Even though rain was forecast, the thought of a flash flood was far from our minds. Cloud cover broke to reveal strips of blue sky before Chuck and I met hikers signed up for our Wednesday morning interpretive hike at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge north of Yuma, Arizona, the day before Thanksgiving.
“Is the hike still on?” one visitor asked as we gathered for introductions.
Weather predictions didn’t indicate large amounts of rain. A four-inch rain in this part of Arizona usually referred to the space between drops.
“ ‘Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night’ will keep us from our hike,” we joked, referring to the post office slogan for delivering mail. After all, it hadn’t rained for over two months, and then it was barely measurable.
Our group lingered in the visitor center to inspect the displays. By the time we headed to the cars to caravan to the trailhead, we were 20 minutes later than usual. Dust obscured our vision in the rear view mirror as we led the small convoy three miles down the dirt road. Before we arrived at our destination, however, blue sky faded behind gathering clouds and raindrops dotted the windshield.
“I wish we’d gotten here on time,” I told Chuck. “At least we’d have had some blue sky at the beginning of the hike.”
Rain ended as we parked and grouped to discuss the object of this hike. Clouds thickened a bit, darkening in the distance. As we began walking down the wash, I glanced up at the huge rock faces rising above us on either side. In the four years we had conducted this weekly hike, we had never been rained out. We knew that in case of a flash flood we were to climb these rocks to remove ourselves from danger. But the worst we had witnessed in those four years was a lengthy drizzle.
We pride ourselves on being aware and prepared. A wilderness first aid course taught us how to handle broken limbs, snake bite, bee stings, and heat stroke, among other maladies. Our CPR course brought us up to speed on breathing difficulties and heart problems. We knew that flash floods could occur even on a clear day by heavy rainfall up stream. But how do you predict a few drops or a deluge?
A sprinkle resumed a quarter mile into our hike. Because one of our hikers wore shorts and a flimsy T-shirt, we huddled under an ironwood tree waiting for the rain to stop. We were used to intermittent rainfall in the desert.
“Might be a good idea,” said Chuck. “Even if it stops raining, we wouldn’t have much of a view with this cloud cover.”
Rain soaked us as we traipsed back to our vehicles. This time, driving the dirt road created no dust. By the time we had driven the three miles back down the road, rain had escalated to a downpour. Our hikers continued toward town while we returned to our RV.
“It’s a good thing we called this off,” Chuck said. His weather gauge recorded rain falling at the rate of over 2 inches an hour at one point. But it would be several hours before we knew how lucky we were to have halted this outing.
When the rain lightened, Chuck scanned the sky. “Wanna survey the damage?” he asked.
Cautiously, we drove the Refuge Suburban down the dirt road, retracing the route toward our trailhead, following a truck driven by a Refuge fireman. If he made it, we felt sure we could too. No more than a mile into the drive, water streamed across the road, a dry river bed no longer. With no place to turn around, we drove a quarter mile through the flowing current, following the fire truck, before re-emerging onto solid road surface for a short distance. Another wash loomed ahead of us.
How exciting to see water gushing down a wash, we’d always thought. But when the fire truck stopped in front of us, we rolled down the car windows. “That sounds like a waterfall,” Chuck said as he stepped out of the Suburban into water and mud that more than covered the soles of his boots.
“Water’s coming across the road at least 20 to 25 miles an hour,” he announced. “And it looks fairly deep.” Driving across the road in that condition could be disastrous. If our hike had begun on time, I realized, we would have been farther up the trail and could have been stranded by the time we returned to the cars. The delay in the visitor center had prevented possible disaster.
Two days later, negotiating the Suburban over mounds of silt and debris that nearly blocked the road, we returned to the trailhead we’d abandoned with our hikers. Although streams no longer flowed, standing water created ponds on normally dry ground and mud slickened the road surface like ice.
Leaving the car, we walked the wash along the trail we knew so well. Smoketrees lay flat, crushed by rocks and logs that weighted them to the ground, some uprooted, dragging long strands of roots that still anchored the bush to the earth. The force of the water had ripped brittlebushes from the ground and stripped desert lavender boughs of their bark. Everywhere branches, logs, and rocks thrust and tangled against trees and boulders displayed the power behind the coursing waters.
As we surveyed the alterations and damage, we comprehended how close we had come to being carried away or stranded. Conditions in the desert, we recognized, can change in a flash.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Escapees Magazine