Foto Friday (March 17, 2023): Report from the Road: Atmospheric rivers saturate the Four Corners — @Land_Desk #McElmoCreek #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #snowpack

Navajo Mountain March 2023. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

The rain was relentless, falling steadily and cold from the soggy frogbelly sky all night and all day and all night again. It turned snowy fields into swampy mud bogs and somehow rendered more grisly the decaying elk carcass behind the house — slowly being dismantled by a bobcat, coyotes, neighboring dogs, bacteria and a flock of chattering magpies. In much the same way, the gray-chill drizzle turned a lingering heartache into a throbbing void.

I had to get out. So I did what people do. I got in the Silver Bullet and drove west.

It quickly became clear that the snow line had been only a few hundred feet above Durango, sparing high country folks from some of the rain-induced misery. The La Plata Mountains sparkled under the fresh icing and a post-storm mist softened all the edges as the sun finally burned through low clouds. Skiers lined up to get first tracks at Hesperus. The road was wet with slushy shoulders and it clearly had been a treacherous mess only hours earlier. I shuddered and slowed as I passed the carnage of a previous night’s crash: On one side of the highway a pickup truck’s bed was gnarled beyond recognition while on the other a crumpled semi truck’s cab had lodged itself between two ponderosa pines.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

The aridification of the last couple decades has hit the La Platas especially hard. Even when the southwest Colorado range gets good snow, it tends to melt out more quickly than in the higher mountains to the north, leaving little more than trickles in the La Plata and Mancos River beds come mid-summer. But this year the range has been a major beneficiary of the abundance: The Columbus Basin SNOTEL station is now recording snow water equivalents far above the median peak, which usually happens in mid-April.

Light fog enveloped Mancos Hill and I worried for a moment that I would never escape its depressive hold. But then, just outside Mancos, blue sky and the snow-covered form of Ute Mountain, veiled with clouds.

Just west of Cortez a warning of sorts to not leave the pavement without assessing the solidity of the road: Not one, but two trucks up to their axles in red, goopy, shoe-stealing mud in someone’s driveway. I later read that those folks were relatively lucky. The night before a giant sinkhole had formed on a county road north of Cortez and a motorist drove into it. Another highway in the county was closed due to flooding.

Grass and McElmo Creek, March 16, 2023. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

I half-expected the apricot trees to be blooming in McElmo Canyon, but the only sign that spring was imminent was the pinot noir-hue the willows take on this time of year, when the earth thaws and the days grow longer. Soon it will all be carpeted with green contrasting with the pink sandstone.

McElmo Creek raged as it wound its way through beige fields and cottonwood groves, past beat-up single-wides and million-dollar spreads, among willows and the rare un-grazed patch of tall grass. I pulled over tentatively, praying that the graveled pullout wouldn’t turn to liquid under the wheels. It held, but when I tried to walk up a little trail to a Puebloan site, my shoes caked up with wet, sticky clay. I took a picture of the creek, instead, which peaked at 534 cubic feet per second during this storm, higher even than during last summer’s monsoon. San Juan River spring break rafters will get a nice boost from the elevated flows, though rowing through the storm must have been a nightmare.

Comb Ridge and the Abajos under a cloudless blue sky. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

The landscape looked drier as I progressed westward, but it wasn’t. Every pothole on every stretch of slickrock held a liquid mirror reflecting the cloud-dappled blue sky. I gazed with wonder at a group of cowpokes driving a herd of healthy-looking black cattle through the sagebrush near Butler Wash. How did they keep from sinking up to the horses’ bellies?

Comb Wash was a roiling red river. Any designs I may have had on camping in Valley of the Gods were foiled by a stream crossing the road. Camping anywhere off the asphalt was out of the question, really; I’d have to find a hotel room in Page, instead. The good news is that the moisture kept the blistering winds from lifting up the desert dust and depositing on all that snow.

The Bears Ears were covered in white; the Abajos snowier than I’ve ever seen; Navajo Mountain rose up glistening from the burnished red earth.

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