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What’s A Little Thunder. . .When You’re Two Miles Up A Slot Canyon?

April 19, 2018

The walls at the mouth were 50 feet apart and 80 feet high. There was literally nowhere to walk except in the Virgin river. We’d gotten off the bus at the last stop The Temple of Sinawava. From there it was a mile hike to the start of the slot canyon.

We were in Zion’s National Park. We do the hike every year as the last hike of the summer. It can easily climb into the triple digits outside the park, but as soon as you walk into the perpetual shadow that is the canyon, the temperature easily drops 25-30 degrees.

Today was a moderate day. Eighties in Southern Utah, mid to upper 60s in the canyon. We had a different worry than the heat. The sky was overcast as we drove into the park.

Utah’s great outdoors is not without its risks. As boy scout leaders we do our best to mitigate those risks. But, we cannot eliminate them. Flash floods are serious concern in the desert. Add a slot canyon into the mix and things can become very dangerous very quickly.

The weather wasn’t calling for rain in our immediate area, but that’s the thing about flash floods. It might rain miles away and that water is going to eventually find its way to you.

We always explain the dangers to the boys. Even though they are 12 adn 13 years old, it’s important that they understand to take safety seriously. Our job is to keep them safe, but more importantly to teach them to keep themselves safe.

As we headed up the canyon, the boys were mostly interested in splashing each other and stealing glances at the bikini-clad college students out enjoying the river. As leaders we watched the boys, and kept an eye on the ribbon of sky above our heads. Still nothing but grey clouds.

This section of the Virgin River is called the Narrows. And it quickly lives up to its name. The higher we hiked upstream, the closer the walls closed in. After a couple of miles, the college girls were gone as were the majority of the hikers. The walls were significantly closer. Maybe 20 feet apart at the widest. They were still at least 80 feet high.

We took the turn to go up Orderville canyon and the hiking definitely became more challenging. We were now scrambling over rocks. Helping each other up the steeper sections. The walls were also a mere 5 feet apart at this point. We knew we were about a half mile from the end. Not the end of the river, of course, but having come this way before we knew that we would soon come to an impassable obstacle. One group of scouts several years ago came with climbing gear and scaled it, but for us that was always the end.

As we paused for a break, the scoutmaster, who had been leading came back to where the other assitant and I were largely bringing up the rear.

Say, that grey sky isn’t bothering you is it?

We glanced at the high water marks left from the last flash flood. the walls were still damp to a distance at least 15 feet above our heads.

Maybe a little.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than we heard the peal of distant thunder. And two of our boys turned and started sprinting down the canyon back the way we’d come.

That was as far as we were goign today. We left one leader to gather the rest of the boys and start them down, while the other leader and I chased after our rabbits.

We were two miles up the canyon. We finally caught up to the boys about a quarter mile downstream. We waited while the rest of the troop arrived.

Is it going to flood? Can we escape if it does?

It’s not going to flood.

I hoped I sounded more reassuring than I felt. The boys were obviously frightened.

We are going to head back now, but its just a precaution.

Because you’re worried it’s going to flood?

No. I don’t think it’s going to flood.

Then, why are we headed back early?

The kid had a point. And he was scared. Was I worried about a flash flood? You bet, I was. At that point in the canyon, a flood would kill us. Later, when it opened up a little there were places you could get out of the path of a flood. But right there? Yeah, that was not the place to be if the water started rising. But, I also needed to reassure these boys and help them understand caution without giving in to fear.

Tell me, what’s the first thing you do when you get in a car?

You put your seatbelt on.


So, if you will be protected if you get in an accident.

Does that mean by putting your seatbelt on you think you’re going to get in an accident?

No. . .

Right. It’s a precaution. Just because you take a precaution, doesn’t mean you think whatever you are being careful about will happen. We are headed out now, but it’s because it’s the smart thing to do. NOT because we think there’s a flood coming.

That seemed to satisfy him. The rest of the troop had joined us and we started down the canyon in an orderly fashion. As we did, I thought about my impromptu explanation. It was pretty good. In fact, it was good enough it almost convinced me.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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