Memorial Day Traditions in the West – This Year is Tricky

By Stephanie A. Malin

“Sooner or later, Utah is going to heat up. It will be like filling a thimble with a fire hose.”
Randy Julander, the federal government’s premiere snow survey expert in Utah, discussing what’s going to happen when higher temperatures arrive and begin to melt the state’s ever-increasing snowpack.
– Utah’s Deseret News

Triple A estimates that 35 million Americans will travel this weekend, kicking off their summers with road trips, camping, picnics, or hours on the beach.  For those of us in the West, however, recent weather patterns and a late spring – perhaps the result of climate change’s global weirding effects – will make some traditional activities more challenging to execute this weekend.  Across the West, flood warnings from melting snowpack, early wildfires, high winds with dust storms, and even late-season snow require regional travelers to tinker with their Memorial Day traditions and expectations.

My husband and I are big campers.  We like to head about twenty minutes down the road to Logan Canyon, where we have a few favorite spots to set up camp and sleep in the canyon for an evening or two.  The spot we frequent the most possesses just the right mix of amenities to make camping there a treat.  A large, level area for the tent, chairs, and even parking; a sizeable fire pit with a six-foot-tall boulder that projects the fire’s glow as the sun recedes; babbling and bubbling of one of Logan River’s side streams as it runs just south of our sleeping spot; and a vista that includes looming limestone cliffs and even the occasional deer.  Yes, perfect, for us at least.  Typically, we begin camping at this spot at about this time of the year, with Utah’s cold nights giving way just enough to make it bearable to sleep outdoors.  We don’t necessarily fight the Memorial Day weekend crowds but take advantage of our teaching schedules and pounce on the spot shortly after the weekend concludes and the canyon empties out a little.

This year, though, those plans have been complicated.  In anticipation of this tradition, we recently headed into the canyon to check in on our spot, say hello to our home-away-from-home after a long, snowy, chilly winter.   However, as we pulled up, we saw that camping will not be an option, at least not this week.  The babbling, bubbling side stream had risen well beyond its banks; the fire pit was too damp to nurture a substantial fire; and the ground throughout the area – though still level and lovely – was wet and would remain too damp to allow comfortable tent camping.  Aside from our spot’s damp appearance and the rising river, the weekend will bring with it at least two days of unusually substantial rain, according to our local meteorologist, putting a final nail in the coffin of our tradition.

Camping will have to wait, it seems, and perhaps longer than a week or two.  While spring rains have been common in Utah for my six years here, the amount of rain we have gotten this spring exceeded our normal levels of precipitation, combining with quickly melting snowpack to create flood concerns in Cache and Weber Counties.  Breaking with the norm, there have been more rainy and cloudy than sunny days.  Other areas throughout the state have seen similar flood concerns and late-spring rains and even snows combine to fill their canyons and camping spots.  Though this could certainly be a fluke – an odd weather pattern that will prove to be an anomaly and nothing else – observers like Randy Julander suggest that such anomalies may become the norm in typically arid states like Utah.  In fact, scientists such as Julander suggest that climate change may be impacting weather patterns to such an extent that they have termed these shifting patterns ‘global weirding.’ Global weirding refers to increased flooding in normally arid regions, increasing intensity and duration of storms (as we see in the Midwest’s recent spate of tornadoes), increased intensity and duration of wildfires, and affected growing seasons and agricultural outcomes.

While this observation doesn’t necessarily explain our camping spot’s unseasonable appearance, when combined with other serious weather and natural events across the West, it is hard to ignore the pattern.  Fires and floods ravage Colorado’s Western Slope, wildfires have already sparked to life in Arizona, multiple sites of flooding plague Montana, and rain and even some snowstorms have doused the West Coast.   This Memorial Day weekend, as people throughout the West search for their customary camping spots and enact their traditions, it seems likely that they may encounter flood damage or even remaining snowpack.  Executing traditions, it seems, may be trickier this year for the outdoor enthusiast.  How has your weekend or early summer been impacted?

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