Jeff was the spotter, perched on the edge of his seat in the back of the boat watching his six-year-old daughter Jenny and two similar-sized girls clutching onto the inflatable tube at the end of the yellow rope.
Greg was driving his boat in loose circles on the South Saskatchewan River, making it just hard enough for the giggling girls to hang on. Greg had been Jeff’s roommate when they were both taking agriculture at university. Now, with families and farms a five-hour-drive apart, the two old friends didn’t see each other often, but they were always glad when they did. Their wives had become friends over the years, and although Jenny hadn’t seen Greg’s seven-year-old twin daughters since they were toddlers, it hadn’t taken the girls long to strike up a friendship. Greg’s son Max was two years older than Jeff’s son Connor, but the two boys had found common ground and were getting along well.
Greg turned his head to holler at Jeff.
“What? I can’t hear you! The girls are laughing too loud,” Jeff shouted back.
“Do you think they’re having fun?” Greg repeated.
“They’re having the time of their lives!” Jeff yelled back.
In mid-July, with the Hanson’s cleaning plant overhaul almost finished and the yard mowed to perfection, Jeff and Elaine had taken their two kids to the Saskatchewan Landing park in southwest Saskatchewan for a few days of camping.
“It’s too dry here to worry about the lawn. We barely had to spray this year,” Greg had said when he’d set up the trip with Jeff. “Our farm is so close to the river, we go down there all the time.”
None of the Hansons could explain why they hadn’t sold Jeff’s grandfather’s trailer after Ed had had his stroke. It was clear that Ed was never going to be healthy enough to haul his trailer to Arizona again, but the well-kept trailer was perfect for Jeff and Elaine to take to the park campground for a mid-week break.
Jenny had been scared of Greg’s fast-moving boat at first, but when she saw the twins climb on to the tube, she wasn’t about to miss anything. She held her head up bravely and climbed on too. Almost as soon as the boat started moving, Jenny was laughing and shrieking as if she’d been riding on tubes every day of her life.
“How long do you think they’re going to want to ride back there?” Jeff asked Greg.
“We’ll run out of gas by midnight,” Greg joked.
Back at the campground, Elaine was lounging in the shade with Greg’s wife, Heather, while Connor and Max were off with their bikes. “Exploring,” the boys had said.
Heather came out of her trailer with cold beer for herself and Elaine.
“I’m not sure,” Elaine said. “It’s only two o’clock. I might need to be able to drive.”
“We don’t have to go anywhere!” Heather said. “And the men can make supper.”
Elaine couldn’t argue, and the sweating beer bottle topped with a wedge of lime was tempting so she reached for it. “Thanks.”
“It’s great that you and Jeff could come out for a few days,” Heather said. “This is a good break for us.”
“I thought you camped here a lot,” Elaine said.
“We do,” Heather said. “But usually with the neighbours. And it’s hard to talk about anything other than the drought.”
“It’s been tough here,” Elaine said. “Two dry years in a row.”
Heather took a long sip of beer. “Yeah,” she said. “We had a pretty good sense of humour about it during the first year, but that’s gone now. Now we talk about how the weather forecast keeps changing. One day the apps call for rain four days from now, then the next day the forecast changes so the rain is still four days away.” Heather paused for a few seconds before she went on. “We don’t think we’re going to be able to stay on the farm for another year, after this.”
Elaine had seen the photos of the short, thin crops on Twitter, and she knew Greg and Heather had taken on a lot of debt when they’d started farming. She was trying to imagine what she could say when Greg’s truck came speeding into the campsite, sliding to a stop in front of Heather’s trailer.
“What’s going on Greg?” Heather shouted. “I’m the one drinking, not you!”
Greg and Jeff jumped out of the truck.
“Girls, get yourselves out,” Greg shouted behind him as he rushed to his trailer.
“Dad called,” Greg told Heather. “There’s a fire in Graham’s pasture over east. I’m going to change out of these shorts and hit the road. You stay here with the kids.”
“I’m going along to help,” Jeff called to Elaine as he opened their trailer door, bathing suit dripping on the floor.
“Of course,” said Elaine, gathering towels to dry off the wet girls.
“Mommy, we have to get a boat like Greg’s!” Jenny said. “Daddy said we could.”
“We’ll see about that,” Elaine said, holding out a towel. “Your dad spent all his money on fungicide.”
Jenny looked like she was going to complain, but she was distracted by how fast Jeff was pulling on his shoes as he hopped to Greg’s truck.
“Be careful,” Heather called as Greg pulled on a dry T-shirt and opened his truck door at the same time.
“I’ll call,” he answered.
“If it’s going to be a big one, I’ll bring out some food and water,” Heather said.
“Good thing we’ve only had one beer,” Elaine said as they watched Greg’s truck drive away.
“It’s an hour’s drive,” Heather said. “Maybe the fire will be out before they get there.”
But Elaine and Heather both knew how dry it was north of the river, and how fast any breath of wind could carry a fire with only a band of volunteer farmers to stop it.
The two women looked at one another.
“Is everything okay?” Jenny asked. “Why were Dad and Greg in such a hurry? Can we go tubing again?”
“I’ll get some snacks,” Heather said, heading into her trailer. “I’m sure you girls are hungry, and Connor and Max will be looking for food when they get back with their bikes.”
But the girls hadn’t finished their cheese and crackers and the boys were still on their biking adventure when Greg’s truck pulled back into the campground.
“Dad called again,” Greg told Heather and Elaine as he got out of the truck. “They’ve got things under control. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and Jim Graham was out with his cultivator plowing up a strip of dirt as soon as he saw a spark.”
“How did it start?” Elaine asked.
“They aren’t sure,” Greg said. “But I’m not surprised. When it’s this dry it could happen anywhere. Anytime.”
Having heard the truck drive up, Jenny and her two new friends scrambled out of the Hanson’s trailer and started pleading for a chance to go tubing again after supper.
“Might as well,” Greg said. “We’ll suck all the fun we can out of this summer while we’re still here.”