Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
About the time that Al dropped Nanci off at the South Kaibab Trailhead, ten miles to the east at the head of Hance Rapids things were already pretty active for the Canyon Tours White Team.
Raft trips in the Grand Canyon usually start with almost everyone a bunch of strangers to each other, and it takes a few days to get people working together efficiently. When it’s the first trip of the season even the boatmen can be somewhat strangers too, especially if the crew was changed after the previous year.
Over the winter there had been a huge reorganization of the Canyon Tours schedule and crews, since there had been an agreement for the company to take over six oar-boat trips from another company, Grand Canyon Rafting, known nearly universally as “GCR.” As a result, there were now four crews instead of three, and this crew was now known as the “White Team” instead of “Team Two” as it had been known in previous years. The White Team had suffered less from reorganization than the other crews. Three of the five boatmen had been on the team the previous year; it would become four when they reached the beach at Phantom Ranch and picked up Nanci, who had been a swamper the previous year.
The trip leader was Crystal Whittaker, Nanci’s older sister. She was relatively new to the river, this being only her fourth year, but she’d had a load of rafting experience on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, and had quickly become a trip leader when she’d first come to Canyon Tours. Crystal was tall, lean, very strong, and highly skilled, probably the most exuberant of the company’s four trip leaders.
From a young age Crystal had been determined to be what she called an “outdoor bum” and she’d pretty much achieved her goal. Before coming to the Grand Canyon she was already an accomplished rafter, a pretty good surfer, a terrific swimmer, a serious power-hiker and a moderately experienced sailor, along with being better than a novice at running a sled dog team. She’d hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, sailed to Hawaii and back, and brought a salmon boat with an injured skipper down the length of the Inside Passage to Alaska, among other notable adventures. All that, she confidently believed, had been to prepare her for the Grand Canyon; being a Canyon Tours trip leader was just exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
The assistant trip leader was Crystal’s husband Noah. His real name was often forgotten, since everyone called him “Preach.” A preacher he was, an ordained Baptist minister, officially and technically an associate pastor of the Glen Hill Road Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but on an unpaid mission here. No one, including Preach, expected he’d ever be back at Glen Hill Road for anything more than a brief visit, but he hadn’t been quite able to bring himself to cut the ties, either.
Preach had come to the Canyon the previous year to officiate at Al and Karin’s wedding, and to see his old friend, Crystal. Before that trip was over with he’d agreed to stick around the Canyon if Crystal was willing to work toward being more than just “good friends.” That was exactly what had happened; they’d been married the previous November. The same age as his wife, he’d had even more rafting experience back east, but was just starting his second year in the Canyon. He was calm and levelheaded, compared to his sometimes more impulsive wife, and they’d had an awkward start to their marriage and were still settling into it.
The other “old” team boatman was Kevin Haynes. He was in his third year at the oars of a Canyon Tours raft, and was at least technically a senior at Northern Arizona. It would probably take him a few more years to finish up since he only went there in the winter terms, preferring to be a boatman in the fall. Last winter, he’d even gone beyond that, skipping the spring term, partly to work in a convenience store and doing seasonal maintenance for Canyon Tours, and partly because he needed a couple of classes that were only offered in the fall. Kevin was medium height and sandy haired; Crystal often referred to him as “the strangest boatman on the river” mostly because he was the only one who shaved every morning without fail.
More than anyone else, it had been Kevin who had taken Nanci in hand the previous year, teaching her the tricks of rowing a raft and how to get along in the Canyon together with other aspects of her unexpected new life. Most especially, and even more so than Preach, he’d been her mentor and understanding ear in adapting to the complexities of being a committed Christian, which he was – a Methodist, in his case. Partly because of that, he’d become her closest friend on the crew who she wasn’t related to – but they had remained “just friends” so far, and both of them seemed perfectly happy with keeping it that way.
One of the new faces among the boatmen was Larry Newman, who had just finished his junior year at Arizona State barely in time to make the launch at Lee’s Ferry the previous Sunday; he’d been on Team Two for a while the previous year.
The other new face was Karin Buck, Al’s wife and Nanci and Crystal’s mother; she’d first run the Canyon clear back in 1973, but had been away for over twenty-five years. She was more than twice the age of any of the other boatmen on the crew, and was normally the company’s business manager. She didn’t run trips regularly, but was often the first available emergency fill-in, a role she was fulfilling this trip. She enjoyed getting out on the river just as much as she ever had, and sometimes it was difficult to keep her from penciling herself in when a fill-in was needed.
