It seemed just like any other day at Havasu, except the air was cool and it was early August. I was on an oar trip with Wilderness, and we pulled three snouts, two canyons, and a Maravia into the mouth of Havasu and tied up. Down at the lower pull-in were two Wilderness motor rigs and two Western motor rigs. A private trip pulled in and tied up two boats deep in the mouth and used our boats as a bridge. Nine kayaks and a canoe were able to squeeze by all the boats and skinny through the six-foot slot to paddle to their own private dry dock near the first waterfall 100 yards upstream.We got all the passengers off the boats and assembled them on shore to get their premade lunches for the all-day Beaver hike we had planned. Some of the boatmen looked up Havasu Canyon and saw a few scattered clouds, but only enough to remind you that a flash flood is a possibility. Okie was in charge and made a hard call due to less than perfect weather. The Beaver hike was changed to a one hour up to the first pools and back, and then early to camp to play volleyball. Tony Anderson had made a similar call and already had his people coming back from a quick visit to the pools. Western had pulled in early and had people well on their way to Beaver. This typical, pleasantly sunny day was about to change dramatically.
After a brief visit with the Wilderness boys at the lower pull-in, myself and a few other Wilderness boatmen returned to the boats in the mouth to grab some food, water, and shade, along with some of the nonhiking passengers. I lay down on my ice chest and stared up at the clouds that were moving very quickly but provided decent patches of shade to my boat in the sun.
Just then, a distant roar started to turn my ears up like a deer noticing a strange sound. The roar got louder and soon revealed its identity as distant thunder. I looked over at a passenger who was watching my peculiar paranoia, and I lay back down. Just moments later, another low-frequency roar began, except this time it was up Havasu Canyon and was slowly getting louder–and rhythmic. It was a helicopter 100 feet off of the Havasu Canyon floor coming down the canyon. For two seconds, I wondered what the hell the chopper was doing, and then I saw a hand making a wave-like motion much like splashing water in a pool. I screamed over the choppers roar along with four other boatmen. “FLASH FLOOD! EVERYBODY OUT!!! OUT, OUT, EVERYBODY OUT!! NOW!!”
It was mass confusion. Some people thought that we meant get on the boats to leave. Parents ran around looking for their children. One parent came up to me as I was screaming at his son, who was deep in the mouth of the pull-in spot, trying to get the vest that was blown into the water from the chopper. He finally heard the panic in our voices and left the life jacket in the water and ran across the boats.
With everybody off the boats, everything seemed strangely calm. What do we do?, I thought as I looked at the eight perfectly calm boats sitting in the mouth. Is this a two-minute warning or a twenty-minute warning? Should we cut the boats loose? Is this a debris flow or just a mild flood? If we have even three minutes, we can get some of these boats out of here. It felt like what I imagined to be a bomb on its way to destroy the boats.
Since two of the boats were almost completely out of the mouth of the canyon, it seemed to make sense to try and move one at a time out of the main path of the imminent water. It didn’t make sense at the time to cut the boats loose because we didn’t know what was coming–since it was high water, maybe the lake that was there in the mouth would slow down a small flood. Standing on those boats and untying them felt like having a shoelace caught on a train track, with a train coming full speed. We were deeply aware of anything that might indicate the water being near, and none of us would commit to going into the mouth where there was no immediate escape route up the sheer 25-foot walls. We managed to untie one of the boats and positioned it in the current of the main river–about 30 feet downstream from what is considered to be the mouth. We went back to get the second boat, and then we heard the horrible sounds–absolutely terrifying. The sounds were not of the water, but of people way upstream screaming in terror and warning those downstream. Okie and I were in the mouth and stopped what we were doing. We sat there frozen for about ten seconds listening to the yelling and screaming getting closer.
