When the recording on the shuttle bus warned about deadly flash floods, I smiled at my children decked in their waterproof Gore-Tex bodysuits and repeated the message.
“Flash floods can kill. Don’t let it happen to you!”
We laughed, in that nervous way when you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
I had convinced my husband and our two young teenagers to hike The Narrows, renowned as one of the most scenic slot canyon hikes in the world. Hikers must wade through the Virgin River, which runs from wall to wall, as it cuts through the canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park. We were visiting in the early spring, when the snow melt can frequently cause the water level to rise too high, shutting it down for hikers. The temperature was in the 30s the morning we headed out. We had rented canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks and walking sticks in addition to our wetsuits to keep us relatively dry and warm.
I had deliberately chosen a family activity in which I knew neither child would be able to look at their phone for eight solid hours. The river demands your full attention. As a parent of teens, you relish the phone-free hours on a vacation.
Before we left, there was a heated debate about whose phone would be carried as tribute in the waterproof bag, along with our snacks and water bottles. The youngest child, with the oldest phone, finally agreed to let us stow his after we promised to replace it with an upgraded version if his phone became an unintended casualty of the adventure.
I also wanted to take us out of our comfort zones. I knew the hike would become physically uncomfortable at times and would require some persistence to reach the point we wanted before turning back around. We would have to slog through the river together.
A paved path ends at the bank of the river where we entered the water. Around 9 a.m., the cold water was flowing fast -- around 126 cubic feet per second (cfs) -- which meant it would be a challenging hike upstream. When the water flow is above 150 cfs, the river becomes impassable. In the summer, the flow is around 50 to 60 cfs. Today, the water was cloudy with silt. It had been closed to hikers due to flash flooding the day before, and the chocolate-brown water churned around our legs. Water seeped into our shoes and squished between the layers of socks.
The river bottom is uneven and covered in large rocks. I had read some descriptions beforehand that said it’s like walking on wet bowling balls. Not all the rocks are that smooth, however. It took us a while to get our footing, especially since we were laboring against a strong current.
The river’s depth is also unpredictable. The water can shift from mid-calf to chest-high within a few feet. We relied on our five-foot tall walking sticks to keep our balance, and even then, our youngest fell a few times. The entire way we were surrounded by vermilion sandstone mountains, their summits towering more than a thousand feet high. We passed waterfalls and patches of vegetation on either side. It takes about an hour to hike one mile.
We had 2.5 miles to go before we got to the part where the 2,000-foot-high walls narrow to a passage about 20 feet across. Along the way, we crossed the rushing river several times. At one point, I realized what an apt metaphor this struggle through the water was to the journey of raising teens. We were trying to keep a watchful eye on our kids to bail them out if they fell, but we had to let them find their own footing. It was hard to stay balanced. It felt a bit dangerous, and we were all unsteady and fighting against a stronger force at times. Yet when we stopped to look around, it was glorious. The heights and depths, the colors and the light interplayed to create an intensity and serenity.
And we were in it together.
Now, of course, we did not last the entire time without a flare-up between mother and teenage daughter. It’s not a river of miracles, after all. I know there was a period of cross words and angry sloshing, although for the life of me, I cannot remember what triggered it.
That’s an advantage of being in a space of otherworldly splendor. Families get distracted and tend to lose track their personal grievances with one another.
The disagreement sorted itself out as we moved downstream.
On the shuttle ride back, we were all exhausted. There was a quiet closeness, that bond that develops when you’ve struggled alongside someone to experience something special together.
The flash floods didn’t get us.
But the river did.