Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It was normally the practice for Canyon Tours boatmen to get up early when they were on the river. The usual drill was for the person who woke up first to get the others up. It really wasn’t needed this morning; since the customers hadn’t arrived yet it would have been possible to sleep in a little, but habit prevailed.
Even before the sun came up, a noisy propane burner was warming water for coffee, and Nanci was standing at the large warped griddle the team used, frying bacon, eggs, and home fries. The griddle was old, awkward, and a pain to use, but it was a firm belief on the White Team and its predecessors for years that it produced the best breakfasts in the Grand Canyon. Perhaps a decade before there had been a legendary fist fight between two team leaders over who would get to use it that year, so no one on the team would dream of replacing it.
At least this morning there was the opportunity to take it easy. There was no need to rush around getting ready to get on the river, so the five boatmen sat around where they could, drinking coffee and telling the odd river story as the day got brighter and their breakfasts were cooked.
They were no more than finishing up breakfast when a crew from Grand Canyon Rafting showed up and started unloading a couple of semi-trailers worth of the big motorized S-rigs. The oar boaters sometimes called them “baloney boats” for some reason that had mostly been forgotten. The trip leader proved to be Joe Balsam, a trip leader Crystal knew slightly, who reported that they’d planned to be there the afternoon before but had to spend some time repairing a damaged side tube.
Of course, Crystal offered coffee to Joe and the GCR guys. It sometimes got a little slow while they were waiting for the customer bus to get in, and often they had little to do but sit around and drink another cup of the river-strength eye-opener, so this provided a little diversion. The motor-rig crew hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, so they were grateful for the caffeine.
Setting up the motor rigs was a little simpler in a way since there were only two of them, instead of the five the White Team had. Being only a five-day trip there wasn’t nearly as much in the way of food and supplies that had to go aboard the much bigger S-rigs. Since the Canyon Tours crew had finished their work about as much as it could be finished the night before, they pitched in to help the GCR crew with the loading – after all, a favor given could mean a favor returned up the way sometime.
In the middle of the process Marty Welker, the owner of Grand Canyon Rafting showed up. Being the kind of guy he was he pitched in too. Before long they had the big rafts ready for the customers to show up, and Kevin went back over to the Canyon Tours area and started making another pot of coffee, while the rest of the combined crews gathered around to shoot the bull.
Crystal asked Joe, “This isn’t your first run of the season, is it?”
“Naw, the fourth,” Joe replied. “We just came off a five-day run down to the helicopter pad at Whitmore. I was sure glad to have it over with. We had a woman on the trip who asked some of the dumbest, and I mean the dumbest questions I ever heard, and she had a million of them. I mean, ‘Does that rock in the middle of the river go all the way down to the bottom?’ or ‘Why do they call it the South Rim?’ I mean, once in a while it was funny, but she fired off about one of them a minute and it never ended.”
“There are times I think the quick runs down to Whitmore have their good points,” Crystal agreed. “And that’s one of them. We don’t often get customers that stupid. Pretty close, but not that bad.”
“I think we get more of them than you do,” he replied. “I think the short runs have something to do with that. So anything interesting on your first trip?”
“Not terribly,” Crystal replied. “We didn’t have a swamper last trip, so we all sort of agreed to help out with some of the more miserable chores, you know, like groover duty. Well, one day we had the toilet set up in a really scenic spot overlooking the river, you know?”
“I think it was Colin Fletcher who said, ‘Everything else being equal, choose a john with a view, ’” Marty snickered.
“Not a bad piece of advice,” Crystal acknowledged, and went on with the story. “Anyway, Larry and one of the customers were breaking down the toilet to get going in the morning, and the customer set the toilet seat assembly down on a rock next to the river, maybe ten feet above it. Then, along comes a gust of wind and the whole works blew off into the water, and away it goes.”
“Oh, shit,” Marty laughed.
“That’s about what I thought,” Crystal agreed. “I wasn’t real sure what had happened to it and when I spotted the lid drifting away there was no chance to get a raft and go get it, and by then it looked like it was sinking out of sight, you know, the metal parts carrying it down. The river was too deep and muddy to go look for it, so I figured it was gone forever and the rest of the trip was going to be interesting.”
