Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Flash Floods and Faith

When I was 23 I made a tough decision for myself,  to move away from my hometown of Haleiwa, Hawaii to take a job at a wilderness therapy program for teens based out of Mesa, Arizona. Making this decision to move was a huge deal for me as it was hard for me to leave the ocean, and daunting for me to venture out on my own to live in a strange place I had never been to before. I wrestled with the idea of moving for months before I finally decided that I needed to do this; that in my heart of hearts I knew I was supposed to move my life forward in this  direction. So I went. And goodgolly, it changed my whole life!

Anasazi Foundation, 2002
The Anasazi Foundation hired me in the Summer of 2002. I jumped right into my job responsibilities with the excitement and enthusiasm which I had hoped for!
My job required me to be out in the desert wilderness of Arizona for 6 days at a time, camping, hiking, and living a primitive life-style while guiding teenagers who were struggling with a variety of serious emotional, psychological, and drug abuse issues.
The therapeutic objective is to give these teens meaningful, outdoor experiences which will allow them to gain self-respect, to gain personal responsibility, and to gain powerful healing experiences through the naturally contrived situations mother nature has to offer. As a mentor and a guide, I was able to watch these kids turn their lives around as they learned to rely on nature, on God, and on the love of other people to take precedence in their lives over selfishness, self-loathing, depression, and drug abuse.

Out on the trail, as we called it, I learned a great deal more about what it takes to be compassionate, patient, and tolerant of other people, as working with struggling teenagers isn't very easy. I also learned to trust my instincts and allow my heart to tell me what to do, as I found myself in some very difficult situations out on the trail.
 I learned more powerfully that God has the ultimate power to lead me and guide me through whatever challenges I face, if I trust in Him alone. Lastly, I learned to love and accept my own weaknesses and to overcome past obstacles that were hindering me from moving forward in my own life. All of this I learned, as I was helping these teens hike mountains, cross rivers, pitch tents, and make fires.
Out on the trail in Idaho.We had to go north for a few months because of all the fires in Arizona.
I can't express enough how happy I am that I made the decision to work there (and that they hired me!) I ended up working there for a total of 9 life-changing, powerfully-inspiring months that I will remember forever.
 As I reflect back on that time on the trail, there is one experience among many that has impacted me the most. I am finally writing it down here on my blog, as I remember it from August 2003 and as I recorded it in my journal. Here's the story:

PART ONE: Hiking into the canyon.
It was a beautiful, sunny August day in Arizona! This week we would be hiking through a Native American reservation area, high up in the Tonto Mountains. I was assigned to lead a group of six 15 year old boys who had been hiking in the program for over a month. From a therapeutic perspective I knew I was in for a fun and breezy week, leading a group of boys that were already doing well in the program. I figured with this group I wouldn't have any kids who were eager to escape or who would be whining and cussing at me or my co-leader along the way. I was also paired up with a new employee (or Trailwalker as they called us) whom I would be training that week. Even though this guy was brand new and didn't know what he was doing, he was also about 25 years old, and in great athletic shape. I knew he would be more helpful than anything in leading these boys through the canyon. (Let's call him Todd, since I can't remember his real name) All in all, It was going to be a great, relaxing week of hiking and enjoying nature with these boys. (And I was getting paid to do this!)

By the time Todd and I left Mesa and reached the Tonto Forrest for our Trailwalker switch outs,  it was late into the afternoon. After we handed out the new food rations for the week, we had our boys pack up their large, primitive-style backpacks and head up the canyon to find a grassy place to camp for the night. Several of the other groups also headed up the canyon in our same direction.

I remember looking down at my feet as I hiked and noticing how clear the ankle-high water was below me. It seemed to sparkle like glitter as I splashed against the current with my chunky, hiking sandals. The stream seemed to perfectly reflect the sparkly feelings of peace and happiness I felt inside towards this upcoming week. 

The steep canyon walls shot up like towering cliffs on either sides of us. They were strong, and rather intimidating, and curved on for miles, with the stream flowing between it.
This would be my first time hiking on a Native-American reservation and I could feel the power and beauty of the sacred earth around me. I felt extremely blessed to be there in that moment amongst the majestic cliffs and shining waters, with a great group of people.

