The Experience Arizona Memory Project: Copper Creek Flash Flood in the Late 1980s
By Matt Marine (with Jody Rodriguez, Greg Lingor and Bill Wittke)
Brown, angry water roiled around the front of the truck as the wash failed to contain the onslaught of rushing water. My friend, Bill, had engaged his Landcruiser’s 6000 lb winch and the cable strained under the tension. Although his winch was powerful, it was slow to reel in his catch. I saw panic in the driver’s eyes. The water seemed to be rising faster than the winch pulled. If the water rose a few more inches, the truck would be lost to the flood. It was going to be close.
"The day started off early in the morning from Tucson in Matt’s old Jeep CJ that had one good brake. When the brakes got wet, you would just pray you didn’t need the brakes. Luckily Matt’s CJ had the bikini top on to shield us from the sun. "
It was July, the heart of the monsoon season, in the late 1980s and three friends and I decided to visit one of my favorite ghost towns in southern Arizona: Copper Creek. We’d left Tucson in my 1977 yellow CJ-5 and Bill’s 1976 Toyota Landcruiser FJ with friends Jody (who rode with me) and Greg (who rode with Bill). It was a hot, muggy day and neither vehicle had air conditioning so I chose to sans the soft top for just a bikini top (this will be significant later).
We reached the Copper Creek trailhead early and spend the morning exploring areas around the creek, the old post office and the dam. There was a small ribbon of water flowing, which was normal for this time of year. The trail was easy and we didn’t even have to use 4WD to that point. After a quick lunch in the big shade trees by the dam, we headed up to Blue Bird Mine.
"Everything that day was proceeding as normal with lots of bantering and trash talking about whose vehicle was better and who was the better driver."
"We all know it was me and my CJ."
The trail transitioned to 4WD as soon as we left the wash and began the 600 foot climb up to the mine. Blue Bird Mine had a bunch of old wooden buildings, concrete foundations and such to explore (see photo on left). We parked at the top of the hill and set out on foot. Not long after, we noticed clouds building in the distance, but we didn’t think much of it. They were miles off to the northeast, upstream of where we were. It wasn’t until we began hearing the sound of thunder nearby that we began to take notice.
It came up fast. We had just made it back to the vehicles when it let loose. Torrents of rains came down. Thunder boomed. Lightning flashed. A few strikes hit very close. I began to feel that being in an open metal vehicle on top of a hill in a fierce lightning storm was not the place to be, so we decided to get off the hill.
"Heavy rain rolled in quickly. The once dry hilly trails filled with miniature streams. The wind blew hard, driving the rain sideways."
I began to race down the hill. It was difficult to see in the rain as my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the downpour. They also didn’t work on the inside of the windshield and I had to use my hands to continue to clear a spot to see out of.
I’ve always enjoyed driving in the rain and at first the drive down was fun and exciting. Then the wind came, driving horizontal sheets of cold rain into the Jeep. The bikini top was useless. Jody and I instantly became drenched. My guess is the winds were somewhere in the 40-50 mph range.
About halfway down the hill, the hail hit. It wasn’t too big, maybe pea sized, but pushed along by tropical storm strength winds, those little suckers stung when they hit you. Lucky for me (unlucky for Jody) the wind was coming from the passenger’s side of the vehicle and he was taking the lion’s share of the beating.
"The temperature must have dropped 30 degrees. With sheets of rain coming down, I’m holding on for dear life, praying for the one good brake to slow us down. I remember Matt, his grinning, half laughing face drenched with rainwater from the sheets of rain hitting us from all angles, working the clutch, brake and steering wheel like a conductor of a runaway train. What seemed to me like a 20 to 30 minute terror ride before we finally reached the creek, soaked but alive!"
With the hail, the fun ride now turned into a mad dash. I still don’t know how I got off that hill without driving off the side. I was hauling ass, couldn’t see shit and shivering so badly that I was barely able to hold onto the wet and slippery steering wheel. At one point, I looked down at the floorboards and they were white with hail that covered the inside my Jeep.
Somehow we made it down to Copper Creek in one piece. The creek is more of a wide, sandy wash at this location and we picked a high-spot in the wash to park (not one of my most brilliant ideas). Jody and I ran over to Bill’s FJ to take refuge from the rain and try to get warm.
