August 18, 2002

Flash Flood

Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River is one of many canyons named by explorer John Wesley Powell. The silence and tranquility must have been ringing in his ears when he named Labyrinth. Tranquility can be part of a river trip through Labyrinth canyon today as much as it ever was when John Wesley Powell traveled through its meandering depths. The silence and tranquility that I have experienced can lead to very relaxing days that can sometimes temporarily conceal the fact that the river and it's canyons are a wild place where sudden change can have disastrous outcome.

In August 2002 my friend Lisa and I launched a 17' canoe on a 7-day ranger patrol trip at Green River State Park. On the morning of the second day we met Steve and Lila camped at a sandbar near The Anvil. They were from LA and were planning a long slow trip to the confluence, 120 miles downstream. They would then shuttle up the Colorado River aboard a commercial jet boat service to Moab. I thought the trip they were doing was ambitious since they had never been on a multi-day river trip before. I checked their gear, which they rented from Tag-a-Long in Moab. They assured me that Tag-A-Long went over the river map, and gear with them, before they set off from Green River State Park. Besides, the trip was underway now and I had no need to change anyone's mind. Lots of under-experienced people come to Labyrinth mistakenly thinking the rapid-less river is safer.
We bid farewell and traveled on downstream. A couple nights later we camped on a massive sandbar near Keg Spring Bottom. The sandbar was 3 - 4 feet above the waters surface and was about a half mile long. These sandbars are quite the sight to see when the river is flowing at an extra low 800 cubic feet per second. We set up a comfortable camp under a shelter tarp and upside down canoe. During the night it began to rain, and continued to rain all night. We stayed dry under the Moss wing shelter, woke in the morning, and decided to hang around and see if the rain would quit. We drank coffee, ate breakfast, and watched the waterfalls coming off of the sandstone walls. Seeing the waterfalls during a rain is one of the iconic sights of experiencing canyon country. There is nothing else like it. Later in the day Steve and Lila paddled by our beach camp and the rain continued to fall. We spent the day reading and napping then made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup for dinner. It was a beautiful relaxing day. At about dusk the rain quit and the sky cleared off, which made for some amazing stars. We moved stuff to the side and slept under the shelter tarp again. During the night Lisa got up to pee. When she came back she suggested we get up and have a look at the river saying that she thought it sounded different. Lisa walked downstream. When we set up camp the beach stretched about 1000 feet up and down river from where we were. I walked up stream about 100 feet when I saw the water lapping at my feet. I turned on my headlamp, shined it left to right, then down at the foam on the water as I whispered to myself "flashflood". We were caught in a flash flood! Lisa arrived back at the camp from her scout about the same time as I did. We hardly said a word to each other as we started ripping the camp apart and stuffing it into the canoe. Sleeping bags, dirty dishes, books; all of it became a junk show in the bottom of the hull. In less than 5 minutes we were dragging the loaded canoe across the sand to the tamarisk thicket on the shore as the water lapped at our feet. I tied the canoe to the tammies so it would float with the current when the water came up further while Lisa looked around in the tammies for a flat spot to lay down. We sat on the steep muddy bank in the tamarisk brush too excited to go back to sleep. The moonlight in the clear sky illuminated the now broad river as we thought about how lucky we were to have not been flooded while we slept. Some time later sleep finally returned. When daylight came it revealed a river full of red water from bank to bank. Where we had been camped was now a swift current of muddy water full of debris and foam. Wow, how my heart did race at that sight! We reloaded the trashed boat and carefully ferried out across the muddy surge. I wanted to stick a paddle into the river to see how much water was flowing across where we slept only a few hours before. I found about 4 feet of depth. We continued downstream with the flotsam. During the day, the river flow was dropping as fast as it had surged overnight, leaving a muddy margin along the bank. The days following the adrenaline of flood were dominated by blue sky, no wind, and the amazing silence and tranquility that Labyrinth Canyon is known for.

