July 20, 2013  •  2 Comments

red, river, "colorado river", "flash flood"RED RIVER Monsoon season has begun here in southern Utah and along with the intense lightning storms and voluminous downpours come flash floods.  If enough rain falls on the north flanks of the Manti-La Sal mountains which feed Professor and Onion creeks, their discharge into the Colorado River turns the current a surreal red-orange.  This photo was taken the morning after a recent storm under the bridge near Moab with some debris still swirling around the pilings which will eventually eddy out downstream.  While living on the river as a camphost, I witnessed all manner of materials floating downriver after extreme weather events - tires, dead animals, refrigerators, as well as every brand of tubed lip saver and sunscreen.

My most memorable flash flood event however, took place in the Grand Gulch Primitive Area west of Blanding, Utah when a series of storms raised the flow of the San Juan River from its usual 800 cubic feet per second to 25,000 cubic feet per second.  Before I begin my tale though, I encourage you to view this short video by David Rankin of Rankin Studio (RankinStudio.com) which will give you an idea of the immediacy and destructive capacity of a flash flood:

The day started with a delicate shower during breakfast, but the sky soon cleared and the weather report for the week had promised sunny, blue.  The five of us - two guides and three guests, including myself, had hiked down from Polly's Pasture the day before with llamas packing our gear.  Here is a map of the area showing Polly's Island which is at the mouth of Polly's Canyon which comes into the Gulch from the east: 



If you Google "Grand Gulch Primitive Area" and look through the photos, you will get an idea of the topography and archaeology of the area.  There is so much archaeology in this area, in fact, that I found myself lost on my first solo hike down to the Green Mask pictograph because I got caught up with the all the ruins and rock art and failed to take note of the side trail where I needed to climb back out of the canyon.  But that's a mis-adventure for a different day.

So with lunches packed and the llamas lying in the shade tied to trees on the benches above the wash, we set out for a hike.  We walked around Polly's Island and visited a few ruins in the vicinity then continued down canyon.  When we felt a few drops and saw the skies darken, we scurried up onto a ledge that housed a small granary and ate our lunch.   After the sky cleared once again, we made our way back down to the wash which by then had a small stream of water flowing.  One guide ventured across and by the time he waded out of the water on the other side, the ankle-high trickle had risen above his knees.  As we contemplated whether the rest of us should try crossing, a telephone pole size tree trunk came rushing by.  We decided to wait until the water subsided before we made our way back to camp.  As we watched the debris and water level continue to rise, the rain started up again.  We weren't able to communicate with the guide on the other side of the wash due to the sounds of crashing and tumbling debris and his retreat from the rising water.

storm, "needles overlook", "red rock" desert, moabNEEDLES OVERLOOK

We scrambled back up to our perch next to the granary just as the sky faded to black and once again let loose with torrents.  In looking at the map, I think we were located in the northeast corner of bulge next to the Gov't Trail notation. The four of us huddled under an overhang jutting out just enough for us to sit behind the waterfalls.  Across the canyon, the wind was whipping the water falling from the rim into pinwheels.

It's difficult from the distance of time to recall the duration of the storm, but it seems like it lasted forever. There was a lull just before dark so we tried to make our way down to the trail, but the trail had turned into a lake. A scurry up to the next level to try and make contact with the guide across the  wash proved unsuccessful as the rock was too slick and steep.  We returned to our little nest next to the granary and prepared to spend the night.  I always carry extra food beyond lunch and had a small baggie of soy nuts.  We ate as many as we could stand and watched the still rising tide of the flood in the vanishing light and drizzling rain.

Sleep was had in fits and starts in between the gun shot cracks from floating trees taking out those still standing and trying to find a comfortable spot to lay on the small patches of sand dotted with young cacti.  I had carried a pair of light-weight fleece pants and a jacket so I wasn't as cold or wet as the others.  The other two women shared a black plastic garbage bag for their legs and gave another bag to the guy who used it as a blanket.  

We woke to a sunny, yet breezy morning so after a breakfast of soy nuts, we ventured down to the wash.  The lake had subsided and the wash had returned to a navigatible level, but the mud hindered movements further than a few feet out from the canyon walls.  We met up with the separated guide and made our way back to camp.  When we entered the narrow section of the canyon, we could see the water had risen to 30 feet up the canyon wall in some places.  It was eerie to see necklaces of limbs and brush wrapped around branches high up beyond our reach.  We encountered quicksand in a few areas, but were able to maneuver around any mishaps.

Our camp escaped any damage, but large chunks of the sand benches where we'd pitched tents had calved into the flood.  A mammoth cotton tree at the point of the vee of land separating Polly's Canyon from Grand Gulch teetered precipitously with its roots laid bare.

The most horrific experience we encountered in the aftermath of the flash flood, was finding two of the llamas dead when we returned.  They were the closest to the main flow of water and the trees they'd been tied to had been pulled into the current drowning the animals.  We were all stricken with an immense sense of loss.

We spent the rest of the day sorting out the camping supplies and getting the remaining llamas packed up and out of the canyon.  It took one person on each leg and one guide pulling the llama's lead to move them through the mud and onto the trail.  The two llamas brought back down to gather the remaining gear balked and brayed until they were back on top.  We spent the night on a ledge with numerous vernal pools overlooking the canyon and had a small memorial for the two llamas who had lost their lives.

I don't have any photos from this trip as it was during a time I was having a love/hate relationship with photography.  The photos here simply depict similar sentiments and experiences.  Many people look at me with dropped jaws and knitted brows, particularly my family, when I relate my near misses in the desert, but I doubt I'll ever trade my wanderings for a more secure, sedentary lifeway.

I am the desert.  My spoken words seldom flower or blossom to forest the conversation.  I gouge the earth with condensed emotion precipitating a flash flood, washing the loosened particles of fragmented thoughts down gullies of past lives to form fluvial deposits which turn to drifting sand in the glaring sun.  High pressure fronts sweep across the face of my nature with driving winds and partly cloudy moods ever changing its complexion.  I conceal my humid humors among pointed, prickly vegetation to protect the succulence nourished from roots searching deep beneath the surface.  The low brush that litters the landscape gives spotty relief from the burning desire to realize the mirage of my indomitable dreams.




Janet Ortega(non-registered)
Ditto on the llamas that Emily said. The video by David Rankin was really a good one. It fit in very well to show people that aren't familiar with flash floods what they look like and how powerful they are.
Emily Mabee(non-registered)
Wonderful story. Sad for the Llamas.
Powerful prose at the end.
thank You
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