We hiked for about two hours up the canyon stream until we started to see hints of shadows arrive with  the setting sun. As the shadows grew darker and darker we knew it was time to think about stopping. According to my map of the area, I could see that we were nearing the end of the widest part of the canyon and needed to find a place to camp  before we hit the narrower slot-canyon-type stuff. 

  Because rivers are volatile, ever-changing, and subject to flash floods, I was duty bound to follow safety protocol and camp up on a grassy hill, as opposed to the slim sides of the narrow canyon.
 After another 15 minutes of walking we found a grassy hill up on the right hand side of the canyon which I deemed safe to settle on. It was about 80 feet away from the flowing stream-- far enough that we'd be free from any possible flooding. However, I laughed at the thought of that actually happening. It was too beautiful of a day to worry about flash floods and rain storms. In fact there was no sign of rain for miles and miles!

It was nearly dark now. I had our group go out and collect wood, then we started a fire using a primitive method called bow-drilling. Before too long we were all huddled around the fire cooking rice and beans, telling stories, laughing, and getting to know each other.

Our small group consisted of one boy from New York City who had never seen the wilderness before, two boys from the Caribbean Islands who's first language was French, and three boys who had been transferred from a group detention home in Utah as a last chance method to help fix their problems. My co-Leader Todd was also from Utah, and had the fortune of growing up camping and hiking in the wilderness his entire life. Then there was me, the surfer girl from Hawaii who wanted this job because I loved the outdoors and loved helping people, although I admit I wasn't perfect at my job at times....
 For instance,  I wasn't very good at reading maps and often got my groups turned around or lost. And one time I accidentally led a group of girls down some dangerous cliffs that I was told to stay away from. (we made it safely, thank goodness!) Then there was the time I got really dehydrated and delusional and couldn't lead my group and had to call for help from backup. And let's not forget the week it rained and rained and we could never start a fire to cook our food so we ended up living on sprouted lentils! But I digress here, because as I looked around at our funny, dynamic little group of hikers that night, I saw people who were full of shortcomings, but who were also trying to be better in their lives. We were all there because there was goodness in our hearts, and a desire to look to God and nature for guidance and clarity-- Me as an imperfect leader who loved my job and the teens I served, and the teenagers with all their struggles and human frailties. It was time for us all to step forward and embrace the coming week, weaknesses and all.

As I got in my homemade shelter that night, I felt light sprinkles of rain on my face. I could still see stars out, and could hear the quiet babble of the talking stream, 80 feet away.  "Goodnight guys!" I yelled out one last time! "Sweet Dreams!"

"Goodnight Sally!" they all yelled back from their individual shelters.
I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, and fell asleep to the unexpected pitter-patter of raindrops dropping onto my tarp. 
Tomorrow was going to be awesome.

I was startled awake just 3 hours later. It was only 11pm, but It sounded like a loud train was barging down the canyon. The
ROARRRRRRRRR of the engine rattled the walls, shook the ground, and woke us all up. I jumped out of my shelter as fast as I could! 
I could hear it as it barrelled towards us, crunching down bushes, uprooting trees, and hurling rocks in front of it with the greatest force. It brought a huge wall of water shooting down the canyon, carrying heavy debris of dislodged logs and branches. The noise was approaching, and it was approaching fast!

"Let's get to higher ground, NOW!" I shouted to my group. 
Todd and I pulled our 6 boys out of their shelters to run further up the side of the hill until we reached the cliff walls. There was no time to grab food or personal belongings. 

"What the hell is that?" one of our boys cried out.
"It is a herd of wild bears!" yelled back one of the Caribbean boys.
Oh Lord, help us, I thought incredulously. 
"It's not a herd of bears," I yelled over the noise, "it's a gigantic flash flood!" I said.

