Thursday, July 20, 2017

How to get caught in a flash flood without really trying

I spent last week in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, camping with my son's Boy Scout troop. While I enjoy camping on occasion, and West Texas in general, this was not my first choice on how to spend the week. But, as things are wont to do, I ended up driving a van packed with 11-14-year-old boys whose idea of high humor culminate in which one can squeeze out the most toxic fart.

The first few days were brutal hot, as one would expect. The nights didn't cool off as much as one would expect in the desert, but the night skies were spectacular, the Milky Way a bright blaze with dust lanes fully visible. I was also amazed to discover West Texas lightning bugs are quite different from the local variety, in that they are aggressive fliers that blaze electric green for up to 6 seconds at a time. Wow. By day 4, however, the weather changed, and began raining intermittently. Until Thursday, that is, when it dropped the intermittent part and rained all evening, all night and into Friday morning.

This was a bit troubling, because we're in a mountainous area with many dry washes and had gotten plenty of warnings about being wary of flash floods. Our assistant Scoutmaster specifically sought out the camp head to ask about the dangers of flooding. "Nothing to worry about," the guy answered. "We have people way up the mountains who will notify us if anything happens. All's clear." So, with the rain easing up, we went on our hike.

The hike took us through Little Aguja Canyon along the mostly dry stream bed. We had about 14 boys in our troop. Several other troops joined us, and once you count all the adults and camp staff, we had a party pushing 60 people. That's a pretty big number, so the hike, which was a short one of 5 miles round-trip taking just about two hours, moved pretty slowly. The line got strung out on the trail so that they had to stop regularly to let everyone catch back up. We reached the Needle--the outcropping of rock pictured above (photo by David O'Neill) about an hour in. I'd thought about bringing my camera, but I didn't have any rain gear and rain continued off and on. So I left it. After a 15 minute break at the Needle, we pressed on toward the Notch, a spring-fed pool that boasted a small waterfall that was reputed to be a gorgeous spot to swim. This deep into the canyon, the air was pretty still and humid, so a swim was looking pretty good.

We met another group of scouts coming back from the Notch at the second-to-last stream crossing. This crossing was actually pretty wet, and tiny tadpoles and baby frogs abounded. They'd started out an hour before us and had enjoyed a good swim. They assured us the Notch was gorgeous and that we were a mere five minutes away. Slowly, our group crossed the stream bed onto a high, grassy meadow strewn with boulders and bordered on one side by the vertical face of the mountain. In the distance, we heard a distant roar. "The waterfall!" folks exclaimed. "That's the waterfall!"

But the roar kept getting louder. Looking through the trees that followed the dry wash along the edge of the meadow, I saw water flowing. Water shouldn't be visible, much less flowing. Our hike leader ran back to the crossing--which the last members of our party had passed--to find it under three feet of muddy, rushing water. She then ran ahead to the last crossing under the Notch and found it in a similar condition. What's more, she discovered a troop of a dozen older scouts caught on the opposite side. She radioed base camp, telling them of the flood and saying "The water's moving really fast." Basecamp answered, "Don't worry, it'll go down in a few minutes. Just wait it out." Two hours later, the water hadn't gone down an inch, and the camp reluctantly dispatched several riders on horseback to help up back.

This is where the fun began. With horsemen on either side of the flooded stream, the men on the hike (numbering about 15) linked arms, elbow-to-elbow, and formed a human chain from one bank to the other. The water was cold, thigh-high, and filled with branches and leaves. And moving very swiftly. The women on the hike (maybe 10) and scouts--some of them under-sized even for 11-year-olds--held on to us as they crossed nervously. A few had their feet swept out from under them, but we were able to grab them and help them get upright again before they went under. More than a chain, I guess you could say we were a human wall. It took maybe 20 minutes for everyone to cross safely. On the other side, we joined up with the group of scouts we'd met just before the flash flood hit, and also the ones who'd been trapped on the other side of the final crossing before reaching the Notch (they'd followed the stream along the opposite bank to meet us, climbing over some difficult rock formations and thick brush to do so). Our group, including horsemen and camp staff, now numbered 93. That's a lot of people. And the flood had not subsided at all. We crossed the stream a couple more times, and skirted up the steep side of the canyon once when the entire trail disappeared under water for a 50 yard stretch. Then we reached the Needle. The scene was... intimidating. Two other washes met here, and although they weren't nearly as flooded as the one we were in, there were rapids galore. The ground changed level several times here, and a sort of raging moat had formed around the Needle rock formation. It was waist deep here, and swift. A simple human chain wasn't sufficient for this water. The horses were none too happy about it, but they carried a thick rope across, which was fastened to boulders on either end. Then we all went across, hand over fist, through waist-deep water, adults interspersed with kids, horses 5-10 yards downstream to catch anyone who slipped into the water. Nobody did. Another crossing demanded the rope, but this time we linked arms over the rope. In all, we crossed that flood 13 times, getting back to camp just before 5 p.m. A 5-ton military truck shuttled us over the final water crossing before camp, and then from the camp sites to the side with the mess hall, etc. The next day, when we packed up to leave, the water had only subsided a few inches.

The thing I remember most is how much gravel ended up in my hiking boots every time we crossed. My hiking boots themselves, several years old, didn't survive the ordeal. Between the gravel and the rocks we stumbled over in the water, the soles were pretty torn up. The insides were coming apart. The "waterproof" aspect of the boots had been pushed beyond all reasonable measure. They went in the trash, never to be seen again.

At no time after the initial crossing was I worried we couldn't handle the flood. It was dangerous, yes, but nothing we couldn't compensate for to get all the kids safely back. The biggest worry of myself, and others, was the constant threat of more, and heavier, rain. Ominous dark clouds gathered and broke up throughout the day, showering us and occasionally rumbling thunder. If a real flash flood, with a six-foot wall of water, came roaring down on us, we'd be in real trouble. That never happened, though, and the kids now have dramatic stories to tell all their friends.

All things being equal, then next time we have a hike in the desert scheduled when it's been raining for an extended period, I believe I'll pass.

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Chicken Ranch Central

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