Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
“Al,” he heard Crystal say, “Dan said you wanted to see us.”
Al turned away from the computer on his desk in his office. His nice warm office, that is. After the last three weeks, the comfort of his office was welcome. “Yeah,” he said with a parting glance at his computer – who would have ever dreamed that he would have such a thing on his desk when he and Louise bought Canyon Tours from Willie Stein almost thirty years ago? Or that he would even need a desk at all? “I want your mom to sit in on the discussion, though, and I know she ran to the post office. She ought to be back in a few minutes. But come on in and take a load off.”
Crystal and Preach went into the office and found seats in the somewhat tattered armchairs scattered around the room. Al wasn’t much of one for show, and he preferred things that were there to be used, rather than looked at. “So how are things going out there?” Al asked.
“I think we’re getting to the point where almost everything is back to where it’s supposed to be,” Crystal reported. “But Jeff was griping that he’s lost almost a month on winter maintenance, so now it’s going to be a game of catch-up.”
“Yeah, I know, he was griping to me about it, too,” Al nodded, reaching for his coffee cup. He took a sip and went on. “The first real launch of the season is only about two months away. I guess that’s the price we’re going to have to pay for having a real fun trip.”
“It was fun,” Crystal grinned.
It had been a fun trip, Al agreed mentally. They had done a lot of things on the trip they could never have done on a regular trip, at least partly because they had the time for them. They hadn’t been nearly as tightly scheduled as they usually were in the summer, and that had led to a lot of flexibility, not to mention the opportunity to sit out a couple of stormy days and not get on the river at all.
They’d wound up taking six rafts, which was plenty, with only two and three people per raft rather than the normal six they carried in the summer. That left plenty of extra room for wood for good campfires, not the little things they usually had in the summer, and they warmed up cold evenings nicely. They’d had to carry more winter clothing than they usually did, and everyone had wet suits or dry suits, although temperatures were normally not a lot worse than they were on the November trips Canyon Tours had occasionally run for years.
They’d had the option to do the trip in as little as two weeks if it had proved to be tougher going than they had anticipated, but the weather had mostly been on the mild side. They’d stretched the trip out longer mostly because of something Marty had suggested. Since the trip was being done on a shoestring and nobody was getting paid, they’d decided to skip the very expensive takeout at Diamond Creek Wash and run right down to South Cove. Since that involved a lot of flatwater, Marty had suggested they take along a couple of outboard motors and a lot of gas. Marty and Jeff had been able to rig motor mounts on a couple of rafts, so that part worked fine.
Having the outboards meant even more flexibility, since they could cluster up into one unit and power through some of the long flat stretches on the river without rowing before they even got to the backwaters of Lake Mead. That had allowed more time for exploring and poking around in the Canyon proper. The run across Lake Mead had been long and dull, and it hadn’t helped when the wind got so strong one day that they couldn’t make much progress. They had to find a barren beach and sit it out until the wind died down a little the next day.
But it had been worth it for several reasons, one of which was that they got into the last of the Canyon below Diamond Creek. There wasn’t a lot of Canyon left there, but there were some neat things there that Al hadn’t seen in many years and that the rest of the Canyon Tours people except for some who had made motor rig trips had never seen at all.
While they’d been sitting on that dreary beach trying to find what shelter there was from the wind, Al and Marty had talked over the situation at Diamond Creek. Not only did the tribe that owned the road charge an arm and a leg to use it, it seemed like it washed out if there was a thunderstorm anywhere within about fifty miles. When that happened, the takeout might not be usable for a long time until it could be bulldozed out again, and parties looking to use it could get backed way up for days.
Someone got caught like that almost every summer, and it was just sheer luck that it hadn’t been Canyon Tours, at least not recently. He could remember a time maybe fifteen years before when a Canyon Tours trip had to wait almost a week before they could use the takeout. Food had gotten a little on the short side, and the customers were less than pleased. Worse, Canyon Tours only had so many rafts and so many boatmen, so the launch for the next trip had to be delayed until the crew could do a burnaround up to Lee’s. They only had time for a brief stop in Flagstaff to load food for the next trip, without even a stop at the Burro for a few beers while the coin laundry next door dealt with their dirty clothes.
