On any typical sweltering summer day in the desert southwest, flood safety is the last thing on most minds. Your dry throat, the searing sun and heat attest to the regions bone-dry reputation. Yet each summer brings an unexpected risk, Flash Flooding.
I was in the middle of a week long, late summer, backcountry trip in Utah’s canyon country. Two days from the nearest trail head. My only supplies consisting of a basket of primitive gear: a grass sleeping mat, clay pot for cooking and water purification and a small handmade basket carrying various stone and bone tools for daily chores.
The weather had been un-seasonably warm, daytime temps in the 90’s, night in the 60’s….in retrospect it was “the calm before the storm”. These canyons are notorious for their late summer flooding. Monsoon produced thunderstorms often hover over the surrounding mountains dropping torrential rains, the topography funnels this moisture violently downhill….bottle necking into the numerous slot canyons dotting the slick rock Utah landscape.
The last weather forecast I had heard called for high pressure and sunshine.
My canyon trip was going as planned up to this point.
Pine nuts, trout and grasshoppers were plentiful, my stomach was full.
The afternoon was beautiful, the sky a sea of blue, scattered with a few high clouds.
I curiously wandered up a narrow side canyon of the Escalante River. In search of the remains of the canyons ancient inhabitants: the Anasazi.
The overgrown trail tripped in and out of the creek for the better part of an hour. While stopping to tighten my sandal, my attention turns to the sparse scrub oak surrounding me and the unusual fog of silence now blanketing the area. Over the creeks low gurgle my ear picks up a low volume grumbling vibrating off the tight canyon walls….and another….frozen in my tracks I strain to determine the source.
The slice of sky overhead revealed nothing but deep blue, but the weather to the north, to the mountains was obscured. I knew with mountain rain would come the inevitable runoff and potential DANGER.
“I CANNOT be in this narrow canyon when that runoff arrives” I told myself. “I have gotta pick up the pace”.
As my direction and speed shift down canyon, I notice the water quickly rising, now lapping just below my calves…..
20 yards ahead I spot a rock shelter, a small 6 x 8 ft shelf eroded into the sandstone wall, 5 foot off the deck of the rising creek. On hands and knees I crawl onto the sandy shelf. Another few minutes and I would have been swept down the narrow canyon by the swirling muddy torrent.
Perched on my sandy safe haven, my mind has difficulty wrapping itself around the strange scene, blue sky, warm sunshine and the creek rising violently. The rumbling of boulders tumbling along the floods bottom shakes me from my hypnosis.
The brown liquid continued to rise….soon lapping at the edge of my dry patch of earth. Panic swelled in my chest, as I realized I wouldn’t survive the rising flood water if swept off the ledge.
Instinctively, I clenched the rear wall of my earthly protector. Silently praying for deliverance.
This tiny ledge would be my home for the LONG restless night ahead. I hunkered down waiting for the new day….
As I eagerly watched the canyon lighten with the rising sun, the roar of the flood long subsided, leaving behind the remnants of the night’s storm.
I anxiously flee my nights abode and continue quickly down the canyon….to the open country and to safety.
Flash Flood Safety Tips:
• If a wash or canyon bottom is flooded, do not cross. Take an alternate route. Or, wait until the water recedes. 6 inches of water is enough to sweep you off your feet.
• Climb to high ground and stay put. Do not try to outrace a flood on foot.
• Never camp on low ground next to streams since a flash flood can catch you while you’re asleep.
• Always be careful when approaching a wash or slot canyon, even if it’s not raining or cloudy in your location. A wash or slot can become flooded by a thunderstorm several miles away.
• Be familiar with the topography, hazards and resources in the area in which you travel and recreate. Be prepared!
• Stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio for the latest statements, watches and warnings concerning heavy rain and flash flooding in your area. Local ranger stations are an excellent source of seasonal info.