higher to boot. Since the center section was relatively narrow and unstable, a huge rubber side tube was lashed on each side of the center portion for stability and to raise the waterline some. Gear was piled high in the center section, and covered with a tarp; the passengers sat on a bench seat alongside the gear pile. Called an S-rig, it was powered by a thirty-five-horsepower Honda four-stroke outboard, set in a large open well at the back of the center section. Karin remembered early S-rigs when she'd made her first trip down the river back in the seventies, and remembered that you could smell the exhaust for miles and hear them about as far. In the years she'd been gone, Al had told them, the smelly, noisy two-strokes had been universally replaced with the four-strokes, which were a huge improvement, if not perfect -- Al, of course, considered no engine at all to be perfect.
As things were getting settled in, they discovered with not a little surprise that one of the two motor rig boatmen was Jim, the guy who had swamped for them as a pickup the previous fall. Scooter remembered her musings down in the Bahamas, and decided that if the chance came up on this trip, she'd try to get to know him a little better, although that might not involve bushes, considering the company they were taking with them.
Ever since she'd been in the Canyon, Scooter had joked that she "Couldn't tell a Kaibab limestone from a Tapeats sandstone if either one of them bit me on the ass." As people were still showing up, she made the happy mistake of making that wisecrack to a rather rough-looking but healthy guy, who proved to be the geologist of the trip. He told her that he'd try to fix that.
He made a good try. The geology of the Canyon is interesting and very complicated. It's moderately logical for about a third of the way down, where newer layers of rock overlay older ones, and the river progressively gets into older rock as it gets downstream. Below that it's more complicated, with a series of folds, faults, upthrusts, unconformities, and whatnot, all conspiring to make things more confusing and often debatable, even to the professional. One of them, they learned, is the age and order and process of the canyon-cutting itself. "There are things you can get geologists arguing so bad over," the geologist told them, "That they end up throwing rocks at each other."
It was an intensive cram course in Canyon geology, and at one point the guy, who proved to be a college professor, got samples of Kaibab limestone, Tapeats sandstone, and a few other samples, and pointed out the differences to Scooter; it was obvious when she saw them. "Well, hell, there's a line I won't be able to use again."
Crystal and Scooter had figured that it would be hard to top Norma Dieshu as an expert on Canyon Native American history, but the old Hopi chief who came along on the trip had her pretty well beat. One time, Scooter happened to mention Norma's name to him, and he lit up -- he knew her he said, and yes, she was quite knowledgeable for such a youngster.
There were several others -- natural history experts, a hydrologist, a man from the Park Service itself who was an expert on the recorded history of the Canyon. He was absolutely fascinating to listen to, for he could make a very informative, dramatic, and interesting presentation. Among other things, he just about knew John Wesley Powell's journal entries from memory, and several others, as well -- and when he quoted Powell it was almost like taking a trip back in time. It turned out that he'd taken several courses at the Park Service Interpretive Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and had even taught there for a while. On thinking about it, Scooter thought she remembered him from high school, when a class had taken a field trip to Harper's Ferry, and had been enthralled by the story of John Brown's last stand in the engine house. The guy was so good that it was almost as if they were there. He may well have been that man; when she asked him, he said yes, he used to get called down from the Interpretive Center to help out the park staff when they got busy, and he'd given that talk a few times.
Since this group was virtually all raft guides with no regular customers, everyone was expected to pitch in with the chores, which included running the raft. Scooter knew a thing or two about outboard motors, even though she'd not had much to do with them since high school, and figured it would be pretty straight forward. It didn't help that the raft handled about like a hog on skates, and thirty-five horsepower was nowhere near enough to bully it. Randy had once likened an oar raft to driving a concrete truck on an icy road; this was worse. The raft had no keel, which made it relatively easy to get to turning, but once turning it didn't want to stop. It would also start turning whenever it took a mind to; keeping it straight was an adventure and not a sure thing. Scooter learned it firsthand when they hit 60-Mile rapids below Nankoweap, a tiddler that she hardly ever even told passengers to hang on for unless they were screwing around. But something happened as she went through the wave train, the raft decided it wanted to swap ends and no amount of power would straighten it out. They wound up bouncing off a sidewall and spinning around the other way before she could get it straight, with Jim laughing his ass off.