Three years before, Scooter had almost gotten caught the same way, and would have if it hadn’t been for Norma Dieshu and her uncanny weather sense. As it was, they’d only missed being caught by a flash flood by minutes.
The odds of a Canyon Tours crew getting caught like that sooner or later seemed pretty likely, but while the wind was trying to blow them off Lake Mead and clear back to Lee’s Ferry Al and Marty had talked it over. GCR had S-rigs coming by Diamond Creek Wash on their way to South Cove in the afternoon almost every other day, so the answer was pretty obvious, although it had taken them both years to think of it. What they’d worked out was that if a Canyon Tours crew got caught at Diamond Creek and it didn’t look like the road would be open in the next day or so they’d proceed on down the river until the next GCR baloney boats caught up with them. The GCR crew would then tow them on to South Cove.
Marty estimated that giving a Canyon Tours trip a tow might cost the GCR crew an extra twelve hours of running, but the cost would be cheaper than taking out at Diamond Creek, and Al had been willing to cover the difference if needed. Some coordination would be needed via the satphones, but it seemed like it ought to work if an emergency came up. There had also been some discussion about running a few Canyon Tours trips like that normally just so people could have the opportunity to check out things below Diamond Creek like Travertine Falls and Separation Canyon, but that hadn’t been settled yet and might not be for a while.
One of the best parts about the trip they’d just finished was that some of the Canyon Tours and GCR people had gotten to know each other a little better, so they might be able to work together if something like that came up. There were still details to be worked out with Marty, but there was plenty of time to work on them. Besides, that deal had gotten shoved into the background a little now.
“I think we learned a lot,” Al nodded, bringing his thoughts back to the present. Since he wanted to wait for Karin to get back, he had to fill in a little. “I have to admit, I think one of the things we learned is that we really don’t want to try to run a normal commercial trip in the winter.”
“I have to agree with you on that,” Crystal said. “I mean, if we knew people had adequate winter camping skills, clothing, and gear it might be a little more possible, but I can see that we’d have to get some extra gear to make things work, and it just doesn’t strike me that the extra cost is worth it.”
“That’s pretty much what Marty and I agreed,” he nodded. “It’s a neat idea, but it’s probably not the most saleable thing there ever was, and the extra cost probably isn’t worth the reward. But if I got the chance to do a semi-private trip like that again sometime, I don’t think I’d turn it down, but we got lucky with an unlikely set of circumstances, so there’s no telling if it’ll ever happen again.”
“At least it worked this time,” she nodded. “That’ll make for some neat stories to tell, like Randy and his playboat.”
“He sure had fun with it, didn’t he?” Al grinned. Randy had paddled his kayak on every major rapids on the river and many of the smaller ones. After a couple of days it had proved easier to carry the kayak on a raft, rather than tow it, but he could be into it and on the water in a couple of minutes after everyone got practiced at it. “But anyway, how are we coming out in the shop?”
“We ought to get finished going over the rafts we took on the trip with us by the end of the day,” Crystal reported. “There are a few little things that needed attention, but nothing major.”
“We talked it over,” Preach added. “Jeff and Dan are behind out there, but if we help I think we can get them caught back up in plenty of time for the season opening.”
“So you’re saying you’re not planning on going to Costa Rica after all?” Al smiled, suspecting what was behind that decision, and it wasn’t quite what Preach had indicated.
“Not now,” Crystal said. “It would have been fun, but we blew our Costa Rica time by taking that trip, so now we need to pitch in on maintenance and rigging.”
“I’m sure Jeff and Dan will appreciate it,” Al agreed. He had been hoping that Crystal and Preach would figure that out for themselves, and they had. “With your help, we ought to be ready to start the season in good shape.”
“So how are we looking for crews?”
“Better than we usually are this time of year, for once,” Al told her. “Oh, it’s going to be a little tight until school gets out. Your mother and I will help so we may be able to get by with only a couple of fill-ins. We’re losing some of the college kids from last year, but there are enough others coming up to take their places. To top it off, there are a couple of swampers who could be promoted to boatmen in a pinch. One of them is a kid from GCR, she was a swamper for them last year, but she worked quite bit back east like you and Scooter. She probably could be promoted to boatman, at least on a gear boat, once she’s had a trip or two down the river with us. Fall looks to be a pain in the neck as it usually is, but we can probably pick up a hand or two temporarily after the motor rigs shut down for the season. It’s not going to be like last year when we had to fill all those extra seats on those trips we got from GCR.”