Karin was the stuff of legend, at least among those who worked for Canyon Tours. She’d had a brief but thrilling “Canyon romance” with Al on her trip in 1973, but when it was over with she’d flown back to Chicago, had a whirlwind romance with Pete Chladek, and quickly married him without realizing she was already pregnant. Two more kids had followed in the next four years, Jon then Nanci.
As the years went by Pete became steadily more sour and difficult to live with. His bad temper had first driven off Crystal, then Jon, then Nanci. Finally Karin couldn’t put up with him any longer either.
During that period she had become estranged from Crystal, who she knew to be working for Canyon Tours, and she decided to take another trip down the between the walls in an effort to reconnect with her older daughter. There she met Al again, who was in agony over the recent death of his long-time wife, Louise. When Karin revealed to Al and Crystal that Crystal was his daughter, twenty-five years fell away almost instantly. Their romance picked up roughly where it had left off a quarter-century earlier. Not long after that she and Crystal were able to reconnect with Jon, who was living in Phoenix with his wife Tanisha, whose existence Karin hadn’t even imagined, and then just a year ago Nanci rejoined them, too. After having lost her family, she had somehow regained it and more, far away from the Chicago suburb where they had once lived.
Days on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon start early, usually well before dawn, and it was especially true on the White Team. In high summer it gets incredibly hot down in the depths of the Canyon, with the heat almost unbearable at the worst of times. It made sense to get going early before the heat built up, so the party can be off the water and into what shade there is when the thermometer shows signs of bursting. In addition there are no camping reservations at the bottom of the Canyon, so finding a campsite is strictly first come, first serve. Getting on the water early improves the chances of getting a comfortable and tolerable campsite later that day, so breakfast is usually under way well before dawn, with the idea of being on the water as soon as it is possible to clearly see where the raft is going.
At that, they were dawdling a little bit this morning. A private party had taken the campsite Crystal had been aiming for, and they had to move on to the next one. Unfortunately, it was located just above Hance Rapids, one of the toughest in the Canyon, the hardest one they’d seen on this trip so far. Having to run that right off the bat while everyone was still getting settled in was not the happiest thing to contemplate, so it seemed wise to have an extra cup of coffee and let the light get a little better before they got going.
On top of that, they had to shuffle gear around this morning, too. Back when it had first been decided that Nanci would be a boatman on this trip, it had also been decided that she would be in a gear boat, rather than taking passengers with her. Up until now Karin had run normally, with customers aboard, but since Nanci would be taking over later in the day it seemed logical to turn Karin’s raft into a gear boat now, rather than having to do it in a rush on the Boatman’s Beach at Phantom Ranch. It was less a case of having to change the load around, since they loaded and unloaded the rafts each day, but instead remembering where everything went, which would cause confusion for a few days.
Crystal was sitting on a handy rock with a cup of coffee in her hand contemplating how she wanted to go about the gear shuffle. It was strong coffee, Canyon style, a pound can of coffee dumped in a pot of water and boiled until it would grow hair even on her chest. Karin’s raft – soon to be Nanci’s – was a little smaller than the regular Canyon Tours rafts; it had come from GCR with the extra trips that had been added on the winter before. That meant it couldn’t carry as much gear.
Around them the customers were packing up their gear and hauling their bags down near to where the rafts were snubbed up to the bank; a couple of the customers and most of the rest of the crew were tearing the kitchen down and packing it up. “Crystal,” she heard Preach call, “you want to warm up your coffee while we still have it?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she called back, raising her voice so she could be heard over the roar of the rapids not far away. “Be right over.” She got to her feet thinking that she could kick around the idea of the gear shuffle all she wanted to, but when they went to do it things might turn out differently. It was just something to think about, and that was all – and something better to think about than the doubts that had occasionally crept over her in the last six months. She’d been having a dose of them this morning, and they left her feeling uncomfortable. Maybe it was just because she wasn’t looking forward to having to face Hance in about her second minute on the water this morning, but maybe not, too. After all, she’d run Hance thirty-five times before, so she knew she could handle it.
Over at the table, she held out her cup while Preach dipped a dipper into the big Graniteware kettle for her coffee. It was getting low now; it was going to be even stronger than normal, but that might help wake her up. “Anybody else for java?” Preach called more loudly, in hopes that at least some of the customers would hear.
