Dark Canyon Flood 2006"Now come the floods. They charge down atavistic canyons drinking furiously out of thunderstorms, coming one after the next with vomited boulders and trees pounding from one side of canyon to the other, sometimes no more than hours apart. Sometimes a hundred years apart. Sometimes a thousand. The floods always come." --Craig Childs The Secret Knowledge of Water
The school I work for takes three wilderness trips a year. Fall trip, my favorite, is always the first week in October, always in the desert. The school breaks into small groups and heads out to different places: Paria and Buckskin, Coyote Gulch, Fish and Owl, Canyonlands. In 2006 two other teachers and I had picked Dark Canyon at the North end of Lake Powell. Ian had been there before and said it was stunning, remote, and that we would be virtually alone. Ideal desert excursion.
We helped to pack our group of seven students ranging in age from 14 to 18, most of them inexperienced. True to form, they are reluctant to take advice in terms of gear. "Yes, you must take a rain jacket. Yes, you should bring pants." The weather report called for sunny, dry weather, and the kids were anticipating a beach trip. We left October 1st from Durango, made the backcountry drive to the trailhead, hiked in a few miles and arrived at the top of the Sundance trail around dinner. The weather was bluebird all day, but as we boiled water for dinner, our first storm, a small, isolated Chubasco, came rolling over our mesa top. The kids tents were holding up fine, but as the teachers hustled to secure our Mega-mid, the shelter collapsed--not for the last time this trip--and we scurried in the wind and rain to keep our sleeping bags from sailing over the rim. Fortunately, it was a quick storm and our gear was not fully soaked. The chubasco passed in classic desert fashion trailing a rainbow.
My journal from the first night reads,"Made camp at top of Sundance trail. While making dinner were caught in a fast moving squal that blew down our tent. Soaked for 5 min then clear. It's late and the kids are being loud. Hard to place a teenager in awe. The vista up here is amazing. Bummer to be in a tent tonight, but there are still threatening clouds."
Journal second day: "BIG storm this morning from 8:00 to 10:00. River running under tent. Didn't get on trail until 1:00." It rained all morning, but it was a remarkable sight standing on the Dark Canyon rim watching the pour-overs unleash and fall on the opposite side. We should have suspected that this was just a small taste of what was coming, a closed low that would bring 24 hours of solid rain in just a few days. It was possibly a 100 year storm.
The hike down Sundance trail wasn't nearly as difficult as many trip reports I had read made it out to be. There was much route finding, but basic downward scrambling is the rule because the trail is a jumbled collection of washouts and random cairns. Sundance "trail" is such because it takes advantage of a very large, ancient landslide. Once down in the Canyon we had to cross the stream at bottom. Despite the rain earlier that day it was only about 10-15 feet wide and knee high. We camped at a sandy site surrounded by cottonwoods. It seemed safe at the time, about four feet above the stream.
On day three we hiked up Lean-To canyon, a beautiful side canyon with a trail that leads above a huge pour-over with maybe a 200 ft. drop. Ian said he knew of a good camp site not far past the pour-over. The camp site was a broad flat rock area with "steps" that raised the edges above the main channel of the spring fed trickle that constantly runs down Lean-To. I muttered something to Ian about this being a flood zone, but he was confident the edges were high enough and the weather would hold. He had camped here once before. He pointed out a large grouping of fist to softball-sized rocks near our tent--evidence, he claimed, it hadn't flooded up on this shelf in a long time.
One student hiked up canyon alone, came back all excited, said he saw a pair of mountain lions drinking in a pool. Ian and I had a nice hike that evening looking for signs of the cats. No mountain lions but we did scramble into a nice, shady, boulder-filled amphitheater.
We had ambitions of hiking out of Lean-To and dropping down Young's Canyon to make a loop. The kids, however, were not eager to scramble much further with their heavy packs, so the group agreed a leisurely camp here with day hikes for the next few days would be enough to make everyone happy.
Day 4, Journal entry: "Sitting under shelf during slight rain up Lean-To Canyon. Very quiet, peaceful morning--cloudy, sporadic peaceful showers. Read excerpt from journal when visiting Kyoto. Ryonji Zen rock garden reminded me of Utah. Zen moment for now until kids wake up. Sound of water. Didn't sleep all too well; worried about flash floods. Camped in sketchy spot."