It could have been worse, and it was. A woman from one of the motor rig outfits was running the raft when they hit Nevills, the second rapid in Upper Granite Gorge and one of the lesser ones. But there's a rock right in the middle of the wave train that Scooter remembered being told to avoid right from her first trip. Scooter was looking the other way when it happened, but apparently the motor hit an underwater rock as they were going down the tongue of the drop, while the woman was struggling with the 'jackass arm' to raise the motor. This not only bent the prop, it bent the handle of the motor and made the throttle impossible to use -- and she was knocked out of position as well. In the confusion the raft got sideways and rode right up over that rock in the wave train. They could feel it bump against the downstream side tube, then scrunch ever so slowly on the center section. For an awful instant there, Scooter thought they were going to get pinned with the upstream rail down, a sure recipe for a flip, unless there wasn't enough water under them. She could hear everyone on the S-rig breathe a sigh of relief as the raft bumped the rest of the way over rock, then scrape past the upstream side tube to free them.
That was a relief, but the raft was still essentially out of control with the motor jammed on running at a fairly high power. With some struggling Jim and the woman were able to get the raft nosed into shore, where he had to yank out the fuel line to shut the outboard off. They carried a spare motor for such happenstance, and it turned out that motor rig crews could change them out very quickly; in ten minutes or so they were on their way.
Trying to rebuild her confidence, the same woman was running the raft when they got to Hance, a few miles downstream. This was one of the big three rapids, and Scooter was interested in seeing how this big mother would get through it. They pulled in to scout it, always a good idea, and then settled down to run it. The raft was so big that it tended to burrow through some waves, but there just weren't very many waves that threatened them on hydraulics alone. Halfway down the complex, roaring rapid the raft got away from the woman -- Scooter had no idea why, it was just that the raft took it in its head that it didn't want to go straight. They spun most of the way around, bounced the stern off a side wall, spun around the other way, went over a small drop sideways, bounced the stern off the other side wall, spun completely around the other way before she could get it under control and send it down what little remained of the rapids nose first. The whole raft got washed out pretty good; Scooter, Crystal and Karin were grateful that the combination of Upper Granite Gorge, the fact that the ride on a motor rig was wetter than they'd imagined considering the size of the thing, and a cold, overcast, windy day had caused them all to wear wet suits, because they indeed got wet.
There were a few wild things done that would never be allowed on a regular trip. When they got down to Crystal the next day, the same woman was again at the throttle, and Crystal Rapids was one place that Scooter didn't really think she wanted to run backwards, even in a motor rig. She was giving some thought to walking the rapids when Crystal whispered, "There's some people who want to try to swim this thing. Want to try it?"
"Shit," Scooter snorted. "If I ride down on this thing with that gal running it, the odds are about even that I'm going to be swimming, anyway." She sighed, thought for a second, and then said, "Oh, hell, I might as well. At least I'll know it can be done, maybe I won't be quite as scared of it."
The trip leader, a guy from the Park Service, soon found out about it. "I can't tell you not to," he told them. "But I recommend against it. But if you're going to try it anyway, take a second life jacket and strap it on over the first. You'll appreciate the extra flotation."
There were some spare life jackets on board, and all got snapped up quickly. When the woman backed the raft away from the beach at the head of the drop, there were only a handful of people on board -- if they made it, not a sure thing considering some of the other luck she'd had -- she'd be below to pick up the swimmers.
They gathered on the familiar rubble pile to watch the run. Sure enough, she lost it in the middle of the rapids, spun around, bounced off a wall, and finished up the run backwards under better control than if she'd been going forward. "I'm not sure that was a lot better than this," Scooter heard Karin say.
Crystal was a powerful swimmer; as far as anyone knew she still held the mile swim freestyle record at Northern Michigan University. Scooter wasn't anywhere near as powerful, but she was a good swimmer and comfortable in the water. Karin, however just wasn't a strong swimmer. "Are you sure you want to try this?" Scooter asked. "You could still walk it."
"Yes, I want to try it," Karin said. "If only to be able to tell customers that I've done it, and you don't have to be an Olympic swimmer to do it. As far as I can see, once you start down the tongue it really doesn't matter how good a swimmer you are, you're along for the ride like a turd going down a toilet."
