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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Death By Quicksand...Almost

Scott Thybony

"Death by quicksand" has become a cliché in Hollywood Westerns set in Arizona. But in reality, it's practically unheard of. One of the state's only known quicksand deaths happened in 1872 in Paria Canyon. About 130 years later - in the exact same place - commentator Scott Thybony almost became Arizona's second quicksand fatality.

The chance of death by quicksand triggers a primordial fear. We take for granted the solid ground beneath our feet, and when it suddenly gives way the world is no longer what it appears to be. Usually only a nuisance, quicksand can turn dangerous in an instant. And the more you struggle, the deeper you sink.

When animals get trapped the consequences can be fatal. Hoofed animals bog down easily, sometimes struggling until too exhausted to hold their heads up, then they drown. And animals can die by hypothermia unless they get rescued or struggle free. My horse hit a pocket of quicksand in Canyon de Chelly once, and I immediately rolled off into the shallow water. Without my weight the mare made a couple of frantic lunges and got out. We were lucky. I've seen a photo of a Jeep Cherokee caught in quicksand at the same spot. Only its rooftop was visible.

The roof of a jeep is barely visible after being swallowed up by quicksand near Canyon de Chelly

On a backpack trip down Paria Canyon to Lees Ferry I found myself crossing sandbars turning more rubbery with each step. Suddenly I was knee-deep, and with a lurch sank nearly to my waist. Checking the impulse to struggle, I remembered some counter-intuitive advice. I ditched my pack and leaned slowly forward to break the suction. And then, going against all instinct for self preservation, I stretched out on top of the liquefied sand as flat as possible. This dispersed my weight and with a few dog-paddle strokes I reached solid ground.

The only quicksand fatality I know about occurred on one of the earliest explorations of Paria Canyon. In 1872, ten men from the Wheeler Expedition left the Colorado River and rode up the Paria River. On a bitter cold day they found themselves in the depths of a narrow gorge. Without warning a mule sank belly-deep in quicksand and rolled on its side, trapping the rider. The explorers spent half an hour digging out their companion and freeing the animal. Bruised by the thrashing mule, the expedition cook was described as being "stupid from cold and excitement". Mr. Kettleman, in fact, was suffering from hypothermia.

He mounted a horse this time, and the party continued up canyon as the cliffs pressed in. Soldiers went ahead to break the ice using the butts of their carbines. When the party reached a deep pool, the mules refused to enter. Sensing danger, and with a disposition to think for themselves, they balked. By now Kettleman was shivering and only semi-conscious, but he insisted on riding through the icy pool. Half-way across, the horse and rider hit quicksand and sank below the surface. Twenty long seconds later, their heads emerged for an instant before disappearing again.

A drawing marks the spot of Paria Canyon's only known quicksand death in 1872

Desperate to help, Lieutenant William Marshall plunged in headfirst, still wearing a heavy overcoat. The horse soon struggled free and reached the rocks, followed by the lieutenant with his arm around the cook. They placed the unconscious man on a pile of blankets, but it was too late. Kettleman, gasped a few times and died. Quicksand had precipitated the incident, and already suffering from hypothermia he likely drowned.

At Lees Ferry I asked the ranger about his most serious quicksand incident. A backpacker in Paria Canyon, he told me, once sank just above her waist. She remained trapped for 17 hours before they could helicopter in rescuers, who laid out boards and rigged ropes to extricate her. "If she had only taken off her pack...," he said, letting the thought trail off.

Flagstaff-based writer and KNAU Canyon Commentator Scott Thybony

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.