Monday, June 15, 2015

Desert Flash Floods

June 8, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

As I rode northeastward toward Miner’s Needle Summit from the old Quarter Circle U Ranch that day, the furthest thing from my mind was a flash flood. I had ridden these draws and canyons of the wilderness for many years. I knew heavy rain could produce dangerous flooding conditions. But this particular day my mind was not on rain, flash floods or blizzards. This was April and it seldom rained in the mountains this time of the year. Most severe flash floods occurred during the summer months from late June until mid September.

In just minutes, a desert downpour can create a raging river like this one in Queen Creek Canyon.
 On this particular day I was checking the water sources at Bluff Springs, Charlebois Springs, Music Springs, Trap Canyon Springs and White Rock Springs. This would be a long day, it was very hot and very humid. The sky was filled with cumulus clouds, but they certainly didn’t look threatening in any manner. Actually it was quite unusual to see clouds like these this time of the year. The winter rains ceased around March and things dry out until the summer rains.

My boss wanted me to check all the main springs and see if they needed any repair work before it really got hot on the desert. The first spring I checked was Bluff Springs. When I arrived I found the concrete tank filled with water and there was a continuous flow of water from the spring up under the cliff which meant the pipe was not leaking or was not broken.

I then rode down Bluff Spring Canyon trail to La Barge Canyon. I checked the concrete tank at Music Springs and found a lot of sand and silt in it. I spent a couple hours at the tank scraping out as much of the debris as I could with my hands and a small Army shovel I had tied on the back of saddle.

After I finished my job at Music Springs I rode on down to White Rock Spring. The water was plentiful there. The Cottonwoods were leafing out and ready for spring.

From White Rock I rode back up La Barge to Charlebois Spring and checked the concrete tank and pipeline. Everything was working fine and the system was delivering water to the concrete tank. At this point it had been a long day on horseback from the Quarter Circle U Ranch. I rested a few minutes and looked up into the huge Sycamore trees that surrounded the area. It was then I first notice the heavy dark clouds gathering to the southeast. I thought momentarily, this is April not July. I still wasn’t really expecting any rain.

I climbed back into the saddle and rode back up La Barge Canyon toward Music Springs and Trap Canyon. Riding along the trail in La Barge it began to rain. All of a sudden the raindrops were huge. I put my slicker on and was able to stay somewhat dry and warm. The rain pelted me for at least thirty minutes as I rode up La Barge toward the outlet of Trap Canyon. I wanted to check the water source at Trap and then head back to the ranch. As I crossed La Barge near the mouth of Trap Canyon I notice the flow of La Barge was increasing rapidly.

It was at this point something in my psyche told me to get out of the canyon. I immediately turned my horse around and rode through the rapidly rising water to the opposite side of La Barge Canyon. All of a sudden I could hear the roar of water and the tumbling of rocks that sounded like a freight train coming down the canyon. The roar of the water and rocks was deafening. As my horse climbed the bank on the opposite side of the canyon the mass of water and debris roared by.

I was one lucky inexperienced cowboy that day.  As I sat there and pondered my life-threatening experience I realized cowboys had to think for themselves quickly if they were to stay healthy in the occupation. My time on the old Quarter U Ranch was a well-earned education I will never forget.

This flash flood down La Barge Canyon took out huge Cottonwood trees and even altered the course of the streambed in many places. This was the first actual flash flood I had witnessed up close. From that day on when it rained heavy in the desert and surrounding mountains I became concerned and cautious about my surroundings. Several years ago twenty-three campers drowned near Payson when they were caught in a devastating flash flood.              

As I rode over Miner’s Summit on the way back to the ranch that evening I thought about my experience in La Barge Canyon. The storm had raged, then became a drizzle and before I arrived back at the ranch it had completely quit raining and the sky had cleared. You couldn’t tell by looking at me that I had been through such an experience.