Awash in the Canyonlands

Canyoneering Along the Paria River
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The flash flood came, of course, precisely when we were furthest from safety — 20 miles from the mouth of the canyon, 20 miles to the exit, no escape routes in between. A feisty curveball from Ma Nature, though not an entirely unexpected one. During the first two days of our hike, in the sheer-walled canyon of the Paria River, skirting the Utah-Arizona border, my friend H. J. and I had seen ample evidence of previous floods. Shrubs slammed flat; river rocks kicked onto head-high ledges; rodent carcasses battered and torn — still lifes of virulence. We were both aware of the tragedy of the previous summer, when, in a neighboring canyon, 12 members of a hiking party were caught in a flood. Eleven died. And so, as the water rose, there was, among H. J. and I, if not quite fear, then a healthy dose of concern.

This is a fine time to ask why. Why hike at the bottom of a slot canyon if there is always, at any time of year, the possibility of a flash flood? Even when there are cloudless, baby-blue skies overhead, a rainstorm a hundred miles north can send water rushing through the sandstone and limestone labyrinths that serve as feeder channels for the Colorado River and its mile-deep gash, the Grand Canyon. I can understand why a person might be reluctant to venture into such a place. I myself was reluctant. Despite living within a day's drive of the canyonlands, I had never, until last November, explored further than the tourist-clogged rim of the Grand. When H. J. Schmidt, a photographer and climbing-skiing-kayaking-hiking bum who lives in my hometown and has played in the canyons for nearly 20 years, found out about this gap in my outdoor experience, he hinted that I was missing something profound and suggested I join him on a trip. And so I did.

About the Author: Michael Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, and his work has appeared in National Geographic Adventurer, Audubon, Outside, Skiing, and numerous other magazines. Michael's adventures in ice biking and snowboarding, and his discussion with GORP readers, as well as Mad River, an adaptation from Alpine Circus, have been featured on GORP.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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