Black Rain

Rainy day games with friends Gretel and Charlie

Fun and games as we wait for Noah to give us the thumbs up

WE PEER THROUGH THE STROBE LIGHT flashes that all but obliterate the road and terrain ahead of us. High beam. Low beam. High beam. Family including dog huddled in their seats. Soaking wet. Not shivering. It is summer. Defroster on high. Windshield wipers crossing furiously to wipe away the waterfall that is crashing onto our station wagon. Water on the road! Too late, we are in it. Parting it like Charleton Heston holding up his staff (or is that a rifle?). Is there pavement beneath this rippling highway?

The second time through the water we see there is more out ahead and turn off into a tiny town asleep to what is yet to come. A fully equipped fire station. Brightly lit. Engines at the ready. Boots just beneath the pole. Radio crackling in the next room. Firefighters asleep waiting for the alarm: 4000 homes are inundated by biblical floods.

WE DO NOT SEE OUR FRIENDS Gretel and Charlie from Dubuque very often. We do this annual camping trip together in August and for the last few years it is the only time we go out with our camper. Gretel and Charlie are tent camping but it has been raining beginning early in the morning the day after we arrive. Gretel, ever the early riser, manages a short hike before the rains begin. So she becomes the only member of our party to see any of the park other than the place where we are camping by the Whitewater River.

So we huddle into our trailer alternately squeezing around our little “kitchen” table and stretching out on the bunks for a snooze. We catch up and play a few games. The rain will stop eventually and then we can break out of here. Even if it doesn’t we will have a few fleeting hours visiting with our friends. Every time someone exits the trailer to run to the restroom or trip to the car to get something, he returns soaking wet and bringing quite a bit of wet with them as they climb back up from the white gravel pad. This necessitates use of towels to dry the returning hero and more towels to mop up the floor. We feel almost cocky about our safe haven.

Then Charlie goes to check on their tent. It is awash with rainwater reminding me of the fellow Boy Scout who on one of our many camping trips as kids found himself dry in the morning but floating on his air mattress. But this was more rain even than we would see in Pennsylvania. More rain that we’ve ever seen in our lives. Pounding rain. Unrelenting rain. Charlie says there is no way they can sleep in it that night and they are going to break camp and head for Gretel’s mother’s place in Decorah. They want to get there before nightfall.

We are deeply disappointed and try to suggest some creative alternatives involving the back of a Volvo station wagon but we know they are right. We might have thought it wise for us to depart as well but it is no fun taking down a tent trailer in the rain and we have been through bad storms before. We’ll “ride it out.”

Rain is part of the camping experience

Inside our popup amidst the usual controlled chaos

WE ARE READING IN OUR MOSTLY COZY popup trailer. The golden colored 12-volt light falsely assuring safety. One weather caution from the ranger fails to dispel this illusion. Then, 11 p.m., rap, rap, rap. Door opens and Patrick Henry stands before us water pouring from his round wide-brimmed mounty hat.

You’ll have to get out of here. NOW. This whole valley is gonna flood.

I feel the need to parse his interpretation of the word “now” just a bit. NOW meaning get behind the wheel and hightail it out of here leaving trailer and all else behind? Or, NOW meaning get packed up fast and go? NOW meaning about a half an hour he suggests. Our neighbors are having little trouble getting his meaning. As they work furiously they are standing ankle deep in gently running water that covers their entire site. And I have the audacity to add to their troubles by asking for a jump.

Back at our campsite what I considered to be flotsam and jetsam in this desperate moment of choices is collected and deposited in a shelter. It appears to be the highest spot in the campground and the picnic tables inside seem good platforms. No time to properly pack the trailer so there is room for a dog crate in the rear of our wagon. Crate and other boofy things get left behind. Pure adrenalin has Wendy, Mariah and Dylan working as an efficient machine. They have the trailer folded and ready to be hitched up.

I hold the lantern for the other party as they find their hitch and then rev up their 4×4 truck. The guy helps us push our car back enough so the cables will reach. FIRE IT UP WENDY! comes the call and all are grateful when the engine immediately turns over. The powdery limestone pad has held up enough we succeed in pulling the trailer out. The caravan begins. Once circling incongruously in a parking lot but giving us a view of the flooded entrance earlier referenced by the ranger. There is an exit directly onto the highway and the gate is open.