“The customers might not have liked it very much.”
“Yeah, that was what I was thinking. Well, we got under way, and all day long I was trying to think of something we could cobble up to replace it, maybe something made out of driftwood. We went through a couple of big rapids, and we were just getting down to where I planned to camp when Kevin, who was running in front of me, started yelling, ‘Toilet seat, toilet seat, toilet seat!’ and pointing out into the water. I was able to get over to it and snag it.”
“The same seat?” Marty smiled.
“Same one. The lid and the metal fittings were gone, but the important part was there and it worked just fine for the rest of the trip. I figure it must have drifted down the river just barely afloat until it got to one of the rapids where the metal parts and lid got ripped off, and the seat itself could drift along just fine.”
“It seems amazing that it could go that far without being picked up by some do-gooder or caught in an eddy,” Marty shook his head. “The darndest things happen down here, and I’ve seen a few of them over the years.”
“Oh yeah, there are a lot of stories,” Joe smiled. “Marty, do you remember Mike Slusher?”
“Actually, I’m doing my best to forget him. He used to do some crazy stuff, especially if there were good-looking single customer women around. He always sort of made me think about that old joke about a redneck’s last words, ‘Hey Bubba! Watch this!’”
“Yeah, I was a swamper about the last year he was on the river,” Joe nodded. “There was this hot babe on the trip, by herself, and he wanted to make some time with her so bad it wasn’t funny. Well, one campsite toward the end of the run when she was looking on he made a production of drilling a hole in the exact center of a paper plate and threading the bow line of the S-rig through the hole, then tying the bow line back down. So she asked what he was doing, and he told her that at night there were scorpions all over the beach. ‘Hunnerds of ’em,’ he told her. ‘And they sting like a bitch.’ So he goes in for the punch line, ‘You think you might want to sleep on the boat with me tonight?’”
“If this story is going where I think it’s going,” Marty grinned, “Then he isn’t the first boatman to use that trick.”
“Well, yeah, but at least she didn’t get no scorpion bites that night, although I wouldn’t want to bet what else she got.”
Al and Karin showed up about that time, bringing with them the fresh high school graduate, Mark. It was a little bit of a pain in the neck for him to show up so late, but he didn’t want to miss his high school graduation. Al had told them before the trip that the young man was the most likely candidate he’d been able to find to join the White Team for the church trips. They came over to join the group swapping stories.
One of the S-rig guys, apparently a new swamper, took a sip of the normal White Team brew, and almost blanched at it. “Wow!” he said. “You guys sure make this jazz strong.”
Joe took a sip of the potent brew, shrugged, and said, “Actually, Crystal, haven’t you backed off a little bit?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she replied. “It was Kevin who made the coffee.”
Joe reached in his pocket, pulled out a stone and tossed it into his cup, then eyed it intently. “That is a little weak,” he pronounced. “My coffee tester is barely floating. When we make it, it barely sinks in at all.”
Nanci thought that the new guy looked a little bit green; it seemed likely that he wasn’t going to be drinking any river coffee this trip. She knew what the deal was with the rock, since she’d seen the trick used before – it was a piece of pumice from down near Lava Falls, a rapids downriver, and it was so light it floated in regular water. The pumice would slowly soak up water unless it had been covered with a light coating of varnish as Joe’s “coffee tester” had been.
“Kevin,” Crystal snarled, but with a smile on her face. “Did you add too much water again?”
“About the usual,” he shrugged apologetically. “It didn’t get the chance to cook all the way down, though.”
“Well, watch it the next time,” Al growled. “We have a reputation to protect!” As the group started to get their coffee served, he turned to Marty and the group and said, “Actually, I think the stuff we make today is a little on the mild side compared to what Georgie White used to brew up.”
“Ah, yes,” Marty smirked. “I think you and I are probably the only ones who were around when she was still running this place.”
