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Alex Cabrero, Deseret News
Quicksand developed at Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park.
Even though it looks dry, it can be wet underneath the surface. If you start to feel yourself sink in a little bit, take that step back. Try not to panic. —Mike Henry, supervisory ranger at Arches National Park

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK — When you're getting ready for a hike in the desert, you have to be prepared with water, some food, sunscreen and good shoes.

Now, it seems you might have to be prepared for quicksand, too.

Yes, quicksand.

In Utah.

At Arches National Park.

"Your foot and your leg get trapped, and there is a suction that is created, and you can't get it out. It's just stuck,” said Jim Webster, commander of Grand County's Search and Rescue team.

Last week, a 78-year-old woman was hiking alone in Courthouse Wash and got one leg caught up to her knee in quicksand. She was stuck for 14 hours until rescuers found her and pulled her out.

"It took about 15-20 minutes to get her unstuck,” Webster said. “The only way to get that leg out is to break that suction."

Webster visited the same spot Thursday to demonstrate how fast it can happen. In less than a second, he sank up to his knees.

"See there? That’s how quick that happens, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Webster was able to get out because he kept moving quickly, using his legs and body to slosh side to side to get out of the muddy, soupy mix.

Quicksand forms after an area with a lot of sand is saturated with water. In this small riverbed, the Colorado River was back flowed for about a month, leaving many spots soft and soupy.

"You'll have a notion you might be sinking, but you might not realize it until it's too late,” Webster said.

It’s also difficult to know exactly what spot you can fall into. You can be walking on firm ground without any problems, then with one step, sink into quicksand. The area separating firm ground to quicksand looks the same.

"It's very hard to determine if the area is quicksand. It looks solid until you step in it,” said Mike Henry, supervisory ranger at Arches National Park.

For Henry, this search and rescue operation was a first.

"I've never been on a quicksand rescue. When I heard it over the radio, I was a bit surprised,” he said. “This is rare. Most of our calls this time of year involve heat-related problems. We don’t get quicksand calls, so I did a little bit of research on the Internet, and most accounts say you’re not going to fully sink. You’ll stop somewhere around your waist or chest.”

If you start to sink, Henry said, you should move as quickly as possible to get out. However, if you get stuck, try to find something near you like a stick or rock to try to dig yourself out.

“We don’t want to scare people from hiking,” Webster said. “This happens very rarely. There are no calls that I know of that Grand County has been involved with since the early '90s. In 1991 or '92 at Arches National Park, we did have a young Moab student get stuck up to his waist in quicksand about 6 miles up canyon from here, but we got him out.”

Henry suggests letting people know where you are hiking or leave a note in your house. He also says carrying a whistle would be a good way to call for help. The sound travels a lot farther than yelling.

Even though it’s hard to know what is quicksand and what isn’t, Henry says it’s always best to be prepared.

“Even though it looks dry, it can be wet underneath the surface," he said. "If you start to feel yourself sink in a little bit, take that step back. Try not to panic.”

The hiker who was trapped in quicksand lives in the Moab area and has hiked this trail many times but told rescuers she has never had any issues with quicksand in the past.

email: acabrero@deseretnews.com