River Runner is Book #5 in The Forensic Geology Series. The story takes Cassie and Walter to the Grand Canyon, into mystery and adventure–along with a thrilling dose of river running. I’m about 1/3 of the way into writing the story–here’s the first chapter to give a taste:
“There’s a boatload of ways to die in the Grand Canyon,” the ranger said. “But this…” He did not complete the thought.
I considered, again, the boat in front of us.
The river-running raft nosed the shore of the muscular Colorado River. It had been caught in an eddy, its trip interrupted, the raft itself abandoned. No question that this trip had not gone the way it should but as of yet no bodies had been found. I yanked my attention from the raft to the frowning ranger. In our short acquaintance, National Park Service Ranger Bennie Molina had not once failed to complete a sentence.
“But this?” I asked.
“This one is hard to read.”
“You talking about the life vests?” I indicated the three unused vests lying in the raft.
“Starting with the PFDs, yes.” He added, “Personal flotation devices.”
I knew what PFD meant. Life or death, it seemed. “So you’re saying the rafters likely drowned?”
“They sure made it easy, ma’am.”
Ma’am, again. The man could be no more than thirty, certainly darned close to my thirty-two. He had a round boyish face, unweathered—thanks I’d guess to that straw ranger hat with a brim as wide as a dinner plate. He was a careful by-the-book ranger who had already impressed me with his vast knowledge of this river, this canyon, this world. Born in the nearby town of Tusayan, a Grand Canyon baby. Bred in the bone, so he’d said—not glibly, but simply with deliberation. And he kept calling me ma’am. Maybe it was because I was a newbie here, in his canyon. A greenhorn.
I said,“It’s Cassie, please. Or Ms. Oldfield, if you must.”
He nodded. “The inconsistencies on this raft don’t surprise you? Cassie?”
Not as much as the rock chips inside the transparent dry bag, clipped to the nylon rope on the raft’s side tube. The reason my partner and I were here.
My partner Walter Shaws and I are forensic geologists. We run a lab called Sierra Geoforensics, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and what we do for a living is analyze earth evidence at scenes of crimes and crises. In this case, pieces of rock on an abandoned raft were the evidence, although of what I had no clue. In the case of this crisis, the hope was that we could trace the geological evidence to its source, and thus help the Search and Rescue team find what happened and where, perhaps narrowing the search area.
I shot a glance at Walter, who was flanking Bennie Molina. Walter’s face, unlike the ranger’s, was well weathered, in large part because Walter had a good thirty years on Molina and wasn’t scrupulous enough about using sunscreen. He did wear a floppy field hat, at my nagging. It shadowed his face enough that I could not read his expression. He remained silent, his preferred method of gathering information, getting the lay of the land, waiting for other people to say what they had to say.
Unlike me. My preferred method was to ask. Blurt it out. “Is it all that surprising that the rafters weren’t wearing their vests?”
“There are rules,” Molina said. “You break them at your peril.”
“You mean paying a fine?”
“At the least.”
“And at the most…”
“You don’t go on the river without your PFD,” the ranger said. “You don’t.”
And now Walter jumped in. “I certainly wouldn’t. Cassie wouldn’t. Clearly you wouldn’t. But surely you get careless people here who forget? Or think they won’t get caught?”
“We do. And that really grinds my gears.”
“But in this case?”
Molina looked at the raft. “I don’t think this is a case of party animals.”
I wasn’t certain what a party-animal raft would look like but I suspected it would be messier than this. Bennie Molina had already inspected the craft and found it properly rigged and neatly arranged. No crumpled beer cans or half-eaten nachos or cigarette butts or discarded articles of clothing.
The raft was in the neighborhood of twenty feet long, an oblong donut-shaped rubberized pontoon wrapped around an aluminum frame. Flanking the main body, on each side, were shorter tubes. At the back was a small motor, with a boatman’s folding seat alongside. The center was stacked with metal gear boxes and dry bags and fishing gear and coolers and a fold-up aluminum table. Foam-covered benches flanked the pile of gear. The benches faced the side tubes, which were crisscrossed by nylon rigging ropes. I assumed the ropes were the hang-on-for-dear-life grab-aholds, when running rapids.
I saw the ranger’s point. We had a raft that was rigged professionally. And we had rafters who had carelessly abandoned their vests.
Walter said, “And then there is the question of the bowline.”
“Yes,” Molina said, “like the unused PFDs, oddly negligent.”
I didn’t know the etiquette of raft rigging but I did understand that the bowline was not in keeping with the neatly stowed gear and carefully secured strapping. The line was not coiled. The red and white corded nylon line lay in a tangle at the front of the raft—at the bow, I corrected myself. The end of the line was still knotted.
Trapped in the knot was a large chunk of dark-brown rock, rough and irregular. Like the rock chips in the dry bag, the reason we were here.
“Equally negligent,” the ranger said, “is the knot itself. Only a swamper would tie off a raft using a slip knot.”
