When the six Boy Scouts from suburban Maplewood, N.J., went camping in the Grand Canyon, they expected an adventure they would long talk about, but they did not expect to be clinging to treetops and praying to survive a flash flood.
The six Scouts and three adult leaders were eventually guided to safety by American Indians who live in the area, and plucked out of the wilderness by a Black Hawk helicopter. By the time they flew away, the 10-yard-wide canyon next to a stream where they had been camping had become a 300-yard-wide raging river.
The scouts and their leaders were among more than 200 people rescued from the flash floods that followed heavy rains and the failure of a dam this past weekend. Rescuers were still combing the vast national park for 11 campers who were either washed away, are still in the park, or have simply gone home and are unaware that people are searching for them.
For the Jersey scouts, however, the flood was a test of their motto to "Be Prepared." Through a harrowing night and the next day, the Scouts earned their badges, said Kevin Muench, who was along on the trip with two of his sons, Colin, 13, and Tommy, 11.
"It was part of their preparedness," said Muench, a dentist who has reveled in wilderness camping since his teens. "The Scouts, when they needed to do something, they did it. When they needed to hike, they really hiked."
The troop had been camping for about a week when they set up their tents next to a stream in the narrow canyon. A ranger came by Saturday and told them to move to higher ground "because floodwaters are coming," Muench said. "He said there was a threat of a washout."
They packed up and moved a bit higher. At 1 a.m., they were roused again.
"They woke everybody up saying the floodwaters are coming. You better get up," Muench said from Las Vegas, where the group was recuperating.
It was the beginning of a long, frightening night.
"The scariest thing at night was you could hear the trees snapping and breaking, but you couldn't see them," he said.
If the night was scary, the morning was worse.
"In the morning, where we had been was totally washed out," Muench said. "We had become an island. There was water to the right and left of us."
Stranded with them were several college kids and a family. The American Indians, who were equipped with walkie-talkies, tried to rig a rope bridge for the stranded campers, but Muench said they decided it was too risky for the kids.
But the water kept rising and the force of it was growing even more spectacular. At times trees would get jammed together and slow the torrent, he said, but that would eventually give way and the river would be raging with even more power.
'It's OK to Be Scared'
"It was unbelievable," Muench said. "You'd see boulders four-foot in diameter being carried down the stream, and whole trees."
"At one point they [the American Indians] yelled to us to 'Get up in the trees, get up in the trees,' because another wave of water was coming," he said.
"We were literally in the trees saying 'Our Father,'" Muench said referring to the Christian prayer. "We did a lot of praying."
There were "some tears," Muench conceded, "Particularly when we were in the trees and they were yelling at us that a three-foot wave was coming at us."
"I told the boys, it's OK to be scared, but we're going to be OK," he said.
The American Indians began yelling to them again, but they couldn't be heard over the roar of water, "just mud, trees and rocks coming down."
"The scariest part was when you couldn't hear them and didn't know what they wanted you to do," Muench said.
Muench climbed out of his tree to find out what the newest warning was. "Come now," they were saying. The American Indians apparently noticed a slowing of the river.
Muench got everyone out of the trees and they had to wade across the shallowest part of the water, which was as high as three feet deep in parts. The college students put some of the smaller Scouts on their shoulders, and the only camping gear they took was two backpacks that had first aid equipment.
"All the Scouts lost everything," he said.
Helicopter Lift Was 'So Cool'
Once clear of the water, however, they faced a nearly sheer cliff and the water was still rising. They found a notch in the cliff and their American Indian rescuers rigged ropes up to the top. They had to pull themselves up about 70 feet, Muench estimated, pulling with their arms and kicking with their feet.
A Black Hawk helicopter dropped them a case of water and later came back to hoist six of them in a cargo net. But before the chopper could return for the rest of them, it was diverted to rescue others who were in a more dire situation, Muench said.
Muench said the boys did not appear to be traumatized by their ordeal. Colin even called his mother to describe the helicopter lift as "so cool." The boys were playing in the hotel pool Monday night, Muench said.
But he said his Scouts were prepared for the crisis and knew that you have to be ready for anything in a place like the Grand Canyon.
"This is one of risks when you go into the wilderness. They know we're not in the suburbs camping in Memorial Park," he said referring to mowed field in the middle of Maplewood.