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.
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.
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.
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.
- Fort Collins Coloradoan article about the rainstorm and Poudre Canyon. Sept. 13, 2013.
- One presumed dead, 350 unaccounted for in Larimer County floods. Coloradoan, Sept. 14, 2013.
- Aerial tour of floods in Fort Collins and Loveland. Coloradoan, Sept. 14, 2013.