45. Branches from Flash Flood, Buckskin Gulch, Arizona 3.5.2024.jpg

Branches from Flash Flood, Buckskin Gulch, Arizona

Buckskin Gulch is a classic slot canyon: long, narrow, deep, visually stunning, and unnervingly claustrophobic. It traverses the rugged desert country bordering Utah and Arizona, part of a broader region of uplifted red rock called the Colorado Plateau. The upraised sandstone fractured, forming joints that periodic flash floods carved to create extraordinarily narrow chasms.

I made this photograph near the beginning of the gulch, where it contracts from an open drainage into a corridor hundreds of feet deep. Along its 12-mile stretch, hikers can extend their arms and touch both walls. Flooding can occur at any time of the year, from rapid spring snowmelts to summer thunderstorms. Though rare, the water can rise to a hundred feet deep, carrying a slurry of mud, rocks, logs, and sticks.

It can be dangerous to hike, with few places to escape if a 'flood wall' suddenly appears, advancing at speeds as slow as a walking pace up to twenty miles per hour. Though deaths are rare, a few did occur in 2023. One survivor, overtaken by a flood, said being caught in the flow was like jumping onto a waterpark slide "but with more rocks and more danger. There's nothing you can do. Once you're on, you're on. You ride it to the end."

These branches were deposited by receding flood waters and are lit by reflected light off the canyon walls, which comes from a slender band of skylight two hundred feet above.

- James Baker