“No, I think I remember her,” Karin put in. “We ran into her one time at a rest stop when I ran in 1973. She seemed as old as the hills, and she was wearing this leopard-skin print bikini. It showed that she had about a million wrinkles. About the only thing else I can remember about her was that she seemed pretty grouchy. She had this great big goofy-looking raft.”
“Yep, that had to have been Georgie, all right,” Marty said. “That would have been her G-rig. She pretty much invented motor rigs on this river. She died in ’92 at the age of eighty-one, so she must have only been in her early sixties when you met her.”
“She looked older than that,” Karin shook her head. “My word, I’m getting close to as old as she was when I met her, but I don’t think I look anywhere near that old.”
“She’d lived a tough life, and she didn’t worry too much about being out in the sun,” Marty shrugged. “That stuff adds up after a while.” He turned to Joe and said, “You ever hear of her?”
“I’ve heard a story or two,” Joe conceded.
“You guys don’t know how lucky you’ve got it,” Marty shook his head. “It used to be in the old days the output from the Glen Canyon Dam upstream varied a lot more between day and night, but the water temperature was just as cold as it runs now. You used to be able to rig on dry ground, and let the raft float off when the river rose. Well, back in those days before they graded out the ramp like we have it today, the most popular place to rig big boats was what they used to call ‘Georgie’s Spot.’” He pointed and said, “It used to be right over there.”
“Never heard of it,” Joe shook his head.
“Well, one day, a guy I used to know was putting his rig there ahead of Georgie, who came up on the crime while it was in progress. She challenged him to a duel: whoever could stand in the river up to their belly buttons and drink a beer could have the spot. They waded in, popped their cans and started sipping. Before he was even halfway through, his legs and lips were as blue as the sky. He choked on a swallow, pushed his beer can at Georgie, and stumbled out of the river, just about out of it. She stood there, finished her own beer, finished his, then sauntered out past him mumbling something about ‘those damn kids today.’”
“Sounds like Georgie,” Al smiled. “Marty, do you ever put any belief into those stories that she was really Bessie Hyde?”
“I don’t think she could have been,” Marty frowned. “But with Georgie . . . well, you never could be quite sure of anything you heard.”
“What’s this?” Joe asked.
“You know the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde, don’t you?”
“I remember hearing something about it.”
“It’s a good one to tell your customers,” Marty said. “Glen and Bessie were newlyweds who decided to take their honeymoon by doing a river run in 1928, back when runs were rare and really dangerous, mostly because they were using hardboats and people really didn’t understand running this place very much. They’d run in the late fall and early winter when the flows were low. It was before we had Glen Canyon Dam upstream. Well, to make a long story short, their boat was found floating just above Separation Rapids, down below where these Canyon Tours types take out at Diamond Creek Wash. It was just floating there, and all the supplies and stuff were still in it like nothing had happened, but no sign of either of them was ever found.”
“There have been stories going around that he beat her up and she shot him,” Al added. “But I don’t know how much truth there is to them.”
“Good question,” Marty shrugged. “From the journal they found in the boat it’s clear they made it a few miles past Diamond Creek, but that’s all anyone really knows. Anyway, after Georgie died, they found Bessie’s pistol and Glen’s and her marriage license in her underwear drawer. Nobody knows how they wound up there, so there has been speculation that Georgie must have really been Bessie Hyde. Georgie’s early history is a little fuzzy, and that added to the story.”
“Do you think it’s true?” Crystal asked.
“I myself don’t think so, but there are people who do,” Marty sighed. “The photos that have come down to us of Bessie don’t look a whole lot like Georgie, for one thing. And Bessie was something like thirteen years older than Georgie.”
“That could account for her looking so old when I saw her,” Karin observed.
“Well, could be, but most people think it isn’t true. But it sure makes an interesting thing to speculate about, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, there are lots of Georgie stories,” Al agreed. “I was at Crystal the day she flipped the G-rig. Boy, what a mess that was. I swear, that was the scariest trip I ever had.”
“That was back in ’83, wasn’t it?” Joe asked. It was legend among the boatmen on the river.