And then, there it was. It seemed to be coming down the canyon at automobile speeds. I had always envisioned a flash at Havasu to be a wall of muddy water crashing through the canyon with reckless abandon, but this moving water was smooth and beautifully blue. It came like a wave on the ocean, 5- to 6-feet tall, perfectly smooth, with about a 45 degree angle to it. As the wave moved into the narrowest part near the boats, the water instantly stood up and filled the 6-foot-wide slot completely to the top of the cliffs with about an 80-degree, if not perfectly vertical, 10-foot wall of blue water. Within seconds Okie and I were on the safe ledge we had chosen as the escape route, and we watched the carnage happen.
All the ropes seemed to snap at once like popcorn well into the popping stage. One of the boats that was tied to a “bomber” tie off, resisted the current for about three seconds, flipped onto another raft, and slid back into the water upside down snapping a D-ring off. Oars were swinging everywhere as eight boats pulled out at the same time on the new muddy water pushing them. Trees and kayaks stuck up out of the water like daggers between rafts from all the congestion. One log about 30 feet long was somehow lifted into a vertical position from all the debris and constriction, and glanced off one of the boats when it crashed back down again.
There was a hellacious vortex of water where the Havasu water met the Colorado, that violently shook and turned the boats as they exited the mouth. The rafts floated out in the current and underneath the chopper hovering over the Colorado. The flow seemed to be about 90 percent water and about 10 percent wood, and we began to wonder what to do if we saw any people or bodies. An occasional life jacket, or piece of clothing would surface and then submerge again-causing an instinctual urge to jump into the river to help. All we could do was watch for people and watch our boats go downstream.
The chopper pilot, Michael Moore, had saved the day. His warning was all that was needed to get everyone to high ground. Apparently, he saw the flood coming way upstream and broke some rules of radio contact and flight zones, and went on the warning mission. You could easily argue that he saved a dozen lives that day.
Everyone was running around wondering what to do. Pat Phillips thought it wise to jump onto one of the Western boats that had already snapped one of two Queen Mary bowlines because of the newly introduced current from Havasu. The upstream pontoon was about 70 percent underwater, and the water actually ripped away one of the kitchen boxes tied on the side of the raft. The Western boat was a smart place to be to watch for people, since everything that came out of the mouth either crashed into or went underneath those boats. Okie, the lead on the Wilderness trip, started calling everyone together to count heads and see what the next step was. The one snout that was moved out of the mouth was still there in the current, but was stressing the rope to its limit. There was a feeling that the trip was definitely over–that there was no way we could recover a trip from this situation. Several minutes had passed at this point, and it seemed apparent that the chopper had done its job–there were no bodies that day.
It seemed pointless to just sit there and watch the remaining snout break away and go downstream, so Pat and I carefully boarded the boat. The line was so tight it was unapproachable. Brett Starks cut the line at the tie off point with just a touch of a dull Gerber Shorty knife. Pat and I were catapulted like an accelerating sports car into the current and bounced off the Western boats we couldn’t avoid. We had a few ideas of how we might pull some of the boats to shore, but we were hoping that T. A. and his motorboats didn’t go too far for lunch, since the oar boats were several minutes ahead of us.
At the mouth, the chaos had just begun. One of the passengers on the private trip was in the water near the first pools when the flood hit and was rammed in the ribs by a log. Unable to pull herself out of the current, she screamed for help. Patrick (Mowgli–the ex-Marine) was there and helped her to higher ground. A quick assessment revealed not much more than some possible broken ribs, and an embarrassed need for Mowgli’s shirt.
Near the first crossing spot, one of the passengers, struck with fear, interpreted “get to high ground” as “scale the cliffs.” Climbing in panic, the softspoken band teacher soon realized he had climbed too far and froze 60 feet up on the cliff on a narrow ledge. Matt Penrod, an experienced climber, began an hour and a half rescue with a harness and some climbing equipment he acquired from the Park Service that had recently landed to assess the situation at the river–things were mild compared to the 600 people stranded upstream near the Havasu village, and the Park Service could only help so much. Matt scaled the 5.8-5.9 cliff to the stranded climber and was able to assist in a 30-foot down climb to a spot where a harness could be used to lower the passenger.