On the third afternoon after the flood we were getting ready to finish the trip as we passed the mouth of Horseshoe canyon. We rounded a long bend in the river and I was immediately alarmed to see somebody standing on a big boulder, along the waters edge, near Hellroaring Canyon. She was waving her arms in the air, and screaming something at us. I couldn't tell what she was saying, since she was nearly a half-mile away, but I could tell the situation was urgent. Earlier in the season I completed my Wilderness First Responder training. We paddled hard toward her position as I recapped in my mind what I learned in May. When we closed some of the distance I could see another person supine on the boulder at her feet, then I could tell it was Steve and Lila. I whispered to myself; telling Steve to move something. We paddled within 50 feet of the big boulder when Steve boosted himself up on one elbow much to my relief. Lila was franticly crying asking us to help them. Lila wanted to come onto our patrol canoe and get to Mineral Bottom so she could get off the river as soon as possible, and go home. I assured Lila that we would help them. Lisa and I sat in the canoe and talked to them. We floated in deep water, next to the boulder, and there was nowhere to get out. Lila gradually calmed down. I watched Steve, trying to gauge his mental status, as Lila explained their ordeal over the past few days. I gave them water, a couple apples, and some bread. I was surprised to see how they devoured the apples, core and all, and a half a loaf of dry bread. Lila and Steve proceeded to tell us the dramatic story. They explained they had been camped on a beach the night of the flood, but carried their sleeping gear up onto the bench to sleep on higher ground beneath the tamarisk. During the night the rising water washed the canoe and all their gear away. They didn't tie the boat up, thinking that pulling it up onto the high beach was sufficient. They woke in the morning to the shocking sight, marooned on the riverbank. They had sleeping bags and sleeping mattresses that they used to float in the river trying to make their way downstream to Mineral Bottom. They would float until early afternoon, when they would stop to dry their sleeping gear in the sun before nightfall. They had been 3 days and 2 nights with nothing to eat and were drinking the muddy river water. After eating some food and drinking clear water Lila was much calmed down. I could tell Steve was also relatively ok as he helped to explain the dramatic ordeal.
I knew Steve and Lila were scared half to death, dehydrated and exhausted from exposure. They were hungry, and thirsty, and I knew Lisa and I had to take them with us. I remembered the first rule of being a rescuer was to not compromise my own safety in the process. I thought even a worst-case scenario would have resulted in a good soaking for us all on a warm sunny day, in a placid river. It would not have resulted in a life-threatening situation for any of us. I determined, the risk to benefit ratio was acceptable.
Steve was a big guy, probably 6'2" and 260 pounds. Lila was an average sized person. Lisa rearranged our load on her end of the boat, while I held on to the boulder to steady the canoe. Then she held us steady while I did some re-arranging of the gear, and tying things down. With Steve and Lila still on the boulder I went over with them what my plan was. Steve would sit on the Yorkpack dry storage box, and Lila would sit atop the cooler. I knew this would put our center of gravity very high but there was no other way. I told our new passengers that it was pretty likely we would swamp the canoe and we'd all end up in the river, but it wasn't too big of a deal. When this happened, we'd have a very heavy mass of canoe and gear that we would all need to swim into swallow water, where we could bail the water out of the canoe and try it again. Steve came aboard first, sitting in the bow behind Lisa. I held onto the boulder watching the freeboard, which is how close the water is to coming over the top of the canoe gunnels, or rim of the canoe. He sat in the center of the Yorkpack and placed his hands on the gunnels. I told him how important it was for him not to place weight on the gunnels, but to just use them for minor balance. I knew that if we were going to swamp the overloaded canoe that it'd happen in the next several seconds when Lila stepped in. Lila eagerly sat on the cooler in front of me like somebody coming aboard a train, that hadn't been home in years. I let go of the boulder as the four of us balanced on the head of a pin. We had about 2 inches of freeboard as we started to paddle. Lisa couldn't see how desperately close we were to upsetting the canoe because she was in the front, on her knees, trying to balance. Steve and Lila didn't care because they were headed home. I was sweating bullets, expecting to be in the river at any second. I could hardly bear to look at the freeboard. It was so close. We must've looked pretty funny, I tried to joke about our situation, but Lila especially wasn't having it. She, understandably, was very traumatized, occasionally crying silently, and just wanted to be off the river. Lisa tried to talk to Lila about different things. We paddled and settled into a motion that made balance easier. The first mile was with some anxiety, but came easy enough, then the second. Much to my surprise we were doing this and hadn't swamped yet. The 17' Oldtown was obviously being pushed way beyond it's designers intent, but I was thoroughly impressed with it's capability. We rounded another of the labyrinthine bends in the river and there on a muddy beach, a half-mile away was a sliver of aluminum Grumman canoe shining in the hot August sun. We were all very happy to see the canoe. Steve and Lila reported that everything was just as they had left it in the bottom of the canoe that had drifted about 30 miles with the surge of the river. I thought we could eat some lunch together and breathe a sigh of relief. As soon as we hit the shallow water Lila leapt out of the canoe and started dragging the old Grummie towards the water without Steve's help. She was obviously not into the idea of hanging around, so I didn't even mention eating lunch. Lisa and I had to paddle hard to keep up with the pace they kept into Mineral Bottom. We arrived at Mineral Bottom, where Alan Jackson was stationed. He did a few chores around his boatramp ranger camp and drove us back to Green River State Park in the government truck.
To this day I've not heard from Steve and Lila. I'd sure like to know if they have ever been on the river again.
This is a true story. I wrote most of it 9 years after it happened, completely from memory, aided by review of journals, and adrenaline that even now, yet lingers.

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