“Oh, yeah. We think of high water today as twenty-five thousand cubic feet per second. There had been a whole bunch of snow up in the mountains that winter, and Lake Powell was higher than snot, so they were trying to get the lake level down. They were releasing at sixty thousand, if I remember correctly, and it was so high that Louise and I were having thoughts about canceling the trip, but we decided to go ahead with it. Then, just as we were pulling away from here, the ranger came by and told us it was going to go to seventy-five thousand. Let me tell you, the rafts just flew down the river. There weren’t really any rapids in the first sixty miles or so. Everything was washed out, unless you wanted to call the whole river a rapids. I mean, we went past House Rock, and it wasn’t even like a rapids was there.”
“Yeah, that was scary,” Marty agreed.
“Well, we got down to Hance, and there we had some rapids, bigger than anything we see today, holes the size of houses. We got through all right, but I sure was wondering what Crystal was going to be like. We got there and you never saw anything like it in your life. The hole in the center went almost all the way across, and the only way you could possibly run it was way over on river right. There was a ranger there, and he told us that the run was boatmen only, and that the passengers would have to walk. I’ll tell you what, I’m glad he did. He also told us that Georgie had flipped the rig earlier in the day and they were flying people out on helicopters, and that there had been other accidents. I sure wasn’t crazy about running the thing, but I couldn’t see any other way to get the boats down.”
“So you ran it?” Joe asked.
“Didn’t have much choice,” Al shrugged. “I didn’t flip, anyway. That was back before we had self-bailing rafts, and I got a raft full of water, spun around a couple times, lost an oar, and didn’t get it to shore for half a mile, darn near down to Tuna Creek, which was washed out pretty much. That was a bitch of a day, there were two motor rigs that flipped, and one of ’em was the G-rig. That was a heckuva lot bigger than anything we see on the river today. Think of three S-rig center sections lashed together and running sideways. There were a bunch of people hurt, and one guy died, and they closed Crystal after that until they were able to cut back the release. It eventually went clear to ninety thousand cubic feet. I’ll tell you what, though, we saw debris from that day’s flips the whole rest of the way down the river, broken boxes, ammo cans, life jackets, upside down motor rigs ghost boating through the Canyon, side tubes torn away and making the run by themselves.”
“The only thing that saved us from losing more than we did,” Marty added, “was that they had to shut down one of the spillways up at the dam because it was washing out. Well, there was still a lot of water coming downstream, and they thought it was going to go over the top of the dam.”
“That sure would have been an interesting waterfall to see,” Al agreed. “Sometimes I’m sorry it didn’t happen. They wound up having to build a plywood extension on the top of the dam, and it almost went over that too, before they got the spillway fixed.”
“Yeah, I’m sure glad we don’t have to deal with that again, unless the Bureau of Reclamation really screws up again,” Marty agreed. “Joe, you’re new enough that you don’t remember when we had the real big tides here, aren’t you?”
“No, I’ve heard about them, though.”
“They used to cut the flow way back to oh, three or five or sometimes as much as ten thousand during the night,” Marty explained. “Then in the daytime, they’d open her up, twenty, thirty, even forty thousand cubic feet per second, depending on how much power the dam had to send to Phoenix or Los Angeles. The change in flow usually took about a day to get down to Phantom and another day or so to get down to Diamond Creek. There are places where the water level could vary over ten feet from high to low. Al, have you ever had a trip caught by the tides?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s happened, but not since they evened the flow out a lot. That’s one thing with an oar boat. You can unload it and drag it back to the river when you have a lot of help from the customers, but that’s a pain in the neck. I don’t suppose you’ve had motor rigs caught.”
“Oh, yeah, we have,” Marty said. “And I’ll tell you when the tides left a motor rig stranded on solid river bottom, it was stuck there until the water came back up again, and when you run as tight a schedule as we do on the shorter trips, that can screw things up royally. You can still get caught with an S-rig these days, but the change is so small we can usually get it unstuck.”
“Yeah, there are always stories about the good old days,” Al grinned. “But you know the scary part, Marty?”
“Some day some of these youngsters are going to be standing around talking about the good old days, and it’s right now they’ll be talking about.”