Upstream near Beaver Falls, a dozen or so passengers began a series of harrowing chopper flights through the canyon to get back to the boats. One of the Western boatmen made an impossible trek along the talus to get back to the boats for help and information.
Down on the Colorado River, T. A., Christen, Aaron, and Katie came to the rescue of the boats. They had the difficult task of pushing the boats to shore, while driving in a bog of driftwood and debris. Pat and I met up with T. A. just as he had pulled all the boats ashore. We righted the flipped raft and began making triple rigs with the boats for a speedy trip down to Tuckup. At this point, we were asked by the Park Service over the radio if we could continue the trip. Amazingly, we accounted for every boat, including kayaks, and gave the Park Service the thumbs up for our ability to continue. Two Western boats, who were unable to pull in because of the flash, met up with T. A. and took on the responsibility of transporting the equipment for the private trip. The brigade of oar boats tied to motorboats quickly drove down to Tuckup and met up with Jason and Mike on the Wilderness support boat, who had also been rescuing kayaks and equipment. Every boat downstream had kayaks filled with driftwood on board.
With all boats at Tuckup, T. A. and the Western boats went downstream to continue their trips. And there we sat–setting up a kitchen, a chopper pad, and listening to the aircraft radio–eighteen boats, four crew members and 45 people upstream.
Hours passed, and at Havasu the stream slowly began to diminish. Some spots became crossable with the assistance of life jackets, some strong shoulders, and lines strung across the river. The whole process of getting everyone back to the boats was horrendously slow, and people began to approach their limits. To make matters worse, a severe thunderstorm was rolling in and nightfall was approaching. All the Park Service could do was to make a final drop of food supplies and life jackets, and take off into a dark and stormy night. With 90 people rain gear-less and shivering, the crew members made the call to get to Tuckup via the two Western rigs. The boats were heavy and slow and extremely wet from splashing. To make matters worse, walls of rain began dumping on the rafts. The lightning was flashing like a bad discotheque, dozens of waterfalls crashed off every cliff, and the last mile was driven in complete darkness.
At Tuckup, the chaos began again. Ninety people pulled into camp in a horrendous rainstorm, all looking for their bags and equipment strung about like a chaotic yard sale. No one could find anything in all the chaos. The halogen flood lamp and the generator saved the day. With light on the scene and the smell of hot food cooking, people were able to get situated. Some shivering children were quickly taken to the shelter of an overhang and bundled up in dry sleeping bags. With the camp situated, food in our bellies, bodies warmed, and fears behind, ninety people went to bed that night with a memory of a lifetime.
In looking back on that day, I think the most impressive aspect of how everything came together was the reactions of the people involved. Every passenger and crew member rose to meet the occasion. There was no time for judgment or ego. Some people became leaders, some people became invaluable followers. Virtually every decision was logical, and the first priority was always safety. The Park Service was there and gave exactly what help was needed. The chopper pilot made the move that he knew he had to make–rules or no rules, he couldn’t have lived with himself had someone died that day.
From a humanistic perspective, I think the most impressive thing that happened that day was that people found that they had limits beyond what they knew about themselves. I think when people are pushed beyond their known limits, a strengthening of spirit occurs and there is a rekindling of what our real values are in life–being alive with loved ones–having a healthy body.
On behalf of everyone involved with that incident, I would like to thank the chopper pilot, Michael Moore, for his brilliant job of warning everyone in Havasu Canyon. I’m sure that there are dozens of incidents deserving of praise and recognition, and I apologize for not being able to include these in this story. My personal view is that the crew members of Western and Wilderness orchestrated a brilliant recovery from that day and that the situation could not have been handled in a better way. The Park Service, as always, fit perfectly into the recovery, and a special thanks should go to all who were there.