“Well, good,” Crystal smiled. “I know that’s always a hassle for you, but at least you won’t have to worry about it as much this year.”
“Yeah, but next year looks to be a problem, at least at this distance. We’re going to be losing more college kids than normal, so we’re going to have to work on replacing them this summer, and we may not be able to replace all of them with the swampers we have in the pipeline. At least I know I have four good, solid leader teams for this summer, and that helps a lot. If Duane and Michelle hadn’t agreed to lead the Gold Team, we would have had a huge problem last year, but that could be a problem in the future, too.”
“It’s complicated,” Al sighed, “and it’s one of those things your mother ought to be here for. But I think she just walked in, so we can get right to it.”
In a minute or two Karin came into the office and took a seat in one of the easy chairs. “Anything interesting in the mail?” Al asked.
“It looks like we got some checks for reservations, but I haven’t been through the mail yet,” she reported.
“Good, we can always use the income this time of year,” he replied, and turned back to Crystal and Preach. “Look, now that Karin is here we might as well get into this jazz. I thought about what you two were saying yesterday about wanting to get more involved in the management of the company with an eye to taking it over someday.” He paused for a moment, and then went on. “I told you yesterday that I welcomed the idea, but that I needed to talk with your mother and think about it before we got down to the details. In fact, I’ve been hoping you’d come to realize that sooner or later. But at the same time, there are some problem areas that we need to work out, and that means the four of us.”
“Preach and I talked it over last night, too,” Crystal said. “I think we see some of the problems, but they might not be the ones you’re seeing.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Like I said, I welcome the idea, but it’s something we’re going to have to work up to slowly. While you two can handle a trip on the river just fine, there’s a lot more to running this company than that. It’s something Louise and I had to learn the hard way years and years ago, and we made some mistakes along the way. I guess there’s not much we can do but have you work your way into managing the place with my guidance and some help from your mother, and it’s not something we want to try overnight.”
“Well, yeah,” Crystal nodded. “I can see that.”
“The biggest reason I don’t want to move real fast on it is that there are changes coming with the new Park Service management plan, whatever it turns out to be,” Al continued. “There have been so many draft plans and revisions over the years that I was beginning to wonder if it would ever be done, but it’s beginning to look like something could be approved before long.”
It was something that Crystal and Preach were at least a little bit familiar with. The Park Service limited the total number of trips launched each year. Back when the rules were first made out, the majority of launches were commercial ones, but over the years the demand for private trip launch dates had increased until the waiting list for a private trip was over a decade long. The private boaters were less than happy, and had pushed for a revision to the rules.
In recent years, the Park Service had allowed private trips to use unused commercial launch dates, but there weren’t many of them available. When that first came about, Al could see that if Canyon Tours didn’t use all the trips they were allowed they might get taken away from the company permanently, so he’d insisted on using all the dates even if the trips were small and unprofitable.
“So does it look like we’re going to be able to keep all thirty-six trips?”
“At the moment, yes,” Al said, “but nothing is final yet and the private boaters group is still raising a stink. I’m hopeful there will be a final draft management plan in the foreseeable future, but I don’t want to bet on it. We are talking about the Park Service, after all. What I’m saying is that I think we need to sit a little tight on changes until we see what makes the cut. Once we know about that, we ought to be in a better position to make plans for the future.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right on that,” Preach nodded. “I can see it could change a lot.”
“Depending on how things go, it could make trying to keep on owning the company not worth the effort,” Al agreed. “Let’s face it, we’re one of the smaller companies, and the big ones have more weight to throw around, so they could gut us smaller ones in the process. Marty and I talked about that a lot on the trip and he’s worried about it too, even though GCR is a lot bigger than we are. So for now it turns into a wait-and-see.”
“So it becomes a wait-and-see for us, too,” Crystal nodded. “I mean, about working toward taking over the company.”
“That’s about the size of it. There’s another issue with the Park Service. At the moment it looks like they’re going to cut our trip length limits, maybe to sixteen days, maybe to fourteen. That would cut our expenses a little bit, but it would cut what we can charge for a trip a lot more, to a place where the financial aspects worry me a bit. Karin, do you want to take a swing at that one?”