There were no takers; after a moment he said in a more normal tone, “Guess we might as well pack it up, then.” He picked up the kettle and carried it down to the river to dump while Crystal took a sip. The kettle had been off of the propane burner for a while, and the coffee had cooled off to just the right temperature to drink, although being a little stale it wasn’t terribly appealing. Might as well do it and get it over with, she thought, and tossed the coffee off in a couple of gulps. She then dipped the mug in the wash and then the rinse water before putting it into a net bag so it could dry off as much as possible in the few minutes left before packing up. In the dry air of the Canyon, even in the early morning, a few minutes should be all it would need.
In a minute or so Preach was back at the rapidly being packed kitchen. “Not a bad trip so far,” he commented. “I’m sure glad we’re going to get the bugs out before we do the next one, though.”
“Yeah, me too,” she agreed conversationally, even though the simple statement got her doubts going again.
While she wouldn’t speak of it to anyone – and barely admitted it to herself – so far her marriage to Preach hadn’t been quite the bed of roses she thought it would be, and the upcoming trip mostly fed her concerns.
Back in the fall, Mark Jordan, the pastor at Glen Hill Road, had suggested to Preach that he might be interested in doing a tour of churches, talking about his life in the Grand Canyon, the wonders that could be seen there and how being there had strengthened his faith. Crystal had been mildly interested in the idea, mostly the idea of being with Preach. Al hopped all over the idea, seeing it as a marketing idea in a time when people were still down following the attack on the World Trade Center. What he’d suggested was a couple of specialized Christian tours down the Canyon, emphasizing the spirituality with Preach leading the teaching.
Crystal had known Preach for a long time, nine years now. They’d been the best of friends back in the Ocoee River days, running thrill rides for rafts loaded with tourists. She’d been able to talk with him about things she never could have talked about with anyone else, although in those days neither of them could have ever contemplated being married to each other. Preach, after all, had been planning on being a minister, while Crystal had her eye set on being an outdoor bum. It seemed like a chasm much too vast to cross.
After she’d left the Ocoee she hadn’t seen him for four years, until at her request he’d come out to the Canyon to marry her parents. On that trip, she discovered that while his faith was no less strong than it had ever been, he’d become disillusioned and uncertain about the idea of having a church of his own. He’d agonized over it for much of that trip, but in the end came to her with the idea of staying in the Canyon so long as they could work together to be more than just friends. It had sounded like a great idea to her.
But the church tour had precipitated things a little more quickly than either had imagined. It seemed obvious that she ought to go on the tour with him, but it would be awkward at best for a single guy and a single girl traveling unchaperoned to all those churches, some of them rather conservative. In a rather rushed decision they’d decided to get married, and tied the knot only days after the rafting season was over with.
The church tour may have been a good idea but it made for a lousy honeymoon – both she and Preach admitted it. They were forever on the move from one church to another, giving the same presentation, hearing the same questions. Worse, in just about every church some loudmouthed airhead protested that the Canyon couldn’t be millions of years old because the Bible, as interpreted by Bishop Ussher hundreds of years before, said the earth couldn’t be over six thousand years old. There had been times that it had been difficult for Crystal to keep from using her black belt martial arts skills on one of those bozos, but somehow she’d managed to keep her cool.
Crystal had even had bad dreams over what might happen if several idiots like that showed up on the upcoming church trip – it would be much harder to turn her back and walk away from them down here in the Canyon. In fact, the reason the White Team was put together the way it was came from the fact that all the boatmen on it were pretty churchy. Preach, Kevin, and Nanci were very serious about it; Crystal was a little less so, and preferred her church to be out in the open air, rather than inside a building. Larry had been brought up as a pretty serious Lutheran, although he didn’t often show it as much as he might have. Although they didn’t have a swamper this trip, Al had gone out of his way to recruit a kid for the next trip who also knew what to do with a Bible in his hand. Many of the other boatmen in the company would have been at serious risk of offending someone on a trip like that, intentionally or not.
The church tour last winter hadn’t been all bad; Crystal and Preach had booths in some outdoor shows that were interesting, if hectic; they’d visited some old friends, and they’d managed two weeks on a sailboat in the Bahamas for a real if rather belated honeymoon. But the church tour had proved that Preach had patience, understanding, and tolerance for jerks that she sometimes found hard to fathom.
All in all she was just as glad that she’d married Preach, although realistically she knew that she would have been happier if it hadn’t been done quite so precipitously. It had become clear on the tour that the two of them still had some rough edges to knock off each other, and they’d found the hard way to do it. Looking back on it now, another year would have been welcome.
