melissa i strong
rock climber, writer, photographer, working on life daily
Fish Creek Road, Estes Park, CO during the September 2013 floods
The sound of rain on our roof used to be a comforting sound soothing us to sleep knowing that the dry forest was soaking up the much needed moisture. That all changed for me Wednesday September 11, 2013. It had been raining all week, which was not typical for Colorado. Wednesday night the pounding rain was ferociously loud as it hammered down on our metal roof. The clamor kept me from sleep and naively my biggest worry was the garage was taking in water. Eventually it was time to quit the game of attempting to sleep and I was up. Yes, mattresses under our climbing wall in the garage were soaking up water that was pouring in and the skylights were beginning to dribble.
Pacing around our kitchen checking social media I started to see how serious this all was. Andy Morgan, the owner of the restaurant I work at The Dunraven Inn, phoned. “No work tonight the canyon is closed and Marty (the chef) cannot get to town,” he informed me. He was driving around Estes Park on his way to check on our livelihood, The Dunraven. As he drove he narrated what he was seeing—water everywhere—flowing like a river down the Elkhorn Ave (the main street in downtown Estes). Immediately my friends came to mine, Karla who owns Ed’s Cantina located in downtown Estes and Amy owner of Kind Coffee right next door. Facebook posts let me know they were there saving what they could and sandbagging vigorously with help of friends and family. My thoughts were racing as soon as I get off the phone I will change out of my pjs and I and go help them. As Andy’s narration continued about the new pond surrounding the fun slide, my husband Adam’s phone rang—I just heard his answer “No there is no other way out. You better just come here.” “What are you talking about” I asked. “Rothner just called—he was camping up in Pierson Park and said he couldn’t get out of Little Valley so I told him to come here,” Adam answered. My conversation with Andy ended quickly urging him to call me back and let me know how the Dunraven was faring. “What do you mean washed out?” I asked. Andrew Rothner, our friend and employee for Adam’s Tree Service, soon showed up to answered this question himself, “There is water flowing over the road with a truck stuck.” Not quite comprehending the severity of what he was saying I went back to social media and checking on my friends who were the folks in real trouble.
Soon we lost power but we were some of the lucky folks who only went without for about and hour or two. The relief to have power restored while being trapped was immense although it was shadowed by the fear that it would be short lived. We decided to get our shit together and see for ourselves what Little Valley road really looked like. The damage caused by the rain was astonishing and at the time, unknown to us, it was just the beginning. Since Andrew had seen the stuck truck half of the road that brings us in and out of our neighborhood, Little Valley, was gone. The rain that now flowed along the side road for about a half-mile carved a huge ravine. As we walked further the water switched sides of the road creating a riverbed in the middle of the street and another ravine on the opposite side. All of this rainwater merged with what use to be a small creek that flowed under Little Valley Road via a large culvert. This combined surge was too much for the culvert and the water found it’s way up and over the road. A neighbor, Jack Burns, thought he could drive over this new tributary that flowed across the road but instead wedged his Toyota pickup in between what was left of asphalt. The surging river splashed up against the side of the Toyota as he stood on the running board to get a few last things out. Reality was setting in—when I heard a truck was stuck in the road—I imagined someone pulling it out and a way around; however, the new ravine that ran along Little Valley Road with edges still collapsing, Burns truck beyond wedged in what use to be the road, the forecast of more rain, the loss of the cell networks and internet was all compounding. We walked home in shock still not comprehending how bad it was going to get for us and horrible for others.
We returned to a warm house and a hot shower, which took the sting out of what we just saw. Thank God we have power was all I could think. “We will get out tomorrow Adam assured me” as I cooked for the boys that were either living in our house or stranded with us including Bryce Klinikowski, Mike Wickwire, Andrew Rothner and a neighbor Nick Smith. Not knowing what was happening to my friends was constantly on my mind. We ate and drank the night and our worries away and went to sleep to the sound of rain on the roof again.
