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By Gary Kimsey

For the last year, Mother Nature has reminded those of us living along the Poudre River that she does what she does regardless of whether humans and our trappings of civilization are about.

Nothing new about that message, of course. But it helps remind us of a sharp, biting lesson. Our presence really means nothing in the scope of things when it comes to such forces of Nature as forest fires, floods and mudslides.

Photo above: The Poudre River behind our house on Sept. 13. In comparison, the photo below shows how the river there typically looks at this time of the year. The two boulders seen are completely inundated in the photo above.

Photo above: The Poudre River behind our house on Sept. 13. In comparison, the photo below shows how the river there typically looks at this time of the year. The boulders in the photo below are completely inundated in the photo above.

Last summer the lightning-caused High Park Fire destroyed 87,000 acres of northern Colorado mountain forests. Residents of the Poudre Park hamlet where Patty Jackson and I live were evacuated for three weeks.

Since then, with trees gone and little ground-cover to waylay rain on steep slopes, water pours off the mountains during rain storms, picking up soot and dirt, creating mudslides that have closed the canyon road (Colorado Highway 14) more times than I can recall.

The most recent storm started Sept. 11. A huge system stalled over much of Colorado’s Front Range, causing terrible flooding in Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Lyons and other communities. Newscasters said the storm has produced “biblical proportions” of rain.

The Poudre Canyon wasn’t left out of the storm’s grasp. More than 12 inches of rain fell within two days. As a comparison, note that the annual rainfall average is 17 inches, so the current rain came within reach of doubling the average amount that falls throughout a year.

Photo taken in early September, prior to the flooding, by Kelly Champagne.

Photo taken in early September, prior to the flooding, by Kelly Champagne, Patty’s daughter who was visiting us from Independence, Mo.

The river rose from the low, clear stream that it typically is at this time of the year, almost shallow enough to wade across, to a wild torrent, black with soot that flowed out of the High Park burn areas. News reports cited experts saying the river’s flow was more than a hundred times higher than it typically is at this time of the year.

Logs—the remains of charred trees that fell during the High Park fire—were swept off mountainsides and into the river. As the current carried them by Sunnyside, our home, the logs looked like Tinker Toys amid the river’s mad rush.

At one point, a 10-foot metal culvert, washed into the river somewhere upstream, suddenly popped straight up out of the current, like Moby Dick spearing out of the dark ocean, and then plunged back in, gone from view.

The heavy rain pushed boulders and rocks down into gulches and then shoved them into the river, where they built up peninsulas that reshaped the stream’s channel.

The presence of the canyon highway, which runs alongside the river, made no difference. Within a few hours, many parts of the highway were buried by deep mud, boulders and logs.

Right now, Poudre Park is cut off. The highway in both directions—east into Fort Collins and west farther into the mountains—is covered with mudslides or undercut by the river.

Our neighbors—there are about 30 homes scattered throughout this tiny mountain valley—are doing the same as we are, hunkering down and waiting for the Colorado Department of Transportation to undertake the hard task of repairing the byway.

Near Picnic Rock, at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, the flood-swollen river undercut Colorado Highway 14. Photo by Diane Sanford of Poudre Park.

Near Picnic Rock, at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, the flood-swollen river undercut Colorado Highway 14. Photo by Diane Sanford of Poudre Park.

We have plenty of food. The Internet works. TV, too. It’s an afternoon of sunshine today (Sept. 14), occasional clouds, a few sprinkles of rain. Folks are out cutting their grass. Patty is pulling weeds from our flower gardens. Our dog, Amber, is asleep in shade coming off one of the spruces in the front yard. Early this evening we’ll gather with our neighbors for a potluck dinner in the community center across the dirt road from Sunnyside, a time to commune and hear news updates about the floods coming out of the Poudre, Big Thompson and other Front Range streams.

All in all, as we wait, life is normal, except, of course, for the endless background roar of the river running high at the edge of our backyard, a reminder that we may think of ourselves as residents but, in reality, we’re just visitors in Nature.