Later that morning the clouds dissipated and we had a very nice day hike with the entire group to the end of Lean-To. On our return from this hike, the trip took a drastic change. A sudden storm came in and most everyone headed for their tents. Ian, Holly, and I found comfy shelter under an overhang to watch the rain which was getting heavier. We watched as pour-overs began spewing over the opposite rim. Ian decided to move into the Mega-mid to change into pants. Then it was like someone above turned on a spigot, a very large, violent spigot. It turned out we placed our tent where a pour-over from 300 feet above us entered Lean-To. Hundreds of gallons of water dumped into the canyon six feet in front of the tent. This is why there were so many stones scattered about here-- evidence of flooding, not lack of flooding. We were screaming at Ian to get the hell out of there and find shelter. He futily tried to keep the tent up by holding on to the center pole, but soon the fabric became a catch for all that water and Ian was soon standing tentless, holding a corner of sodden nylon in the deluge. I ran out to him and we were able to gather our packs and sleeping bags before they washed away, but the tent was now useless.
We now gazed in amazement at the trickle that once ran through our campsite. It had become a raging torrent, heavy and fast enough that walking across it was no longer an option. Now our camp was split--the girl's tent on our side, and three tents on the other. We scrambled up and downstream looking for crossing options. We could have leapt from rock to rock in a few places, but it was too daunting for some of our students. We hunkered down as it continued to rain and Lean-To's trickle became a heavy river. It rained solidly for the next twelve hours. We moved all the tents to higher ground, and Ian and I bivied beneath a dripping boulder.
Day 5: I didn't sleep much. I was watching the clouds, hoping for the appearance of stars that would signal the end of the rain. Instead, I noticed that the clouds were coming from the east and south. Completely backwards of regular weather patterns. Not a good sign. Luckily, the rain did let up about 5 a.m. and Lean-To river was suddenly crossable. We woke everyone up, packed hurriedly, and started back down the trail. We soon realized how lucky we were because not soon after we passed the large pour-over the rain began once more, only heavier. We hiked for the next two hours in that heavy down-pour, watching every crack, crevice, and canyon rim pulse with flowing water. We were surrounded by 800 foot waterfalls and brand new streams hastily eroding away the desert around us.
We reached the bottom of Dark Canyon heading for our previous campsite and realized we wouldn't be crossing that day or night. The stream that once came up to our knees was raging. It was now a milk-chocolate color and flowing at an unimaginable speed. It was also obvious that it was still rising. Our campsite from a few nights back was now under water.
We were all wet, cold, and tired and we paused for minute under an overhang a mere two feet above the flood waters. This made me nervous. I knew the overhang was itself formed by flooding and that we were in a bad spot if the flood surged. Ian, however, was awestruck by the flood, couldn't tear himself away from it, and our students were happy to be in the first dry spot in hours. I watched as the water grew higher and after five minutes I lost my composure. "We're all moving. Now!" Ian looked at me, told me to calm down, assured me we were safe. "Fuck that. Let's go." And with that we all moved. I was the bad guy, forcing everyone back out into the rain. We found a camp site high above the flood zone and watched as the water rose about six feet within ten minutes. The overhang we sought shelter under was soon become deeper as the water burmed through it chiseling away sandstone. Crytobiotic soil that we had once used as a marker of safe ground due to its 100 year growth pattern was soon immersed and washed away.
Once the kids were in dry tents, tensions calmed. We then turned our focus on the flood. By evening the flood waters were perhaps 40-50 yards across and 15 feet deep. We watched cottonwoods fight the torrent. I was astounded at their tenacity, discovering later that their root systems can reach hundreds of feet into the soil and rock. Some lost lost the battle, their deep root systems unable to challenge the boulders and logs of other trees that had also lost, their branches and bark immediately stripped clean. And then there was the boulders. I wish I could adequately describe the sound of the boulders beneath the water crashing along the bottom. Dull, heavy, hollow thuds rolling past us toward the Colorado undoubtedly gouging out the river bottom.
The next morning the flood had subsided enough to make a tricky crossing across the river and hike up Sundance Trail and out of Dark Canyon. The road in had taken a beating, but we were fortunate enough that it was no longer muddy after a day of long-awaited Utah sunshine. I had written in my journal that first night that teenagers were hard to place in awe. But the strength of the storm and flood that we witnessed left it's mark on each one of us. The desert is a powerful place and we are truly small in it's presence.