*  *  *

Picnic table after the flash flood | Dylan Sheehy

Our campsite

WE HAVE NO BUSINESS DRIVING through all of this. We have no idea what it is we are braving. The enormity of what is happening. No one does. Not the firefighters in Eyota who soon will come sliding down their poles to go … where? Not the rangers in Whitewater State Park. Not the people living next to the sleepy trout stream known as the Whitewater River. I guess now that it is not until 3 or 4 a.m. that the worst of it will come. By that time the road on which we are driving south will disappear into a gorge. The roadway at the spot we turn into Eyota will collapse and disappear along with a culvert. Dylan and I will watch them rebuilding (beep, beep, beep) a week later when we return for our stuff.

For now we know only the road a hundred feet or so ahead illuminated by our peeping headlights. Black rain and a black night. Where do we go to be safe from it? The pounding rain sounds like hail as it bounces off of our wagon.

Finally we reach the Interstate. Caravanning there with a couple, also Whitewater refugees. Heading west to Rochester we can see the road a little better. We have more confidence that the very high road will not lead us in to another underwater crossing. But the driving is still hellish. My hands grip the wheel as though someone or something is going to grab the front of our car and cast us all into a borrow pit. I don’t think … can’t think … have no mental capacity to think about all manner of things that still could go wrong.

Annual registration receipt purchased at Whitewater State Park

 Receipt for purchase of Parks permit the day we enter Whitewater State Park

All of 20 miles total. Maybe an hour. Seems longer. And we are fortunate at last to find a hotel – the seventh we think – that has a room, a cancellation. At this moment I will take a stable and hay so long as the pounding waters are kept outside. But we do better. Warm, dry. Hot shower. The next morning we call the front desk to explain we will be showing up for breakfast in our stocking feet.

When we return to the room from the meal we switch on the TV to see whether there is any tidbit of news about what had just happened to us. We think we should be calling MPR and the Star Tribune to describe our ordeal. As though we are actors in some cable TV disaster movie the local news comes up. An extended newscast to report on the flash floods of southeastern Minnesota. The media and the survivors are learning together what has just occurred in the space of a mere 24 hours. Ten inches of rain. 15 inches in some places. Tiny brooks turned into boiling Rocky Mountain rapids. The waves crashing like a tsunami on darkened sleeping towns. People trapped in cars. Hanging onto trees. Losing their grip. Miraculous and heroic rescues including rescues of the rescuers. Now I think about those Eyota firefighters. So many stories. Tragedies. Oh what a month August has been in the state of Minnesota!

*  *  *

Road into park from south

At the point the road begins descending into the Park

A WEEK PASSES, OUR WAGON IS IN THE SHOP having all of the seats and carpet removed and treated. Our trailer sits in the garage under bright lights and powerful fans. Dylan and I are on our way to The Flood Zone to retrieve our stuff. The rangers know we are coming and caution us about the road coming in. At Eyota we are diverted because the culvert is being repaired. We go north following the detour and are turned back by a sheriff’s deputy. An accident. Recreational vehicle lying on its side. Maybe some poor soul still rattled by the ordeal has gotten just a little too close to the edge of the highway. We find a gravel country road and then we’re back on our way.

At the beginning of the grade dropping into the park we see the impressive and definitive signs. ROAD CLOSED. We follow our instructions and go around. It is as we descend into the valley previously referenced by our ranger that we gain an immediate understanding of how the Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years. But this canyon is formed by a single night’s flood waters which have carved a gulley between five and six feet deep. In one spot the road is completely eaten away and our instructions are to drive through the Nature Store parking lot. Some park staff in a truck see us, scowl and give us the twirl around signal meaning get the hell outta here. But we’re given a chance to explain and they know who we are. “Stay way off to the right as you go down there” one of them cautions.

We come to a park office that looks exactly the same as the Friday exactly a week before when we came to pay for our permit. Inside a bunch of rangers, most in full uniform, are standing around commiserating. I explain who we are and why we are here. We were in the Gooseberry Campground last Saturday night. They look at us. A few with their eyes growing wide. One reaches across the counter and says “let me shake your hand.”

