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True Tales: Caught in a Flash Flood

Rising water sends this reader running--and hiding--in Utah.
Flash flood. (by J Dombrowski)

Survivor Sarah Owen, 33, Page, Arizona
Predicament Trapped by rising water and quicksand in Paria Canyon, Utah
Lesson learned “Gambling with the weather never pays off, even when you think you have great odds.”

Escape Plan: Find High Ground & Stay Afloat in Quicksand

“I could go no higher, so I braced myself in a tiny cave, horrified, as the surge of water approached. The flood changed color in an instant, from gray to burnt orange. The force of the flood increased, and a wave of debris rounded the upstream bend, out-roaring the already deafening downpour. The water rushed by just three feet below my perch; there was nothing I could do if it kept rising.

“Earlier that day, when I discussed my plans for a three-day solo trip down the Paria River toward Lees Ferry with a ranger, the sky was clear. The Paria is rarely more than a trickle, she told me, but monsoon rains had swol- len the river’s flow. It would be passable, but I should expect the water to be higher than normal, and I’d have to be on alert for flood- ing. The forecast called for a 20-percent chance of rain—so I decided to go for it.

“I started in a broad, brushy valley, and the trail let me avoid the knee-deep river and shoreline quicksand for the first four miles. Then the steep sandstone walls converged at the narrows. In the slot ahead, I’d be getting wet. The river spanned the canyon’s width with only occasional sandy beaches.

“Forging ahead, I checked that there was blue overhead. There was, but I could only see a sliver of the sky—I didn’t realize there were ominous clouds above the plateaus nearby. Within 40 minutes, it started raining. I imme- diately scanned the canyon walls for a high ledge and spied a three-foot-high cave that would provide 12 feet of clearance above the river’s current level. By the time I climbed into it, the downpour was torrential and waterfalls spouted off the towering cliffs all around me.

“The churning water carried full-size logs and seethed for more than an hour, cresting just a few feet below my cave. But instead of a wall of water that came and went quickly, the 30-foot-wide frothing flow took hours to recede. I knew that rain upstream in the drain- age would mean more flooding here, so when the water level subsided, I decided to retreat from the narrows, back the way I had come.

“I’d passed a high-ground campsite about 1.5 miles upstream from my cave, but as I backtracked through the canyon, I sank into quicksand. A thick slurry of water and sand clutched at my thighs, hips, and rib cage. Instead of staying calm, I flailed in the muck. When I finally realized that going forward meant thrashing through a gauntlet of suck- ing mud, I crawled out and retreated down- stream to a ledge above the soupy traps. My plan: overnight here to let the water recede.

“I slept fitfully, watching the river’s mood change throughout the night. It must have rained somewhere in the drainage because I heard the thundering approach of another surge crashing between the canyon walls.

“A few hours after daybreak, a pair of backpackers rounded my campsite. They’d camped in a different gulch downstream and were trekking toward the trailhead where I’d started. They hadn’t yet encountered the quicksand I’d seen upstream, and they were dismayed when I described the flooding and conditions I’d encountered. I joined them for my retreat out of the Paria. It was slow going, as quicksand sucked at our legs, but thank- fully, we made it back together.

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