I nodded, as if I knew that. I certainly knew the slip knot—indeed, I recalled a good number of knots from my Girl Scout days, and Walter and I used selected knots in the field, for this and that, including the slip knot to tie something quickly. I certainly could not claim to know what a swamper was, although I assumed it was not a compliment. I said, “Slip knot isn’t the knot of choice to tie off a river raft, I take it.”
“You take it correctly.” Molina added, “A good boatman uses a secure quick-release knot that only needs a pull on the tag end to free it and bring it back to the boat.”
““But this boatman ties a slip knot. And then when they’re ready to leave he tugs on the tag end and…”
“The knot cranks down.”
I indicated the rock chip in the knot. “On that.”
“Must’ve tied off on a brittle piece of rock face.”
“So why not just go over to the rock face and lift the loop off the anchorage?”
“Why, indeed?” Molina said.
Walter put in his two cents. “In a hurry. Not thinking straight. An injury, a sudden need to get help.”
“Still,” Molina said, “he should’ve known the knot would just tighten down.”
I said, “Maybe he panicked.”
The men looked at me.
“Maybe the line guy was heading for the rock face but, say, he almost stepped on a rattlesnake.”
I immediately regretted offering that scenario. Snakes—Walter’s phobia. I’d read that the Grand Canyon rattlesnake came in a pink color. Very stylish. Still deadly, though. Certainly if I almost stepped on a pink rattlesnake, I’d be rattled. Ha ha. In a hurry to get the hell out of there.
“Or maybe,” I continued, eager to move away from snakes, “there was someone with a gun. Or some such.”
“Lot of maybes,” Molina said.
Walter said, “One more, if you will. Maybe the rafters went ashore, leaving their vests aboard. Tied off the line, with their swamper knot, for whatever reason. When they got ready to leave—in a hurry, for whatever reason—they yanked the line and snagged the chunk of rock and tossed the bowline into the raft. And the currents took the raft away, leaving the rafters ashore.”
Molina took a long time with that. “Stranger things have happened.”
“But you don’t buy it, here?”
“Given the skill and care taken with the rigging, it would perplex me, sir.”
Walter smiled. “It’s Walter. It’s Walter and Cassie. We’re all working together now, Bennie.”
Molina considered. “I can work with that.”
I found myself liking this resolute ranger, this Grand Canyon lifer who read the rules of the river the way Walter and I read the rocks.
We all fell silent, focusing once more on the raft and its contents.
The raft looked like it would comfortably accommodate four or five people.
But it seemed we had three.
The three personal flotation devices lay on the left-hand bench. There was no obvious sign of breakage or failure, although it would take Molina or a boatman to fully make that analysis. In any case, there they were. Bright yellow, full zipped vests, with black webbed straps and heavy-duty clasps. Just what you want on the river.
But the rafters had never put them on.
Or, had taken them off.
And then disappeared.
I looked upriver. The water was calm, as rivers go, but the current steadily rippled the surface like muscles working beneath the skin. It made a low-voiced rumble, unceasing. I looked downriver. Same water. No rapids in sight.
You don’t go on the river without your PFD.
Fine, I got it.
This was the Colorado River.
It carved the Grand Canyon.
It ran from the Rockies to the Gulf of California, in the process dropping two and one half vertical miles, and some of those miles ran through psychotic rapids. Some of the most hellacious rapids were here in the Grand Canyon.
Although I’d been reading up on the river I had yet to venture onto it, onto a raft. But that was surely on the agenda. Walter had always wanted to ride this river, a bucket-list longing, and I had agreed to give it a try.
And then I saw the YouTube video. Some rafting outfitter had filmed it, some boatman on shore videotaping a raft full of paying passengers shooting a rapid called Lava. The cameraman, the hotshot boatman, was narrating, and the voice-over rose in pitch as the raft fell into the the jaws of a river gone mad. “There they go!” the boatman’s voice punched it up. “Punching through the standing wave!” I’d never heard the term ‘standing wave’ but I got the drift. Unlike waves in the sea, these river-rapid waves did not break, did not flatten, just rose up like liquid jaws and engulfed whatever was foolish enough to come their way. In the video, the raft disappeared down down down into the rapid they called Lava. Drowning. Death. Who knew, because for seconds which stretched like minutes there was no sign of the raft, there was just the churning water and the boatman narrator’s whoops. And then there it was. Popping up, popping free of the jaws of death—oh yeah, my own sense of drama had ratcheted into high gear—and the boatwoman steering the raft raised a fist and the boatman cameraman on shore crowed “Gnarly” and zoomed the focus in tight on the passengers. Drenched, dripping. Grinning like mad creatures, pumping their own fists in the air, but I could read the residual fear on their faces.
Yeah sure Walter, let’s shoot some rapids.
And while we’re at it, let’s be damned sure to wear our personal flotation devices.
I frowned at the three abandoned PFDs in the abandoned raft in front of us and I didn’t know what rapids were upriver or what rapids were downriver but I figured anybody rafting this mother of rivers should have known better.
There are rules.
Break them at your peril.