Postscript: I wrote the blog above on Sept. 14. The news at the potluck dinner was good–the highway into Fort Collins was to be temporarily opened today (Sept. 15), with the state police leading vehicles past the washed-out part of the road (see photo).

However, this morning we received word that problems arose during the night and the damaged part of the highway is now impassible.

Rain began again last night. It’s continued into early evening. We’re still cut off. Still waiting. And still thankful that at least we have homes to wait in, unlike many in Colorado who have been driven out by the floods.

Related:

The runners arrived in different styles and different speeds, 1,150 of them in the annual Colorado Marathon along the Poudre River. A few were speedy. Some, steadily fast. Most, just jogging along. Some walked. Some limped.

One runner was blind. He kept on track (and on a good pace) with a string connected to a friend running alongside him.

The youngest: 14. Many older runners participated in 2013. Two were 74.

{Click on the video to view the activity at the Friends of the Poudre water station: water-bearers: Jerry Aiken, Bill Bertschy, Patty Jackson, Bill Sears and Charlie Wrobbel.}

All breathed hard and, when they glanced away from the road ahead, they saw the river at a scenic best, small whitewater rapids and dark pools waiting for the high rise of the spring runoff that will come later in May.

May 5 was just right for the long run, cool, refreshing. The sky was a cloudless blue. Wild grasses on the mountainsides were greened up thanks to a 14-inch snowfall that blew in May 1. By the Sunday race day, the day of the marathon, the snow had melted away.

{The Colorado Marathon website and race results.}

As usual, canyon residents staffed a water station at Poudre Park, six miles from the start line. Members of Friends of the Poudre and canyon residents staffed a water station about 10 miles from the start.

And, as usual, those of us at the water stations spent the morning filling and passing out small paper cups containing water or goo (a delightful name for a liquid that replenishes lost electrolytes and other nutrients during extreme exercise). We served up about 50 gallons of water at the Friends of the Poudre water station.

Gracious marathoners

As in years past, the marathoners who passed by the water stations were as polite and thankful as can be—for the cups of water and goo they received from us and particularly for the volunteers who staffed the water stations.

Even after more than a decade of volunteering at the water station, I was still amazed at how gracious and good-humored the runners were by the time they reached the 10-mile mark.

They are always  sweat-covered, drawn-faced, panting, chest-heaving. But the humor remains.

“Margarita?” at least one marathoner a year invariably asks as a small cup of water or goo is handed over. Another traditional quip: “Cold beer?

runnner

The Colorado Marathon is promoted as America’s most beautiful marathon. The event also has a half-marathon, and 10k and 5k races. The full marathon goes on Colorado Highway 14 along the river through the lower Poudre Canyon, and then out into the foothills and onto the Poudre River Trail. All of the races end in Old Town Fort Collins. In total, 3,477 runners participated in the 2013 event.

At the finish line

As runners crossed the finish line, an announcer belted out their names and hometowns. This year many non-Colorado runners came from Minnesota and Texas. One hailed from Mexico City.

The three blocks leading to the finish line were lined with enthusiastically clapping onlookers. Many displayed fun signs of encouragement. My favorite:

“Kick Asphalt!”

It’s a Poudre spring of rainbow foxes and snow-covered outhouses.

As with the rest of northern Colorado, the Poudre Canyon was hit this week by two spring snowstorms.

Spring snows aren’t uncommon, although we haven’t had many in the last few years of drought-like conditions. In 1980, three feet greeted May Day. In 2003, five feet fell over two days; the snow came up to my chin.

Black fox kit with a white tail outside of its den along the Poudre River. Photo by Gary Kimsey

Black fox kit with a white tail outside of its den along the Poudre River. Photo from spring of 2012 by Gary Kimsey

This time, the first storm started April 14, continued through Income Tax Day, and left behind eight inches of snow in the lower Poudre Canyon where I live. Then came a cold April 16 night. The upper inch of snow froze solid. Then another storm wandered in, this still underway.

Delicate snow

As I type here in my warm office in Sunnyside—the cabin built eight decades ago by my grandparents and now converted into office space—I look out the window and, beyond 3-foot icicles hanging like sharp stalactites from the roof’s edge, see little but white haze as snow flakes drift down.