"Your call," Scooter smiled, a little amazed that Karin would use such an allusion.
They tried to space out the swims a little bit so the rafts downstream would have time to do the pickups. Scooter was in the middle of the group; starting from a little above the rapids, she swam out, got into the tongue, and from there on it was somewhat worse than a ride in God's cocktail shaker. There were no particular rocks to worry about, but the waves were big and confused as they always were. There wasn't really much she could say about it afterwards other than it was a blur of water and sky and rock, under water a share of the time and grabbing a breath whenever she could. It only took a couple minutes but it seemed like it took hours before she was in the tail of the rapids and stroking her way over to the eddy line where the raft was waiting.
She was up on the raft in time to see the tail end of Karin's swim, just as chaotic as hers had been. The pickup took a little longer, and Jim edged the raft over a little closer to her. They could see a huge smile on her face. "Crystal," she yelled as soon as she was on board. "That's why I named you after this! What a ride!"
"My mother," Crystal sighed, "Is even crazier than I am."
"Crystal," Scooter shook her head, "How much you want to bet that she runs the Bubble Line this summer?"
"Shit, no bet," Crystal snorted. "More catching up, of course. Jesus, I don't know how that asshole she divorced managed to hold her down."
As always, the difficulties muted below Crystal. Normally, motor raft trips are run in as little as four days, hardly ever more than six; they took ten on this one, partly for the sake of longer hikes to interesting places, but more for the sake of longer sessions with the experts explaining this or that about the Canyon. In spite of the fun, it was a learning trip, and it was intense; all three of them learned things they'd never dreamed before.
The last day of the trip was a new experience. Canyon Tours always took out their rafts at Diamond Wash, at about Mile 226, but the road up the wash was too tight for the flatbed semi-trailers needed to haul the center sections, so they had to run clear down to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead, about Mile 280. This was a place that Crystal, Scooter, and Karin had never been before, although Al said they occasionally used to take a trip down there in the old days and get towed across the lake by a pre-arranged twoboat. This allowed them to make a stop at Separation Canyon, one of the more interesting places of Canyon history, where three men on Major Powell's crew, disgusted with the difficulty of the river, decided to try to walk out. They stopped and hiked the short distance up to the memorial for another really inspirational talk by the Park's history expert, who related the anguish and the desperation that Powell used to try to dissuade the men, swearing they were close to the end, and failed. The men started their walk out, and Powell started down the river -- and ran the last rapids later that day. The three men were never seen again -- killed by Indians or Mormons, no one knew for sure.
The river flow died out about ten miles below Diamond Wash; from there on they were running on the slack water of Lake Mead. Under normal circumstances, motor-rig customers were flown out back at Whitmore Wash, less than 10 miles below Lava Falls, or were met by a fast ferryboat just below Separation Rapids; the boat crews find a quiet beach, roll up the side tubes and load them on deck so they can run faster. With a full load they didn't have this option, so there wasn't much to do but sit and listen to the drone of the motor as they crossed fifty miles of flatwater lake.
At the landing, everyone pitched in to help the motor rig crews de-rig and load. Three companies had pitched in with crew buses to haul everyone back to Flagstaff -- Canyon Tours was one -- and the three of them rode back on it, of course. But Jim came too; while Karin and Crystal sat up toward the front swapping stories with each other and some of the rafters from other companies, Scooter sat in the back with him. They hadn't had much chance to be alone on the trip, what with other people around; she said that running the river on a motor rig was interesting, but maybe not exactly her cup of tea, and Jim admitted to preferring oar rafts. As they rode back to Flagstaff, they swapped stories about other things, mostly what they'd done over the winter. One of the stories that she told with malice aforethought was about Michelle giving the Wild Wet bikinis to Crystal and her down on the Felicity Ann. Jim snickered and said he'd like to see her wearing one some time, and she just snickered back, "You might get your chance."
As they continued on to Flagstaff in the back of the crew bus, Scooter and Jim had a nice conversation on one thing and another; Scooter found herself getting beyond some of her standard campfire stories and into stuff that was a touch more personal. From what she'd heard on the S-rig she'd been under the impression that he wasn't seeing anyone, and she confirmed it now. After talking it over, they agreed to meet at the Burro for a beer the next evening.
Maybe. Just maybe . . .