Going Downstream, A Tragedy in Caddo Gap
Among today’s top stories is yesterday’s sudden flushing of the Little Missouri and Caddo rivers in Arkansas. Flash flooding caused by unusually torrential rains swept through the river course raising the level from a normal of three feet to twenty-three feet in a few hours. Reports from the scene are that at least 7.5 inches of rain fell during a three or four hour period and the river near Caddo Gap rose at the rate of 8.5 feet per hour.
Early Friday, around 2:00 AM the river banks in the Caddo Gap area were crowded with campers in tents and travel trailers out for a weekend in the remote and beautiful Albert Pike Recreation area. Sometime before 5:00 AM, disaster and terror in the form of a massive wall of free falling water struck.
Most people were likely sleeping at that hour and completely unaware of the relentlessly approaching deluge. I can imagine kids in their tents playing with flashlights and giggling in their sleeping bags or bedrolls, too exited to sleep, anticipating the adventures of the day ahead.
As of this writing 17 are confirmed dead with dozens still listed as missing, many of them children.
I witnessed a flash flood many years ago in southeastern Utah. One afternoon in late spring the desert valley I lived and worked in was hit by what we called a “gully washer,” a storm that dumped a surprising amount of rain in a half hour or so as it moved up the red walled valley to the La Sal Mountains looming to the east.
Gully washers are a common occurrence in the desert but this one made its way up the slopes of the mountain and hung there as if caught, impaled by the snow covered peak of Mount Peale. It parked there for the remainder of the afternoon and through the evening.
Morning dawned clear and crisp, not a cloud visible above the desert or over the La Sal.
At that time I owned a small sawmill which was located in the middle of the valley, about a hundred yards from Castle Creek which split the valley’s length in it’s descent from the La Sal highlands to the nearby Colorado River.
The mill was a noisy little two man operation which I ran with a helper whenever I could find timber to cut and someone building a home nearby who needed lumber. It was noisy because of its barely muffled 6 cylinder Continental engine and the howl of its 42 inch blade as it angrily ripped trees into boards.
Standing less than five feet from the spinning blade and a dozen feet from the revving engine the noise, while the timber was fed was all encompassing; anyone near trying to gain my attention would have to shout in my ear.
That morning I suddenly became aware of a loud roaring rumbling noise rising above the collected clamor of the mill which for a brief second I mistook for a large aircraft. I backed off on the feed works and let the engine throttle back as I hit the kill switch; looking up, I realized it was no airplane.
The roar was coming from the creek, a bit higher up the valley and it sounded like an earthquake was coming down the small canyon through which that section of Castle Creek flowed.
Dave, my helper, and I ran breakneck for the creek to investigate and arrived twenty seconds before a wall of water came around the last meander above us. It looked like a great watery fist clutching uprooted trees and boulders, boulders… half the size of a Buick, while crashing madly down the canyon.
At this point in the valley the canyon was probably forty or fifty feet deep and perhaps twice that wide. The leading wave of this maelstrom was perhaps twenty feet high and moving at such speed and with such awe inspiring violence and alarming announcement that we both involuntarily moved back away from the edge of the bank.
The roar grew to a level beyond toleration as it approached our position and quickly passed by us, tearing off down the canyon toward the Kingsley place and the river below leaving in its wake a frothing boiling reddish brown stew of trees and debris rapidly following the evil fist in its flight downstream.
We stood in silent amazement for a few minutes, no words were available to describe what we had witnessed. The creek ran very high for most of that day and in the evening began to recede to normal.
I never saw that creek the same after that.
Dozens died in that Arkansas canyon, dozens more are still missing. Many were rescued, no one was left unharmed. The memory of those hours, the memories of the losses will cloud the years darkly.
I thought of those people today, those campers, those children caught up in a random event of nature which in moments changed the idyllic peace of a wilderness weekend to a world of unbridled violence and terror.
I thought of that long ago Utah morning today, a morning that began with the crisp sparkling dawn of another peaceful desert day and suddenly transformed itself into a starkly beautiful and terrible experience of the violence that nature is capable of when water and sun, wind and gravity conspire together.
When the forces of nature become accomplices in sudden random events over which we have no control.