Recent rains send water racing through canyons

A hiker works her way through Little Wild Horse Canyon, a slot canyon in southeast Utah. Slot canyons can be wonderful hiking, but the steep walls offer little escape should a rainstorm upstream send walls of water racing through the canyon.



That ribbon of subtropical moisture stretching across the Four Corners is drenching the area in torrential downpours.

These are the storms the Navajo called “male rains,” with clouds the color of old pewter, spitting raindrops like buckshot that stings your skin and beats down everything in its path.

Many desert dwellers, eager for some relief from the stifling heat, offer thanks when the seasonal rains begin.

However, a land where vegetation is minimal — the landscape is naked earth and steep slabs of bare rock — is prone to quick and damaging runoff.

In his book “Desert Solitaire,” Ed Abbey writes of a flash flood that swept down on him, coming from seemingly nowhere on a sunny day.

“I have stood in the middle of a broad sandy wash with not a trickle of moisture to be seen anywhere, sunlight pouring down on me and on the flies and ants and lizards, the sky above perfectly clear, listening to a queer vibration in the air and in the ground under my feet — like a freight train coming down the grade, very fast — and looked up to see a wall of water tumble around a bend and surge toward me.

“A wall of water. A poor image. For the flash flood of the desert poorly resembles water. It looks rather like a loose pudding or a thick dense soup, thick as gravy, dense with mud and sand, lathered with scuds of bloody froth, loaded on its crest with a tangle of weeds and shrubs and small trees ripped from their roots.

“Surprised by delight, I stood there in the heat, the bright sun, the quiet afternoon, and watched the monster roll and roar toward me. It advanced in a crescent shape with a sort of forelip about a foot high streaming in front, making hissing sucking noises like a giant amoeba, nosing to the right and nosing to the left as if on the spoor of something good to eat. Red as tomato soup or blood it came down on me about as fast as a man could run. I moved aside and watched it go by.”

Floods come in all sizes. From the slow-moving walls of water witnessed by Abbey and perhaps happening right now in the broad sandy washes around Moab and Canyonlands National Park, to the race car-fast tongues of water ripping and slicing through the narrow slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell and elsewhere.

It’s in these slot canyons, where sometimes the walls are a shoulder’s width apart, that floods have trapped unsuspecting hikers.

Nature writer Ann Zwinger wrote of one such flash flood that tore through Havasu Canyon, a tributary of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.

“In the fall of 1990, a flash flood ripped through Havasu Canyon, pegged by the U.S. Geological Survey at 22,800 (cubic feet per second) against the creek’s usual flow of 50. It ripped out the verdure, split trees to kindling, broke, mowed down and carted away every vestige of beautiful shade, harvested velvet ash trees a foot in diameter and shuttled them downriver to the sawmill at Lava Falls.

“It wedged debris on ledges 15 feet above the present stream bank.”

A flash flood in October 2006, a month when between 4 and 5 inches of rain fell on Canyonlands National Park, swept away the campground at Newspaper Rock on the road to the Needles District of the park.

“We had rain for like two to three weeks and this flood that came out of Indian Creek scoured away 100 feet of road and wiped out the entire camping area,” said Gary Howatt, a 10-year park guide in the Needles District. “Luckily no one was hurt, but it was a disaster waiting to happen.”

The park was closed for several days, the people in the park stranded until the road re-opened, Howatt said.

There aren’t many true slot canyons in the Needles District, Howatt said, but travelers on the many backcountry roads should watch for flash floods.

“Right now, we can’t get into Davis and Lavendar (canyons east of the park),” Howatt said. “We had a couple of vehicles get stuck there last week, 5 or 6 miles in, and they didn’t even get close to the park portion of Lavendar Canyon. We had to send another vehicle in to tow them out.”

At the Hahn’s Flat Ranger Station in the Maze District, one of the remotest Park Service points in the West, Cynthia Beyer agreed.

“We don’t get too many people in the backcountry this time of year because of the weather,” said Beyer, one of the rangers stationed at the outpost 2.5 hours by dirt road from Green River, Utah.

It’s a land of narrow canyons and steep gullies where inexperienced visitors can get in trouble.

“Many of them have only read guidebooks, which really don’t say too much about (the dangers of) flash floods,” Beyer said. “They are out on their own and have no real experience in these kinds of places.

“And most of the experienced slot canyoneers know better than to go into the canyons at this time of year.”

Beyer said they’re telling visitors who call (435-259-2652) that travel into the area isn’t advised.

“It’s not recommended due to flooding and quicksand,” Beyer said. “If you were to wait a couple of days (after it stops raining) it should be fine.”

Beyer admitted it’s nice to have some rain in the desert.

“It’s beautiful, we love it when it rains in the desert,” she mused. “But this definitely is not slot canyon weather.”


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