Editor’s Note: Hiking in a remote, fire-scoured mountain range in Utah, The Nature Conservancy’s Frank Lowenstein, and his son Max, got trapped on a steep trail during an intense lightning and hail storm as the earth started to erode around them. Here’s what happened.
It hailed not for a few seconds or a minute but for a full half hour. The intense downpour soaked us to the skin despite our rain gear. And all around us the ground began to move. Without vegetation, the rain turned it from a solid into a black slurry of ground-up volcanic rock, charcoal and water, flowing downhill around our feet.
It’s lucky we were high up in the watershed. At worst, we got some sand in our boots. Downhill, where the rain from the surrounding mountains came together, the waters became a raging torrent of boulders, sand and trees, smashing through anything and everything in its way. Four days later, when we came out, we saw six-foot-high, thirty-foot-long metal culverts that had been bent like twist-ties by the force of the flood.
For our part, after the storm moved on, we crossed the pass into Trail Canyon, where we found that the flood had destroyed much of the trail. There were eight-foot-deep gullies cut right across the path of the trail, and the creek in places had accumulations of two-foot-thick tree trunks piled high like the work of some gargantuan, but poorly skilled, beaver.
Rock slides and debris flows cascaded down the sides of the canyon, some continuing more than 18 hours after the storm had passed and many obliterating the former path of the trail. Choosing a camp site was an exercise in hazard avoidance.
We did eventually get to Picnic Creek, which was as lovely as its name implies. But our plans to do a loop trip through nearby Line Canyon were put on hold by flood damages there.
What I saw on my summer vacation sure looked a lot like conditions that are predicted to become more common in Western landscapes under a climate with too much CO2 in the atmosphere:
- warmer temperatures that contribute to prolonged droughts and higher risk of wildfires;
- periodic intense storms and heavy rainfall that lead to flash flooding;
- increased erosion and landslides that occur when runoff pours quickly over parched soil, instead of being held by trees and absorbed gradually by the earth.
Here was a clear example of how a forest that was scoured by fire remained vulnerable to further damage from intense storms. We saw disruption, not only to the health of the forest, but to the people who use the forest — and to downstream users even in some of the least populated areas of the country. The Forest Service’s post-fire team pointed out that one of the bridges of Interstate 70 might be vulnerable to flooding coming from the burned area.
All in all we had a great adventure in the mountains. And when our loop trip didn’t work out, we adapted. We hiked out a bit early and took a side trip to Bryce Canyon National Park.
We had a great vacation despite the fire and flood, but had our timing been a few hours different, we could have faced fatal dangers instead of just a solid drenching and difficult trail conditions.
So, even in the back country of Utah, I wasn’t able to completely forget my work. But I returned with a renewed appreciation for its importance — not just for wildlife, but for people too — including all of us who like to spend time in the woods.
Frank Lowenstein is Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.
Photo by: Frank Lowenstein (Frank his son Max get a photo from their Utah back-country trek.)
Inset photo by: Frank Lowenstein (Hiking in the remote Tushar Mountains of Utah).
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