Flash flood in the Little Valley of the Natchez

If you’ve been keeping up with the Roaming Parkers for very long, you know some of our favorite hikes are along the Natchez Trace Parkway corridor.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile long parkway that commemorates and closely follows the path of the old Natchez Trace between Nashville Tennessee and Natchez Mississippi.  Construction of the Parkway was started in the late 1930’s by CCC workers but the Trace was not actually completed until 2005.

The Park service has maintained and protected a handful of short segments of the old pre-Parkway Natchez Trace – the series of ridges that has been traveled by dinosaurs, buffalo, and Indians, as well as notorious Americans like Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson.

These short segments of the old Trace are maintained so that people can still go to see the old Trace.  When you are hiking on these venerable, sunken path, it is not too hard to imagine the rigors and dangers involved in traveling that “road” 300 years ago.

Potkopinu Section

We got a taste of that frightful potential last week when we did our after-Christmas hike at the Potkopinu section of the old Natchez Trace. 
Potkopinu is a Natchez Indian word meaning, “little valley,” and it is the name of the southernmost remaining section of the old Trace.  It lies right alongside the Parkway about 20 miles north noretheast of Natchez near Fayette Mississippi.

We have done the  Potkopinu hike several times, and it has almost become mundane. We usually park at the northern trailhead on Highway 553, hike southward about 4 miles along the Old Trace with its embankments overlooking you occasionally by twenty feet or more, pop out onto the new Parkway at mile marker 17 and stroll back up the roadway to our vehicle.  In all, it is about 8 or 9 miles, more than half of which is roadside walking. Easy Peasy, Potkopineasy!

The old Trace, despite its eroded, sunken nature, runs largely along a series of ridges, so I’m not sure which “little valley” the name could be referring to.  One possibility is that it is referring to the Bullen Creek basin or the Cole’s Creek basin, both of which cut through the bottom of the old sunken section of the Potkopinu trail. If you start at the North trailhead, Bullen Creek cuts the trail about a mile in and another tributary of Cole’s Creek cuts the trail farther south.

This day we knew we were facing some potential rain.  There had been some rains the night before.  When we started that morning the weather was overcast and breezy but dry, so I figured if we got to an angry, swollen Bullen Creek, we could easily turn around and go back to the north trailhead.

When we got there we found Bullen Creek just as I had found it every other time I’d ever hiked through there – a trickle perhaps ankle deep.  So we crossed on a fallen log (just for the fun of walking on the log – we could have stepped across the creek) and continued our hike.  Cole’s Creek was just the same, a mere trickle when we got there.

As we were climbing back out of the southern side of the “little valley” formed by these two creek basins, our phones started blowing up with warnings about imminent flash flood conditions throughout southwest Mississippi!  We looked up and, sure enough, the sky was bruised-looking to the southwest.

We knew that there was pretty much no chance of a flash flood catching us if we were on top of the new Parkway corridor, and we did not have far to go to get there, so we sped up but the rain caught us nonetheless!

It started as a sprinkle that we pushed through but then became an unrelenting, torrential downpour.  To top it off, we could see lightning and hear thunder approaching from the southwest.

I thought I remembered some sort of small pavilion or shelter at the south trailhead parking lot, so we again redoubled our efforts. Soon we popped out of the woods at the parking lot, only to find that what I’d remembered as a small shelter was just a tiny roofed signboard – maybe 12 square feet of area under the roof for 7 hikers, so we crammed in and waited.

The thunder and lightning marched closer and closer until it finally passed over us and began receding to the northeast.  We continued to wait until we estimated that the lightning was 3-5 miles distant and still receding before we deemed it safe to continue.

We popped out onto the Parkway, safe from the flash floods but perhaps more exposed to lightning, and turned northward toward the vehicles.  Our plan was to stop at the Cole’s Creek rest stop, that we knew lay on the Parkway just north of the southern trailhead, so we could rest and shelter and dry off at the restrooms there.

We booked it to the rest stop and were soon huddled under the overhang but to our dismay, the restrooms were locked!  What the heck!? Why would they do that?  It was not till a few days later that we found that it was due to a government shutdown.  Meh!

We sheltered there under the overhang for a few more minutes, waiting for the lightning to recede further to the northeast and taking turns leaving the Park Service some urine behind the toilet building, then we hurried northward again.

From Cole’s Creek rest stop we knew we only had a couple of miles remaining on the parkway, and about one mile back along Highway 553 to our vehicles at the north trailhead. We made good progress and soon were approaching the Parkway bridge over Bullen Creek.

Here’s what Bullen Creek usually looks like from that bridge.  Just what we’d seen that morning – a sandy trickle.

As we approached Bullen Creek, a motorist passed us and stopped on the bridge! As we slowly approached through the rain, the car just sat there for a couple of minutes. The driver finally got out of his car and looked over the edge of the bridge.  Instead of returning to his car, he walked around it and looked over the other side of the bridge for a while.

I couldn’t figure out his strange behavior and my mind turned to the worst – maybe this guy was drowning a sackful of puppies or maybe we were going to walk up on a drug transfer and get shot. Eventually, before we got there, he got in his car and drove off but what we saw when we arrived at the bridge was a huge surprise!

When we got to the Parkway bridge over Bullen Creek, the trickle that we had just crossed a couple of hours earlier had become a rushing, muddy flow sucking and splashing at the edge of the roadway!  A jam of logs and debris had formed by the upstream side of the bridge, and the drain holes on the edge of the bridge were gushing water upward onto the roadway!

Bullen Creek had risen from a trickle all the way over the bridge in the  couple of hours since we’d passed it earlier that morning.  That creek must have risen by 30-someodd feet!

We were all completely saturated and dripping water and nobody wanted to take out their cameras and get shots of this remarkable flash flood! But I don’t think that any of us that were there will forget the sudden display of Nature’s power represented by that flash flood when we were hiking in the Little Valley of the Natchez Indians.

Categories: Adventure

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