We stayed right where we were in the pitch dark and listened as the monstrous flash flood stormed and throttled past our camp sight. Past our camp sight. Phew! Our shelters were safe up on the grassy hill, and our boys were safe and sound. 
  I got on the radio immediately and called our backup emergency support to report the incident. I was panicking and shaking a bit when he answered.
"There was just a huge flash flood in the canyon! "HUGE!", I cried.
 "Yep, it happens," our backup guy responded nonchalantly, yawning in mid-sentence. "Is everyone safe?" he asked.
"Yes, we're all fine." I said
"Good." he said. 
"You guys have food and water?"he asked.
"Yes, we have food and water."I said.
"Allrighty then," he started to hang up, "Bye Sally."
"BUT, WAIT!", I shouted back, panicking some more. "So what are we supposed to do? We're literally going to be stuck in this canyon with rushing water all around us!"
"Yep, it happens" he said again. "You'll figure it out. Now I need to go call and check on the other groups. Bye Sally. Good luck."
Oh jeez, Trevor. That's all you have to say, is good luck?
I hung up the radio feeling angry and abandoned. I needed help here, not a useless, good luck.
There was nothing we could do but go back to sleep at this point. We walked back to our shelters and said goodnight, again. This time as I snuggled up in my sleeping bag I could no longer hear the quiet, babbling stream, but instead the loud,  roaring rapids of a raging river. 
Tomorrow was going to be insane.

PART TWO: Hiking out of the canyon.
The next morning was insane. Our group stood on the grassy hill overlooking the river, mouths wide open, wondering how such chaos could take over in such a short time. It looked like a tornado had come through and wiped everything out. The entire landscape of the canyon had changed. The little stream had grown from about 15 feet wide to 60 feet wide! Where there were once thriving willows and cattails happily growing near the water's edge, was now a wide, turbulent river of brown muck.  The logs from the uprooted trees were piled up against muddy embankments along the river, with tumultuous waves of water crashing over them. And It was very loud. The rushing river overwhelmed my ears and made me cringe. 

Where was my peace? I wondered desperately. Where was the calm, happy, sparkly place I had looked forward to this week? 

I took Todd aside for a private
Trailwalker meeting so we could decide the best plan of action for the day. I knew that the most important thing was to keep calm and not show our Youngwalkers that we were afraid. We had 4 miles to go until the canyon widened and we could hike out again. I asked Todd what he thought we should do and he surprised me by responding blankly,"I don't know. I wasn't expecting this to happen. I thought this week would be mellow."
"Me, too," I said back. "But it's not. And now we have to figure out how to lead these guys out of here." I waited for his response, hoping he had a brilliant scheme up his sleeves, but he had nothing. He turned to me and mumbled sheepishly, "Well, you're the boss out here. I'll let you be in charge and show us where to go"
Crap. I tried not to show that I was scared, but I was. I was absolutely terrified. I was terrified that at any moment another flash flood would come. I was terrified that I would lead our group into a dangerous trap that we couldn't get out of. I was scared of losing or injuring our boys, and I was scared of failing miserably at my job. I was also deathly afraid of the brown, muddy water rushing down the canyon.

I walked away from the group so I could cry to myself. Yet, after a moment I pulled my emotions together and did what I knew would help me the most, and I prayed.  I prayed to my Father in Heaven and asked Him to please help me--to give me the strength to be brave, to lead my group out of this canyon safely. I prayed that angels could watch over us and protect us from harm, and that another flood would not come. I prayed for all these things, then I went back to my group, looking ready to hike. 

I thought for a second about turning back the other direction, but I knew that nobody would be there to meet us in the end. We could only move forward to our final destination, which was about 15 miles North, up and out of the canyon. We had no choice but to continue up-stream  until it was safe enough to get out of this death trap. After looking at the map again, the 4 more miles til the canyon started to widen again didn't seem too bad. Sure the canyon walls were narrow and steep, and water was gushing at us from every angle, but I reasoned that we could hike 4 miles in 4 hours if we pushed ourselves hard enough. 