Bolla, Péter [HUN] – Whitewater River State Park Picnic Area

View Map | Gooseberry Campground

We are led to the campground entering the same way we had exited. The ranger leading us opens the long log gate that is locked shut, I think, even in more prosaic times. “I’ll walk in” the ranger says. I pick my way along a route that is not fit for cars. It is easier to drive on the grass. I gun it just before passing through a mud field. As we approach the shelter we see our blue dog crate in the bright late afternoon sunshine sitting outside the shelter on the stoop. Off to the right, we see the Whitewater River and piles of downed trees that look like a clear-cut. The remarkable thing to us: we can see the Whitewater River. It was obscured by vegetation just a week ago. And the ranger tells us the flood has changed the river’s course.

Our camp spot looks surprisingly inviting, though the white pad and camp road have been all but washed away. Inside the shelter is about three inches of mud. A staff member has used our jettisoned table cloth as a cover for a pathway in. All the time we are hauling out stuff the ranger is sharing his experiences. He is from Rushford, Minnesota, one of the cities worst hit by the floods. The water there is so rank that authorities don’t even want people flushing their toilets with it for fear of introducing e-coli bacteria into their homes. Neither he nor any of the other park staff have lost their homes to the flood, he tells me.

When our car is packed up and we reverse direction through all of the carnage I want to turn back to the park office and hear more about the experiences of the park staff. I say something to the ranger about coming back in a year for a flood anniversary camp. He looks around at the mess. Mumbles something about FEMA and advises us to make that very, very late in the summer. I don’t tell him that I’m not at all sure I can go to that place. How can we experience that 12-volt golden glow knowing what we know?

We go St. Charles and find the town park where we want to dump some stuff that is smelling up the car. Wendy, on a cell, advises us to ditch the soft-sided cooler along with its contents even though it doesn’t have a speck of mud on it. The plastic water bottle already is left behind with me agreeing with the ranger that it will never hold potable water again.

Back home with the stuff

Back home with the loot including a collapsed dog crate

Making our way back home on the freeway, I notice out of the corner of my eye a very large and most ominous looking brown spider hoofing it northward along the inside of our windshield. Dylan mumbles something about knowing it was there when we were loading the car and not knowing how to coax it out. I pull off on an exit. Stop. Find some toilet paper on a roll in a packer box. I manage to brush the little guy with just the right amount of force and, a second later, see him or her scampering away beneath my car. One more survivor evacuated from the flood zone. I wish him (or her) well in their new and less flood prone home.

When we go camping you intentionally expose ourselves to the elements. Maybe to remind us that even with all of our creature comforts we are still animals sharing the environment with that spider and the awesome power of nature itself.

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  1. IT IS NOVEMBER AND WE CANNOT yet find words to describe our feelings about these three days in August. We CAN describe what happened and above is an attempt to do so. What we cannot comprehend is our good fortune. Knowing what we know now it was just madness for us to attempt to go any further than the first farmhouse on high ground. This was in fact the kind of emergency where you bang on someone’s door and ask if you can sit in their garage and wait the storm out. Heading into the night and looking for a hotel room seems to us to be the stupidist thing we could do. But we didn’t know. No one did. The Park Rangers who, maybe, saved our lives had no way of knowing this wasn’t localized to their immediate area. None of us realized the enormity of this disaster until late Sunday when the responders started counting the dead and missing and assessing damage that would mount into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is, I must assume, like that for people caught in disasters. We can’t watch them on TV, the reporter shouting above the din as floodwaters rise above his ankles. This was Southeastern Minnesota where all services are stretched thin all the time. A place well out of reach of the big city media. In the pitch black of that night, no one could know the flooded crossings could just as easily be washouts that would eat anything that tried to pass. All of the places we crossed that were water covered were washouts by the next morning. | P Sheehy

  2. […] SPLASH! August also brought one of the most soaking rains in state history turning brooks and streams in Southeastern Minnesota into raging torrents. My gripping account of all of this is here: <click> […]

  3. A link to a slideshow using the updated format in Google Plus.

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