“It’s not simple,” she said. “Perhaps one way to say it is that if you multiply our published charge for a trip by the number of customers we can take, and that by the number of trips, you come up with one figure. But we don’t come close to actually taking in that figure, thanks to unsold seats and discounts. We only did eighty-seven percent of the possible income last year, and that was up from the previous year. Now, it costs a certain figure for us to put on a single trip. I mean, food, crew, taxes, a replacement fund on the equipment, a fee to the Park Service, and launch and takeout expenses, especially at Diamond Creek. On top of that there are other overhead expenses, such as buildings, the bus, some salaries and taxes, especially insurance, and a reserve to cover the expenses of unsold seats. Add it all up, and Canyon Tours is not that profitable. Oh, we make a profit and a comfortable one, but not a huge one.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Crystal admitted. “I never thought much about it other than the direct expenses, like salaries and food and stuff.”
“That’s part of the reason Al and I think you and Preach need to take some time to learn how to manage what you’d be getting into,” Karin smiled. “I think of these kinds of things since I was a corporate bookkeeper for thirty years. You think better with an oar in your hand, and you know it. That’s part of what you’re going to have to learn.”
“Yeah,” Crystal shook her head. “I guess there’s more to it than I thought.”
“If it’s any help, there’s a lot more to it than I thought there would be when Louise and I bought the company years ago,” Al smiled. “But like I said, we had to learn it the hard way. Karin, do you want to move on to the other part of your thinking?”
“Sure, that was what I was leading up to. The one thing we can do to increase income without raising rates is to fill those unsold seats. The best way we can do that is to move those late fall trips into the summer when they’re easier to fill, and Al has been working on that.”
“That involves fighting with the Park Service, too,” Al pointed out. “But I’ve had some success with it.”
“It got a lot easier when we picked up those six trips from GCR,” Karin went on. “Up until then it was more cost-effective to only have three crews, so we couldn’t really justify having four. When we picked up those trips, we had to have four. But having the fourth crew, especially running shorter trips, allows us to get away from those undersold late trip dates, which is why our percentage against potential income went up last year. It ought to do better this year.”
“That much makes sense,” Crystal said. “Sometimes the November trips are fun, but sometimes we freeze our butts, too. We’d fill more of the seats if the trips were in August.”
“Again it’s a scheduling issue, and it can’t all change at once,” Al put in. “We have to work a couple years ahead. Marty and I are working on the 2004 trip schedule right now. I have to have him involved since those six trips are still officially his, but we’re working on the Park Service about that, too. The point is, whatever happens with the management plan, we still can’t change very quickly.”
“Governments aren’t known for moving quickly,” Preach pointed out.
“True, and since there are resource issues involved, the Park Service is even slower than normal,” Al opined. “Anyway, that gives you some of the background of where I’m coming from and why I want to move slowly on this. There are other issues, financial issues and especially tax issues, that we need to have thoroughly ironed out as we go through making this transfer, and we’re still working on how to go about them. About all I can say is that your mother and I will try to be as fair to you as we can be, but since you’re willing to move forward, we are too. But we need to move forward slowly.”
“If you think the Park Service issues are complicated,” Karin said, “the tax issues are even worse. We could all get a royal screw job if we don’t do it right.”
“So what’s the first step?” Crystal asked.
“I think the first step is for you to work in the office with me a little from now until the first trips launch,” Karin told her. “That will start to get you understanding a little bit of what’s involved.”
“Right,” Al added. “Because of what we talked about earlier, we need you on the river like normal next summer. Then, we’ll get you into the office more next winter. Maybe the summer after that you’ll only have to be on the river part-time. Things will clarify as they go along. That’s part of the reason we need to be developing new trip leaders, too.”
“Especially if you and Preach plan on having kids in the next few years,” Karin smiled; it was clear that the grandmother in her was talking.
“Yeah, I guess,” Crystal sighed. “I figured Preach could fill in for at least some of that, though.”
“He probably could,” Al said. “But Crystal, we have three married couples as trip leaders. I wouldn’t be surprised if the other leader team will get married if they ever slow down long enough to think about it. You’re all in the age group where kids are a possibility. I shouldn’t have to tell you why that means we need to at least start thinking about developing another couple of trip leaders and assistants.”