At 8am, our adventure up the canyon began. First we filled up our water canteens with brown muddy water, because that's all we had. We tried to strain out as much debris as possible but it was thick. (This was actually my first time drinking mud, by the way. It goes down pretty easy, and keeps you somewhat hydrated, but I wouldn't do it again.)
With canteens filled, boot laces tied, backpacks secured on our backs, and mud in our tummies, I led our group into the belly of the beast.

The following  ten hours in the canyon were some of the most difficult hours of my life. What I had hoped would be 4 hours of tough hiking turned into 10 hours of extreme sludging, climbing, crawling, bouldering, swimming, and navigating our way through pure chaos. As we continued to hike throughout the day we were met with obstacle after obstacle....i.e. right when we would complete one obstacle, another one would be waiting for us around the corner. It was almost like one of those extreme wilderness challenges on TV, where the host comes out and says enthusiastically to the TV viewing audience,

"For our next challenge we will see if Sally's group can successfully get across a raging, rushing river full of trees and logs!" In this scenario I would gather my group together and tell them the game plan: I'd say,"We're going to  sludge through thick mud until we get to the rushing river. Everyone take off your shoes now, hold hands to create a chain, and don't let go until we reach the other side!"
The cameras are rolling and our team is working hard to complete the obstacle! Then suddenly we stop when one team member won't cooperate:
"Why do we have to take off our shoes?" one boy asks angrily. He stops in his tracks and won't move. It was the kid from New York. He really liked wearing his shoes and rarely ever took them off. I could tell he wasn't excited about this plan. 
"So you don't lose a shoe in the deep mud and slow the group down by getting stuck!," I reply.
He reluctantly takes off his shoes and we continue onward.
Then, once the group overcomes that obstacle, completely exhausted and depleted of energy, the host comes back and announces the next obstacle: 
"Now we'll see if Sally's group can swim across a deep water-hole with their huge backpacks on their heads! Then after that we'll see if they can boulder across a rocky incline without slipping and falling into a raging river below! Then we'll test their endurance by skipping lunch and seeing if they can climb up a giant tree with their heavy backpacks on their backs, to reach a deer trail! The grand finale will be reaching a safe place to camp before sundown so they're not stuck in the canyon overnight! Can they do it? The clock is ticking..."
And on and on it goes until ten hours have passed and we're still pushing hard through this canyon, fighting tirelessly against the obstacles before us. 
Unfortunately, this was no reality TV show. There were no hidden cameras, no lunch tables full of chips and deli sandwiches, nor was there a break for this exhausted Trailwalker! These were real-life, wilderness challenges, naturally contrived by mother nature herself. I had no choice but to keep going, keep pushing, and keep praying that we'd get out before dark.

As it was nearing sundown we passed by another group of Trailwalkers and Youngwalkers. It turns out we were far more luckier than they were, as they had camped too close to the stream. When their leaders heard the flash flood coming down the canyon they only had enough time to get their group to safety. Everything else was washed away--clothes, food, sleeping bags, tarps, shoes, fire equipment, personal belongings--were all swept down the river. All they had left were a few canteens filled with mud water. They looked pretty pitiful.  And hungry. We stopped briefly to share some snacks with them then continued onward. Their leaders were optimistic that they'd get out of the canyon by dark, which gave me some positive encouragement that our group would, too. 

The last hour of our hike out of the canyon was exhilarating! We were all extremely exhausted, yet also on a manic high to keep hiking until we were out of harms way. The boys were still pushing themselves hard, despite being burnt out and tired of me telling them what to do all day. Todd was quiet most of the day, and a little shook up, but hiked hard and did great for his first time out. The boy from New York didn't like that his shoes were wet, but he eventually got over it.  I could see on the map that we were almost there. Just on the other side of a steep incline, a deer trail would lead us up into a f
orest of pine trees. I could see those pine trees in the distance and could envision every step it wold take to get there. It was heaven to me. 
As we hiked towards the heavenly pine forest, I remembered that the sun had never stopped shining down on us all throughout the day. Even the river turtles who got dislodged from their homes had been out basking on rocks in the sunshine, instead of worrying about the flood. I also decided that despite the fear associated with the flash flood, the hike itself could be considered one of the most adventurous things I've ever done in my entire life. I mean, if you're the kind of person that likes pushing yourself through gnarly, outdoor, wilderness challenges such as these, this week would've been something to boast about. 
When we finally reached the top of the pine forest mountain, far above the canyon, I collapsed onto the ground in tears and gratitude. We had made it out safely. Eleven hours later, but we made it. 

