August was wet in Arizona. I transplanted myself back to the grand canyon state just in time to be greeted by tropical moisture from Baja that, after lingering for a few days, left water standing in places that never hold water. Fast forward a few days, and I was crawling down Haigler creek. We were literally crawling. Upon joining Haigler creek by way of Marsh Creek, I had read an Edward Abbey quote to my group about the merits of walking. He suggested that other than crawling, it is the slowest form of locomotion. It’s true, crawling is slower than walking. At crawling pace, we were traveling ¼ mile an hour through this slice of earth. A creek bend, just an 1/8th of a mile away, looked so close. In normal leisurely strolling, it would take less than 10 minutes to round the bend. At our pace, it was a half an hour. I passed the time scanning the ground for heart rocks, pebbles with perfect rings, taking photos, and contemplating existential questions. It was actually really great.
This particular day we had to cover 3.5 miles. 3.5 miles should be no hard feat for a group of experienced backcountry travelers. But, at ¼ mile an hour, we had our work cut out for us. The situation was that Haigler is a narrow, rugged canyon. Its slopes are steep, sometimes vertical walls of metamorphic rock. Through it, the water runs brown. Rocks that lurk an inch beneath the surface are undetectable by the eye and are among the slipperiest I’ve ever encountered. The canyon floor is choked with young riparian vegetation and debris that is all leaning aggressively downstream, serving as a constant reminder of the forces of flash floods.
The persistent monsoons had left the earth saturated, and each day’s rain thus far had arrived once we reached the safety of camp. Today, though, I knew would be a different story. Around 2pm I saw clouds start to build. We had made half of our mileage. By four pm it was raining steadily. Probing our way along the creek bed beneath the canopy of the alders, box elders, sycamore, and willows, the sky was obscured by green leaves. Every small waterfall we negotiated I questioned if I was hearing cascading water from the pour-over or the roar of a flood approaching. Every plane that flew overhead, slowing its speed as it approached Phoenix, left me hearing a flood.
Eric, is more debris floating by? I asked, wondering if I was imaging signs of flashflood. Nah dude, I just stirred that up. He replied. Dave, is the water getting murkier? Hah, no, I don’t think so. He knew what I was thinking. He was the first one to see the flood coming toward us in Dark Canyon last October. Then, the look in his eyes were what made my stomach jump to my throat as I registered the approaching flood. Kaitlyn, just because it’s raining doesn’t mean a wall of water is going to come around the bend I reminded myself. I pushed my way through the young, dense willows. Ducking, to crawl beneath the thick branches, my sunglasses fell off my head, plopping into the current. I reached down, feeling beneath the surface of the rushing water for my sunnies. They were gone over the pour over. The water was roaring. It was brown. I heard rockfall. Before I saw Dave’s expression looking upstream that day in Dark Canyon, I first thought the sound I heard was rockfall. Then I saw Dave’s face. Floods are scarier than falling rock, especially when you’re in a creek, about to enter a mile of narrows, and you’re ultimately responsible for the five other humans all crawling at ¼ mile an hour in a tight, walled-in canyon.
Aysha, do you think the water is rising? I asked. Aysha is conservative. I knew she was nervous too. Maybe. She replied, eyeing the banks. Shit, we have to get out of here, I responded to myself. At that point I couldn’t tell what was rationally real, and what was emotionally fabricated. Regardless, I knew something had to change. I wasn’t comfortable proceeding downstream because I was afraid of being afraid, and I wasn’t okay making my group bivy among boulders because my emotional post-traumatic-flood-disorder had gotten the best of me.
Seeing a steep, talus filled gully leading to a flat-ish looking bench, I impulsively detoured the group up the steep, loose, talus slope. I wasn’t supposed to be the navigational voice that day, but something had to change. Glancing down below me, I could see the confusion in Matt’s face, the annoyance in Julie’s, and the skepticism in Dave’s. Aysha looked more comfortable, and Eric, as always, was rolling with it. Reaching the ledge it became evident that we would not be camping there. We checked in, mostly as a tool for me to buy time to reassess. How is everyone doing? How would you be making decisions right now, were you here in this situation with your group of students, as you very well may be in a week or two? I asked. They answered thoughtfully, one by one. They’re all really fantastic. I listened with one ear, and surveyed the scene with the rest of my awareness.
The rain was coming from the southwest. We were experiencing the storm before upstream was. The air was quiet, aside from an occasional rumble of thunder. The creek looked the same shade of brown as it had in the morning, and the day before. From our vantage, it almost looked peaceful. A plane flew overhead. No flood came. And how is everyone’s energy and temperatures? I inquired. Some were getting tired. Everyone was warm while moving but cooling down from standing still. Okay, well I’m not too concerned about flashing right now, but it is getting late and were we to move efficiently without stopping we would likely be looking for “ tight” camp as sun set. With a mile of continuous pools to swim and a challenging camp to find, we agreed to proceed with an eye for a place to camp short of our destination. That night we camped at a new spot that we named happy camp. While not everyone was stoked by the outcome of the day, I was relieved to be at “happy” camp and not at “oh shit” camp.
The next morning, I read, “Water is the softest thing, yet it penetrates the mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” We quietly looked at the creek, contemplating the insight of Lao Tzu. The creek had risen the night before. We proceeded into the narrows of Haigler under warm blue skies, happily submerging our bodies in the cool brown water, pool after pool. We had a relaxing, playful, carefree passage of the final two miles of Hailger Creek, finally reaching Hell’s Gate at the confluence of Haigler and Tonto creek.
As we continued our slow probe, step, probe step, sit, swim, crawl downstream progress at ¼ mile an hour, I reflected on the profound message of the night before. Sometimes to get the best read of an intense, chaotic situation, it is best to climb away from the chaos and look at it through a new lens. Space can offer the greatest perspective.
A night later, we climbed away from Hell’s Gate by the light of the full moon. Walking in the dark between cactus and loose rock was easier and faster than traveling down Haigler in pure daylight. I thought about Tom Robbins’ Graduation Speech. I decided that if heaven is where you’re free and passionate, and hell is where you’re a cog in the machine, Hell’s Gate is where I get to choose to remain in Heaven, regardless of where I physically am.
It’s been ten years since I began my career as a field instructor in outdoor education. Now, more than ever, I believe I am where I am supposed to be. My job keeps on giving,; I continue to learn and feel incredibly humbled, grateful, inspired, and alive.