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Column: Don't get swept away — watch for rising rivers while camping
Rudi Kiefer

Georgia’s fall weather provides beautiful opportunities for camping. It’s important to bear in mind that campsites aren’t on prime, expensive real estate. It’s hard to place a tent or camper on a slope. So most campgrounds are on relatively flat terrain. Inexpensive real estate tends to be on valley bottoms. It’s nice to sleep next to a burbling stream, but the level area there has been made by the water. In most cases, it’s a floodplain. 

Where the slopes rise steeply on both sides of the floodplain, caution is required. I would never pitch a tent there with serious rain in the forecast because it brings the hazard of flash flooding. In June 2010, the Albert Pike Recreation Area in Arkansas was the site of such a tragic event. Heavy rain caused a flash flood, sweeping away motor homes, tents and trailers. Twenty lives were lost as the Little Missouri River suddenly sent a wall of water into the campground. In good weather, this is a friendly stream with little beaches of pebbles and sand, safe even for the kids to wade in. But with more than 6 inches of rain dropping on the Recreation Area between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., steep valley sides funneled enough water into it to turn the Little Missouri into a raging torrent. Survivors told stories of hanging in trees, holding on for their lives. Even 10 years after the tragedy, the campground is still closed for overnight use. The U.S. Forest Service website shows permission only for daytime recreation.

Flash floods are different than the slow rise of water we see in some areas during steady rain. Persistent rainfall raises the groundwater table, and the level of each stream reflects this. But rain events that bring several inches of precipitation within a couple of hours create runoff gullies in the valley slopes. Each of them feeds the stream at the bottom until an overwhelming flood wave rushes down the valley. 

When the flood waters recede, accumulated sediment consisting of stones, boulders, tree limbs, sand and topsoil settles down to form more of the flat, level area that’s known as the floodplain. North Georgia has many floodplains along the Chattahoochee, Chestatee, Soque and over rivers. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a camping trip there, as long as one stays connected to the weather forecast.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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