6 October 2011

The time we didn’t get stranded by the flood

Posted by Callan Bentley

Last spring, I made two visits, six days apart, to Veach Gap, a small water gap superimposed on the Massanutten Synclinorium. One was with my Field Studies in Geology one-day field course, and the second was with my Structural Geology students from George Mason University. We go there to see some lovely parasitic anticlines that decorate the larger regional synformal structure.

Well, on the first trip, it rained. A lot. The Veach Gap stop was the last one of the day, and we hiked up there under glowering skies that began to dump more and more and more rain on us. Before the end of the hike, the trail had become a stream, and we were all thoroughly soaked by the time we got back to the vans. I was worried about the low bridge (no railings) that crosses over Passage Creek between the trailhead and the main road, but when we got there, the water was still 5 or 6 inches below the bridge. (Phew!) We hurried quickly across.

Six days later, I went back to Veach Gap with the structure students. And this is what we saw:

It appeared that a short time after I had gotten my students out of there the previous Saturday, Passage Creek had overflowed its banks and not only put the bridge under water, but also rose up to a full three feet above the floodplain! The debris the flood left stranded on the wire fence was a very visible reminder to me how lucky I had been to get my field studies students out of there when I did. Had the water been over the bridge when we had arrived, it would not have been safe to cross, and we would have been stranded (cold and wet) at the trailhead parking lot until the water subsided. I’m really glad that didn’t happen.

The whole experience made me think about flash flood risk as a very real hazard when leading field trips in the eastern United States. Flash floods are something I mentally associate with arid regions – but this was an excellent lesson to me not to limit my thinking in that way. I’m really grateful it was a relatively painless lesson to learn. No one was hurt or at real risk, but this debris spoke very sternly to me about how closely we had dodged that bullet.

Have you had any close calls on a field trip, weather related or otherwise? Let’s hear about them.