Maybe 15-20 minutes later, the rain let up to become just a steady downpour and we discussed if we would make a run for the Sibley Mansion when it stopped raining. We decided against it. The trail leading down to the mansion is difficult when dry and we thought it would probably be impassible from the day’s rain.
As we were discussing this, a 2WD truck (most likely a small Toyota or Nissan) pulled up next to us and motioned for us to roll down the window. We complied. Three people were crammed into the small front bench seat.
The driver leaned out, pointed ahead and asked, “This the way to the Sibley Mansion?”
“You guys heading up there?”
“Not in this rain,” we replied.
“Do you think we can make it?”
“Not a chance. We wouldn’t try it in that when the road is dry.”
He gave us an arrogant, know-it-all look. “It’s no problem. I know how to drive.” He smiled. “Besides, it’s my brother’s truck. No big deal if I beat it up a little bit.”
"...stupid is as stupid does. To this day, I am not sure what entered these guy's skull (besides air) to make them think they could cross the wash. Anyway, being the nice guys that we were, we came to the rescue and pulled the 2WD out of the wash."
By the way his two companions laughed, neither were his brother. We warned him again about going, but he was stupid, arrogant and determined. None of which we could change at that moment in time. We shook our heads as he drove off up the creek (pun intended).
We spent the next 15 minutes waiting out the rain in Bill’s Landcruiser. As it began to taper off, we noticed a small trickle of water coming down the main channel of the previously dry wash. Within minutes, the trickle grew to a nice stream. We were so intent on watching the stream rise, we didn’t notice the driver of the 2WD truck again until he knocked on our window.
He was completely soaked and out of breath from running down the creek to find us.
“Were stuck in the wash,” he got out between gulps of air. “The water’s rising and the truck’s about to be swept away! Can you come pull us out?”
Sometimes, I’m just too nice of a guy. We agreed (though we made him trot alongside as we drove to where he’d gotten stuck in the wash). We drove to the last wash crossing before the trail splits: a left taking you through the wash to the mansion, the right up the hill. The first thing that struck me as a little strange was that his truck was pointed toward us. He had tried to make it up the hill, couldn’t then turned around and attempted to re-cross the wash. The water was now too deep and moving too fast for his little 2WD. The picture below was taken from inside of Bill's Landcruiser, the guy's truck circled in red.
Bill handed him the end of his winch line and the guy bravely crossed the wash, attached it to his truck and we began to pull. The water was still rising and it seemed to take forever to yank him across the wash. But, we did. To give the guy a little bit of credit, he did thank us profusely (I think he was so happy his brother wasn’t going to be killing him for losing his truck in the wash). With only a little bit of effort, he got the truck started again and headed back toward Mammoth.
We drove back to our high-spot, waited for the rain to stop (another 30 minutes or so), then headed back for home ourselves. By the time we made it past the dam and old post office site, Copper Creek the water was rising in the creek again. This was the outflow from the storm that had hit the mountains a few miles away. And it was three or four times the water that we had experienced earlier. If the idiot in the truck would have been caught in this torrent, there would have been nothing we could have done to save his truck (or him).
This new surge sounded like thunder or a train rumbling in the canyon. We saw large boulders break free and crash into the water. It was amazing and humbling to watch. We enjoyed the spectacle from the road above, thankful we were out of the wash, until we noticed the water was beginning to slowly subside, then headed home.
"The Copper Creek experience is something I will never forget. What started out as a long hot day, soon turned out to be a cold wet afternoon, filled with excitement, terror and laughter."
Note: I believe the picture below was also taken during the same trip to Copper Creek. It was in the same pile of photos that I found the other Copper Creek pictures. The water looks similar, but the topography looks wrong. I can’t place the location. Upon closer inspection of the image, I found a cable running across it at the top and a building in the back right corner (circled in red). I lightened the top picture considerably to make these more apparant. You can also click on the top picture to see the full-sized photo. The bottom picture is the normal exposure. I am not familiar with any of these being at Copper Creek. So, if it’s not at Copper Creek, where was it taken? And why was in the same pile as the Copper Creek photos? Any help would be greatly appreciated!
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