“The canyon is filling up with water!” I heard Jamie yell, though it could have been repressed voices in my own head. Water trickled from both sides of sheer sandstone walls, forming a continuous puddle in the sandy wash, an inch deep and growing.
Geoff and Jamie motioned that they were making a run for it, their cloths and backpacks soaked and sloshing as they darted ahead. Jen and I continued walking, cautiously, too exhausted and delirious in the early stages of hypothermia to run for high ground, which, at its closest, was at least two miles away. My heartbeat stopped at every sound that echoed in the distance, then raced again as the threat subsided.
Somewhere, gathering dust in a BLM management office is a list of a hundred things you never do in a slot canyon, and hiking in the rain is right at the top.
Of course, we didn’t grab this list. The sky was bright and blazing when we walked into Buckskin Gulch early this afternoon, long before we descended into the country’s largest continuous “narrows,” a canyon of solid sandstone so tall and thin that sunlight rarely reaches the floor. Now the sun had disappeared; the thin strip of sky hundreds of feet over our heads was cloudy and bathed in twilight, and we were still two miles from camp.
The next two miles slogged by in a daze. Stunning redrock cliffs closed in on the remnants of violent floods - massive logs stripped bare and wedged between two walls, boulders strewn in tight crevices. In such circumstances one automatically searches for escape routes even when none exist, and I pictured myself dangling from those logs, though they were 30 feet out of reach. I walked on, and the rain fell, and the echoes of distant voices and planes did nothing to jolt me into much-needed panic.
We had spent the last two hours before the storm wading through waist-high water, which stretched from mile five to mile seven. The frigid pool cut through a slot so narrow that both sides of my backpack scrapped the walls. The colder we became, the slower we moved, and as the feeling in our extremities subsided it seemed clear to us that this pool was never going to end.
Everyone was ill-prepared, wearing only light cotton clothing with no dry replacements in our packs - this was just an overnight trip - and had descended too many sheer drops to go back the way we came. We were stuck like rats, knowing all too well that everything that makes this canyon beautiful is exactly what makes it deadly - a vermilion prison of stone and sand.
It was pouring by the time I finally reached camp, nearly dark, and cold, though I could no longer feel much outside my tingling arms and legs to really tell. Camp was just a small opening half a mile from the confluence of the Paria River - a mound amid cluster of cottonwood trees. Jamie and Geoff were sitting at the top preparing dinner, and Jen and I stumbled up, safe at last.
I guess you could say we were lucky - lucky as hell - that the fertile spring soil soaked up most of the storm before dumping it into the canyon; that the long stagnant pool wasn’t half a mile longer; that camp offered the kind of high ground needed for an overnight stay. Inexperienced and unprepared, we entered a veritable cage and managed to wriggle our way out before the walls closed in. I’ve since learned that flash floods in this canyon are frequent and unpredictable, pools come and go, and before leaving on any slot canyon trip, one should check and recheck current conditions. After that, all you can do is hope for the best.
Here are some canyon notes, courtesy David Day, author of “Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails”
Distance: 20.6 miles (plus 15.5 miles by car)
Walking time: Day 1: 7 1/2 hours Day 2: 4 1/2 hours
Elevations: 760 ft. loss, 180 ft. gain Wire Pass Trailhead (start): 4,860 ft. Paria River confluence: 4,100 ft. White House Trailhead: 4,280 ft.
Trail: There is no trail for this hike; the route follows the wash and the Paria river. You will be walking along the bottoms of two narrow desert canyons. Occasionally there are deep pools of water in the canyon narrows, so be prepared with an air mattress or some other means of floating your backpacks across. You will also need a 30-foot length of rope to help you get down a rockfall near the end of Buckskin Gulch.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. Flash floods are common in Buckskin Gulch, so don’t attempt this hike if there is a chance of rain. Be especially careful from late July through mid-September, when thundershowers in southern Utah are more frequent. For current conditions call the Kanab Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, at (435) 644-2672.