On the far side of the backyard, the wood fence that is angled down toward the river is topped with a thin, delicate wall of snow. The roof of our outhouse—built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps—is covered with a foot-deep blanket of snow. I’m certainly glad for indoor plumbing.

Snowplows from the highway department have worked diligently to keep the canyon road open, a tough and commendable task.

Rainbow foxes

Driving home from work in Fort Collins late this afternoon, I spotted a fox casually trotting with grace and ease over the top of the snow along the shoulder of the road.

It used to be that we had pure red foxes in the canyon, but a few years ago the gene pool got mixed into. Many Poudre foxes, like this one, are now fancifully sprinkled with rainbows of red, white, black, brown fur.

Last spring I spotted a fox kit lounging outside of its den. The kit was black and it had a white tip on its tail. (See the photo.) In the fall, as I was near the den again, I spotted what I figure was the same fox—an adolescent now, but still black and white-tipped.

This afternoon I could see the back trail of the rainbow fox. It came from a den dug into the side of a small hill.

And there I was fortunate enough to view something I’d never seen before.

Foxy play

Four fox kits were outside the den, light-footedly prancing around on top of the deep snow.

They were loping about four feet up the side of the hill, and then they slid down a narrow chute they had made over the top of the snow. The chute ended near the entrance to their den.

Sometimes a kit came down on all fours. Other times, belly slides. And even a posterior zoom flew down the chute.

It’s a playful spring along the Poudre River.

The Poudre River has run black for days now.

On the rare occasions when the water is clear, you can see thick layers of black soot covering the rocks and sand on the river bottom.

Flash floods and mudslides have come and gone, and will be back.

As I write this blog, the lower Poudre Canyon highway is closed due to a mudslide. A car tried to bull through and is stuck in black goo.

In anticipation of more flash floods and mudslides, Poudre Park residents filled sandbags Saturday and placed them at strategic locations around homes in the community. Photo by Gwen Solley.

On Saturday, residents of the mountain hamlet of Poudre Park came out en masse to fill 2,000 sandbags and place them strategically to protect homes from flash floods. This went on until we ran out of bags and sand. More are coming today.

The sandbagging was prompted by a Friday afternoon heavy rainstorm that caused flash floods to come off the soot-blackened mountainsides.

Residents of Falls Gulch, where five homes were lost in the High Park Fire, are at the most risk. It’s a narrow gulch, just ripe for flash floods, at the east end of Poudre Park. To learn more, go to the blog for the Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District.

These are some of the aftermaths of the High Park Fire in northern Colorado.

Most of us who live in Poudre Canyon and nearby Rist Canyon never considered what would happen in Nature after the firestorm that devastated forests and homes.

We were too busy evacuating and living homeless from June 9 to the first few days of July. Since then, people who lost their homes—almost 300 gone in Rist and Poudre canyons and Glacier View—have been swamped with the mind-boggling details of rebuilding or relocating, starting lives over again.

Those of us lucky enough to have homes to return to hadn’t considered the real possibility of flash floods and mud slides. There were soot-covered couches and refrigerators full of spoiled food to worry about.

What’s happening now is quite simple, an act of Nature:

The annual Southwest Monsoon, which usually comes in June, decided to wait until July this year. Typically, the monsoon rains are refreshing and welcomed as they move aside the summer heat.

Since June 30, the daily monsoon, which comes north from the Gulf of Mexico, has brought afternoon and evening storms. The rain falls on mountains once covered with thick pine forests, wild grasses and sagebrush that helped the moisture soak in.

Now that trees and vegetation are gone, the rain makes its own path down the mountains, flowing into little gullies and then into gulches, filling up and overflowing culverts along the highway and rushing into the river.

The highway shoulders, in many places, are just like the river: black with soot. The Colorado Department of Transportation has vigorously fought to move aside the black mud that keeps coming onto the byway.

This is the way life has been. Today’s weather forecast: more rain.

And more black sooty mud.

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