That was not to say that things were going badly for the two of them, because they weren’t. While there had been uncomfortable times, awkward times, and some disagreements, things never got to within one percent as bad as her mother had in putting up with Pete all those years. Crystal liked Preach well enough to think that in time they could settle their few differences, especially down here in the Canyon.
But that wasn’t a solid-gold assured thing, either. For all that Crystal had held and achieved the goal of being an outdoor bum, it was slowly becoming clearer to her that being one wasn’t going to last forever.
First off, she’d known from clear back in Ocoee days that Preach wanted to be a father. It wasn’t something that had to happen soon, but it wasn’t anything that could be denied, either. While Crystal wasn’t totally opposed to the idea, she knew that when that happened it would take her out of the Canyon for some time, probably years. She’d seen other woman rafters have to deal with the combination of raising children and running the Canyon, and the children almost always won. Oh, she might be able to sneak in a trip or two from time to time, but spending six months of the year on a raft like she was doing now just wasn’t going to continue. Also, she wasn’t that far from turning thirty, and when that happened things were just going to be more imperative.
Just as bad was the fact that Crystal was Al’s only child. While it would be possible to sell Canyon Tours for several million bucks right now, Al wanted to keep his finger in it for a while – it would not be easy for him to give up the company after thirty years. But at the same time, Al and Karin wanted to be able to get away from the company a little to do some traveling during rafting season, so someone else would have to manage it – and Al had Crystal directly in his sights for that job. It might be possible to hold him off another year, or two at the most, but sooner or later she was going to have to plan on spending at least a part of the season in the office topside, rather than being down on the river. Of course, that seemed to dovetail with having kids . . .
When that happened – and it seemed likely to happen – it would probably be Preach who would be leading trips the majority of the time, while Crystal sat in the office and wished she were on the river. That also meant being separated from him a lot, and she wasn’t exactly crazy about that, either.
While Crystal could do little but admit to the reality, inside she resented being pushed away from the dream that she had accomplished.
Preach knew about that dilemma, of course – he’d known about it well before they’d started talking about getting together. He had a hankering for adventure too; after any number of discussions the best solution they’d been able to come up with had been to get some other adventure trips in now, in the winter off-seasons before they had to submit to the reality of the office and the kids.
All of that had been laying heavier than normal on her this morning. Probably it was her dread of the upcoming church trip that was getting her down. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as she feared, but it could be. Right at the moment the best thing to do would be to get it out of her mind. Good or not, it was going to happen, and there were higher priorities for her to consider right now, like getting her customers through Hance and several other big rapids during the next two days.
By now the kitchen was torn down and packed up, and with a quick glance around the campsite she could see that everything else was pretty much packed up too. She could see that Larry and one of the customers were busy packing up the portable toilet. It was often called a “groover” on the river because the original portable toilets were old military ammo cans that would leave two grooves in the user’s backside because there were no seats for them. Packing up the more comfortable modern version was always just about the last thing to be done.
“All right people, let’s get a duffel line together,” she called to the customers and crew, who were mostly standing around shooting the bull. “Remember, we’re going to load a little different this morning, and nobody is going to be riding with Karin on the little raft. I want to make sure that we have the food and the kitchen stuff split between at least two rafts. We’re going to load the big rafts a little lighter, so let’s get to passing gear.”
The passengers formed a line between the gear pile and the nearest raft, and started passing stuff down, while the boatmen stacked it in place. After all the worrying, the little raft was mostly loaded catch-as-catch-can, but it was stacked rather high – hopefully not too high for Karin and later Nanci to handle.
In only a short time all the rafts were loaded, and the boatmen tied tarps down over each pile to keep some of the flying water out of it. Most of the gear was packed in dry boxes or dry bags, but sometimes they leaked, so the extra effort to keep things dry was worth it.
When that was done, Crystal called for everyone’s attention. She asked Preach for a short prayer – nobody objected, although not everyone joined in. “OK, people,” she said as soon as he was done. “It’s pretty obvious that we’re going to hit this guy right straight off, so I want everyone settled in and ready to rumble before we get on the water. Boatmen, check your boats for any loose lines or straps that someone might get tangled in if things go sour. If you wind up swimming, keep your feet downstream so your feet or legs will take a hit rather than your head. Preach, go ahead and take point, whenever you’re ready to go. I’ll take sweep. All right, let’s head ’em up and move ’em out.”