PART THREE: Reflection
I feel that I needed to have this experience in my life. I obviously  didn't feel this way when it happened, during it, or right after it happened, yet as I've reflected back on this day over and over again, I feel that God gave me this experience to strengthen me in my life. 

Sure there were some negative side affects of having gone through this flash flood: For instance, I am now too scared to hike through most canyons. The last few times my husband and I have hiked through a narrow-ish canyon full of stream water, I could feel my heart-rate sky-rocket, my palms get sweaty, and then I start to imagine that I hear the roar of a flash flood coming. I start to panic, then search around frantically for the nearest escape routes. It takes a moment for my husband to calm me down and help me remember that we are safe. Also, when I take my kids down to any river to play, my ears are constantly perked up, and my eyes are constantly searching for changes in the water, that might indicate a flood is approaching. Even on the brightest, sunniest days. 
Overall, I think it is good to be alert and prepared for a disaster, but I'm afraid that my preparedness is backed by fear, and not by a healthy awareness of general safety precautions.

However, despite the negative affects of fear(which is getting better over time), there has developed within me, an even bigger result of faith in God. I believe with all my heart that He heard my prayers that morning and gave me the power I needed to lead my group out of the canyon. There were moments that day when I made decisions and used strength that completely surprised myself. I could feel Him guiding me, and I could hear the sweet, quiet  whisperings of the Holy Spirit helping me to know what to do. This was one of the the most powerful experiences in my life, witnessing to me that God is indeed, real. 

I've only shared this part with a few people, because it is so sacred to me, but I feel that it's okay to share it now. There was a moment where I had to climb up a giant cottonwood tree, to see if the trail ahead was safe enough to continue on. 
I'm not great at pull-ups, nor do I have a lot of upper-body strength, so it was hard for me to climb this tree. Yet, I remember looking down at my group and feeling determined that I needed to do this for them. Then, as  I tried exasperatingly to pull myself up to the next branch, I suddenly felt someone lift me from the top. It was a gentle, loving lift--one that gave me just enough boost to hoist my tired body up onto the next branch. I could feel that it wasn't me, that it came from somewhere deep, and lovely, and angelical. I thanked God again in my heart that He would stay with me all day, even sending his angels to hoist me.

One of the purposes of wilderness therapy is to offer people meaningful experiences of strength and growth that they can then transfer to their real lives. This is something I witnessed out on the trail over and again with my Young walkers. They would accomplish these incredible feats, such as hiking to the top of a steep mountain, or making a fire from sticks, or surviving through some of the worst boot-blisters of their lives, only to realize that they can do hard things. The empowerment it gives them on the trail helps them to see that they can overcome hard things at home. They realize that they can graduate from high school, they can mend the broken relationships with their parents, or they can stop abusing marijuana. These naturally contrived experiences out in the wilderness are some of the most powerful teaching tools in the world.

It was the same with this flash flood for me. 
I learned in my life that I can get through nearly anything after getting through that canyon. I learned that God never leaves me, even when things are harder than I ever imagined. I learned that life can be peaceful, calm, and sparkling with glitter one minute, only to be turned into a raging, muddy mess the next. It is in these moments that I've learned to rely completely on my faith in God to push me through, til I find that peaceful place again. I've learned to be strong, to be brave, and to use the strength and power that He gives me in my daily life.
After all, nobody can really save me from the storms I go through. I might get an optimistic "good luck",  but then it's up to me to push through to the end.
 I know for a fact that God is always with me, and his son Jesus Christ died for me so that He could save me and heal me from the storms of life.
He was with me on that day on the trail, and He is with me everyday as I push through the unexpected tough times as a wife, mother, and adult, in this ever-changing  world. 

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