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Without warning, a violent blast of water and debris erupted over the falls toward me, transforming the dreamy swimming hole into a churning monster. The river, which had been emerald minutes ago, was suddenly a dark and muddy torrent. I called out to my partner, Christina, but my shout was drowned out by the noise.
It was late afternoon on Basse-Terre Island in the French West Indies, and until that moment, it was another day in paradise. The weather had been nearly perfect for November—sunny skies with occasional showers. A few hours before sunset, we decided to hike to Acomat Falls, tucked half a mile into the rainforested mountains near Guadeloupe National Park.
Heavy rain began to fall as we arrived at the trailhead, so we decided to wait for five minutes. Sure enough, it stopped and we set off down the muddy path.
Christina and I are experienced hikers. We’ve explored California’s Sierra Nevada and slot canyons in Utah, where we knew the importance of checking the weather for flash flood risk. But for some reason, it didn’t occur to me that the same thing could happen on our tropical escape.
Expecting to spend no more than an hour at the falls, we wore T-shirts and swimsuits. I carried my phone, camera, and a mini tripod. We were on vacation and visiting a well-known spot-, so I hadn’t told anyone where we were going.
We hiked for 15 minutes through mud, roots, and hanging vines. After crossing the 10-foot-wide river at a shallow spot and walking upstream about 100 yards, we reached the falls—a 30-foot barrel of whitewater shooting over the rim of a granite basin. It was around 4 p.m. and only one other couple was there. We dove into the green pool and floated on our backs, looking up at the canyon walls.
By 4:30, the other couple had left. We knew we needed to head back to the car before dark, but I was waist deep in the river trying to photograph the falls, the hanging vines, and the dreaminess of the place. Christina was sitting on an outcrop of granite above the basin. I finally got a good shot—and then she screamed.
With a crack like thunder, a wall of brown water hurtled over the top of the falls, carrying fragments of trees and plants with it. Flash flood. I jumped out of the river seconds before the deluge crashed over the spot where I’d just been standing. Christina scrambled barefoot off the boulder toward higher ground.
I raced up the rocks, which had been at least 10 feet above the pool’s surface, just as the flood submerged them. Christina and I clawed our way up the canyon on all fours, grabbing vines to pull ourselves up. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the water had risen 20 feet in less than a minute.
Christina led us through dense brush, prickly trees, and ankle-deep mud. When we’d climbed 200 feet, we stopped to catch our breath. Now we had a different problem: The trail and the road were on the other side of the swollen river. We were stuck.
Then the sky opened up. We had no headlamp or rain jackets and were exhausted from the scramble. Christina asked if I had my phone. It was soaking wet, but still blinked on. No service. We decided to move toward higher ground to get a better signal. It was almost dark.
For a moment, the phone connected, and I heard the faint voice of Mae, our vacation rental host. She said she’d call for help. Then the phone went silent.
We had no idea whether rescuers could reach us. Christina found a hollow tree which we used as a partial shield from the rain. We told each other not to panic as night set in, but I didn’t know when or how we’d get off the mountain.
I tried to send more texts to Mae, but most of them bounced back undeliverable. There was nothing we could do but wait.
We tried to convince each other that we couldn’t possibly get hypothermia in the tropics, but our wet bodies were starting to disagree. We’d been stranded for nearly four hours. Shivering, we huddled closer for warmth. It was pitch-black and the mosquitoes were out, feasting on our scratched and bruised skin.
After another hour, we saw faint lights across the canyon. But no one in their right mind would try to cross the river that night. I didn’t see how else we would get out—there were no roads, and the sky was blocked with a dense canopy of trees.
My wet phone had begun to lose function, but the flashlight still worked. I turned it on and shone it at the canopy above as a signal. The ghostly glow barely registered against the dense vegetation.
Then I heard the blades of a helicopter. In minutes, the trees were thrashing in the wind generated by the aircraft. A cable appeared through the canopy, and then a rescuer. We were safe.
Stay Safe in a Flash Flood
Tim Knaus is the Plateau District Ranger and a lead member of Search and Rescue in Zion National Park, where flash floods are common.
Watch the conditions.
“Rain can occur upstream of your location, so flooding can happen even when there are blue skies above you,” Knaus says. Check weather forecasts before heading out and always heed the advice of rangers.
Recognize warning signs.
Beware of water turning murky, a rush of air travelling down a canyon, rumbling sounds, and the smell of dirt. If you detect any of the above, seek high ground immediately.
Know when you’re in flood territory.
“Narrow canyons, large catch basins, sparse vegetation, a thin soil bed, and swaths of solid rock contribute to flash flooding,” Knaus says. Vegetation wrapped around trees and scarring on one side of their trunks are signs that flash floods have struck there before.