A wild ride on the Colorado River

Mee Canyon sunset — note smoke from wildfire.

Traveling the backcountry carries with it inherent risks. Any number of potentially life-threatening situations could arise. Fortunately, those situations rarely happen. Adventures usually go smooth with little or no problems.

I accept that risk and try to be prepared to deal with a problem if it arises. I carry extra water, a rain jacket, a first aid kit and a small kit with a few emergency items. If I am mountain biking, I toss in a spare tube, pump, and a small tool kit.

On a rare occasion, the situation deteriorates to a point that it is way beyond your control. It has nothing to do with your preparation or your backcountry savvy. You are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last weekend happened to be one of those times.

I had joined a raft trip on the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River. It was a float organized by the Colorado Canyons Association (CCA). Its focus was the bird life along the river. The day started out like most other trips. People commiserating, excited to get on the water, enjoying the weather and scenery.

All went well initially. We were seeing lots of birds. It was hot and breezy, but we were not too concerned since the forecast called for some wind and possibly thunder showers, nothing extreme. We set up our camp near Mee Canyon. By late afternoon, the wind really kicked up, stirred up a lot of dust and almost took down our tents. Thunderheads were forming to the south. A few claps of thunder got our attention.

Soon after the initial thunder, we could see a puff of smoke south of our position. The wind intensified and soon a thick column of smoke rose up over the horizon. One of our guides climbed the canyon slope, reached near the rim, and was able to get cell phone service and notified 911 of the fire. Soon, a Chinook helicopter flew in low to assess the fire.

At sunset, the clouds thickened, and the rain chased us into our tents. It rained on and off all night. By morning, all that dust had turned to mud. The rain let up by sunrise, so our guides got the coffee brewing while whipping up a breakfast of bagels, yogurt, and granola.

Our plan for the day was to do some birding up Mee Canyon then float leisurely into our stop for the night at Catalpa Camp. Soon after breakfast, a thunderstorm roared through camp. By that time, everyone was soaked to the bone, so our guides decided to head directly for Catalpa Camp.

Catalpa Camp is managed by CCA on leased private land adjacent to the McInnis Canyons NCA. It is an outdoors/science education facility. The camp has two large tents that are set up on raised platforms. One tent serves as a kitchen and the other as a gathering place for campers. Both have a simple wood stove to take the chill off on cool mornings or during inclement weather.

It rained on and off through the morning. All along the canyon cliffs water cascaded over ephemeral pour-offs; a sight rarely seen except when it rains heavily. By the time we reached Catalpa Camp the sun came out from behind rain clouds. Everyone pitched in, quickly unloaded our gear, and began hanging it out to dry. Our guides, Meril, Dawn and Ethan, set up a wood stove to warm up one of the tents then began to prepare lunch.

The sunshine did not last long. Off to the west we could see a storm approaching rapidly. No sooner than our gear was safely stored in the camp tents, it hit. Severe winds and heavy rain pummeled the camp. The rain was falling horizontally. The kitchen tent completely collapsed with Dawn in it. The other tent was heavily damaged, but partially standing. We had been in the crosshairs of a microburst. It lasted all of 10 minutes.

Fortunately, no one was injured, just a little rattled by the intensity of the storm. Twenty minutes after the microburst, it was calm and sunny, but much of our gear was wet again. Additional rain and wind were predicted so our guides recommended that we pack up and head for the Westwater take out. We all had enough.

When I returned home that evening, I checked with the weather service. It reported the squall that ripped through our camp had run from near Bluff, Utah to north of Grand Junction, producing intense lightning, 90 mile-per-hour winds, hail, and heavy rain. It also started two other wildfires north of Grand Junction. It was one heck of a wild ride!

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