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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

High Water

High Water July 11, 2012
In many ways this seems like a typical summer: a skink scurries across the trail taking refuge in last year’s fallen leaves, Cooper’s Hawks raise their young, along the creek, in an old cottonwood tree, Turkey Vultures stretch their wings in the warmth of the morning sun and each day I guide visitors into heart  the of Frijoles Canyon. We walk the path of the Ancestral Puebloans, peer into kivas, hike through Tyuonyi village and climb high into cavates. Together we watch sunlight slide across the south-facing cliff and the afternoon thunderheads build.

It is monsoon season in a land scarred by fire. It has been one year since the Las Conchas Fire blazed more than twentythousand acres of Bandelier National Monument. To the casual visitor this means little. Mostly, the evidence of the burn remains out of view. For the individual venturing into the backcountry the experience is different. Bare ground and ponderosa pine skeletons tell the tale of last year’s inferno. A story of a fire I would rather forget, but I can’t and don’t.

Every day, I witness activity related to the fallout of combustion. Where there is fire there is often flood. Without vegetation rooted into the soil the burned-out canyons can't hold back the rain. Last August the creek swell scoured lichen from rocks, and logs, vegetative debris and boulders tumbled down the trail, wrapping and resting in heaps around tree trunks, leaving our parking lot filled with muddied ash. This summer we expect the same. When the sky darkens we wonder, “Will it flood today?”

Last week the creek rose high enough, with a current strong enough, to wash away footbridges and leave us wondering when high water will come again.

This afternoon I hear the sky rumble and watch fast-moving clouds. The park radio crackles, I hear the voice of our chief ranger, “Bandelier employees Bandelier employees, I know you are concerned, but the big cell has passed. It is to the south and we have received little rain in the upper watershed.” I relax. The Visitor Center is safe for now.

Thousands of sandbags and concrete barriers are positioned to divert high water away from our historic Visitor Center. Last year the barriers were successful in protecting the structure. This year we hope for the same good fortune.

Admittedly, the flood protection and last year’s jumble of flood debris flanking the creek appear a bit odd in this landscape of undiminished beauty. The coyote who routinely uses the trail to hunt for mice and  the fawn strechting her wobbly legs pay little attention to concrete and sand. Yet each sandbag serves as a reminder to walk alert, listening for the sound of a rising creek, while knowing there is refuge on higher ground.

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