Zoe McCully: From Finite to Flash Floods– Experiences with Water in Horseshoe Canyon

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In Horseshoe Canyon the traces of water can be found everywhere. In the rippling waves on the sandy washes, and in the different forms of damp compacted earth, much easier to hike across than dry shifting sand!

It is in narrow young slot canyons where giant tree trunks have been wedged tightly between swooping sandstone walls with an unreckonable force.

It wraps cottonwoods and shrubs in the washes or arryos with grassy coats that show where it once swiftly flowed.

It is in heavy purple clouds that hover over canyons walls, and we sometimes hear it at night pattering on our tents.

It hides stars and deeply undercuts the rocks nearest to, or in, the wash. We walk through a dry river bed, empty of rapids, eddys and holes.

Pour offs rise above us, too steep to scale, and pictographs painted high on desert canyon walls, are unreachable, the ledges that once made these figures accessible to human hands have since been weathered away.

Yet water itself near the mouth of the canyon is seemingly only present in small puddles and nighttime rains.

As we dropped in elevation, descending deeper into Horseshoe Canyon, and crossed from Bureau of Land Management to National Park Service land, traces and trickles of water turned to a lush riparian ecosystem.

Tall upright cottonwoods, rushes, and reed grasses grew with sharp slivery abandon. Rabbit brush, which we had initially seen come up to knee height, rose high above us, well, maybe not above Nick and Garrett. Willows filled with buzzing bees waved in the warm wind. The wash that was once dry and wide narrowed, and our hike became a winding walk over and through a stream.

Water is the deciding factor in where we camp. Pour-offs, indicated by steep topographic lines in side canyons, often create small steams or puddles that collect rainwater. Springs sometimes seep up from the ground. We need water for life in the same way the plants and organisms that compose this arid landscape do.

Where is the water in this canyon going? Who does it give life to along the way? How do the species in this landscape manage to survive such a climate with such a limited life giving resource?

Gay Marie Ekker told us, “We don’t think about water. We don’t think about how finite it is. The Colorado River is a perfect example of this.”

The water in Horseshoe flows into the Green River not the Colorado.

It flows into our mouths, through our sandy hair and smutty hands.

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and pull me from my reading when desert mermaids beckon me to dip my head into a cold shady pool. Baptism makes so much more sense in the desert.

Our treasured National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States, describes canyons as some of the region’s natural highlights, I concur. The authors explain that, “Bearing abrasive sediments washed from areas with little vegetation, the Southwest’s creeks, rivers, and washes carve steep-walled canyons and cut through the plateau’s ‘layer cake’  of sedimentary rocks, forming a maze of cliffs, escarpments, mesas, and canyons that form some of the region’s most distinctive scenery and that multiply its biological diversity.”

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and we have been lucky enough to witness in full force the effects of a desert storm. Our second to last night in Horseshoe Canyon we witnessed the intensity of water in the desert, in the form of a flash flood. As we crouched in lightning position, waiting out the overhead storm we were pummeled by sharp flicks of hail. All of a sudden someone pointed out the water cascading off the slick sandstone walls and hundreds of feet down into the grey wet haze the canyon air had become. The canyon walls had transformed from dusty red walls to slick maroon slides, and it seemed like water was pouring into the canyon from any and all possible directions. In this moment of barefoot feet in hail-filled crocs, soggy rain gear and seeping cold I stared down at my soaked rain pants, trying to minimize the amount of water that ran down into my raincoat. I am so grateful that that while I was keeping my head down someone else had the attentiveness to look straight up into the storm. After the lightning passed and while we ambled, mumbled and stumbled around looking for firewood, the water that had once been a small stream gently perusing its way through the sand, turned into a gushing river. One of our fearless instructors, Nick, rushed across to rescue the tents that we had casually set up on the other bank during a sunnier time several moments before the rain set in. That night we moved our tents again, to higher ground, because the wash had become an audible reddish-brown torrent and we were forced to engage with the strength and unpredictability of a desert storm. At the same time it was such a blessing to see water in the desert rise up and flow freely and wildly on a sandy bank where we once sat.

Water is powerful, essential, and temporary in the desert and I believe we have truly experienced this reality in the depths of Horseshoe Canyon.

On this first section we walked from the top of Horseshoe Canyon all the way down to its mouth at the Green River. We learned about how opposing viewpoints, interests, and ideals lead to over-allotments of water and fraudulent claims of land, during the settling of the West.

We have stripped the rivers and watersheds of the West of their abilities to flow freely and I wonder how this will decrease the resilience of this land.

What is the future of a resource that can carve a canyon, strip rock and soil from layers of earth and carry it away, but that has been dammed, bought and allotted by people who misunderstood and idealized the arid climate of the West?

I am eager to learn more about directions we can take with policies, consumption, and systems of thinking to move away from a history and current reality of overconsumption, and misuse of water in an arid land.

What systems of thinking can help us preserve and properly appreciate and allocate this life giving, earth moving, ephemeral, and finite force?

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