On Friday the 13th of September we heard many tales from neighbors that Fish Creek Road, the main road that intersects with Little Valley Road was now a river. I had major doubts that we would get out with two rivers to cross but Adam and the boys were determined. We set out with ropes, pulley, harnesses, rain gear, snacks, water and a set of dry socks stuffed in our backpacks. When we got to Burns Gulch (a newly adopted name for the tributary where Jack Burns got his truck stuck) we saw that it widened twofold and was roaring. Jack’s truck was flipped and had traveled down stream a ways where it was wedged and filled with mud and rocks. We skirted the ravine that grew over night devouring entire sections of the road and turned into a waterfall feature to access the narrowest part of Burn’s Gulch. We played to our strengths and encouraged Bryce—whom we knew had jumping skills to take on the roaring gap. And he did landing on the other side with dry feet. Soon the rope was up and we were all across. It felt freeing being on the other side as we turned our backs and headed towards our next obstacle of Fish Creek Road.
Fish Creek Road was now a raging river with chunks of askew asphalt jutting in multiple directions. We were able to skirt this new obstacle and for the three and a half miles as we zigzagged across and along what was Fish Creek Road. The missing road, exposed power lines, the slabs of displaced asphalt, homes with water charging through them and propane lines severed hissing into the air made it seem as if an earth quake or bombing had occurred. In a daze we made our way into town where civilization seemed to functioning—cars roaring by, people riding bicycles and walking dogs. A little further along our journey to procure supplies and hopefully an “outside” vehicle were asked if we were refugees, which took us a minute to process and answer “yes.” We were given a ride to Liesl’s house, a friend and coworker, who saved us by lending us her van. Overwhelmed with happiness when she opened her door I had such a hard time explaining to her what we saw and where we just came from which seemed so far away. So relieved we did not have to reverse the journey and walk home we were totally overwhelmed in the grocery store shopping for us and neighbors. Shockingly there was a lot on the shelves (apparently a Safeway truck that was stocked for four stops was stuck in Estes Park so we got our stores worth plus three) except for the disaster usuals: eggs, milk, bread and water. We hit the liquor store after that where my bewilderment got the best of me—I purchased an alcohol free bottle of wine (I did not realize this until the next evening when our neighbor Nick had us over for dinner—I had drank half of the alcohol free wine the night before after I had finished a different bottle of wine—thinking I was exceeding my allotment greatly—I wondered why I felt so good when I woke up that morning).
Thankfully to Liesl and her van or journey home was reduced dramatically from six miles to eventually about two-three miles. We crossed a horse meadow and encountered Fish Creek still raging and set up another rope traverse—this time the jump across for Bryce was bigger and his feet got wet. Safe on the other side of one of our main obstacle we debated the best way through the woods home. I have spent many years living and hiking in Little Valley and was able to navigate us directly to a trail that borders our property. When we the hit the trail I felt victorious our small mission was complete and soon we would be home—so appreciative that we still had a home after what we saw.
The next few days were a waiting game as we watched more dirt erode away along Little Valley road leaving a 40 by 100 foot hole at one point. We were beyond extremely fortunate to have a local excavator working on Little Valley Road over the following week carving a new topsoil road out of the sides of peoples properties. Our journey got shorter when the adjacent neighborhood, Rockwood Estates, got access out. Now we just had a half-mile hike along the trail to an amazing family’s house the Millers who helped us get to our refugee van procuring more supplies and helping us get seven evacuees out with some luggage and a cat. Bits of hope were also accompanied by extremely upsetting news like “the excavators are not coming back”, “you have ten minutes to evacuate your home for the winter”, “you will not return to your home until after next summer”, “you will not get your vehicles out until after next summer.” The excavators, Kearney and Sons, did come back and created a road where there was none over a week’s time. Eventually the town of Estes Park decided to help our little neighborhood out and built us a temporary bridge that crossed Fish Creek. The following Thursday after the storm the 20st of September I was extremely fortunate that I drove to work, which was surreal indeed knowing that the road was gone and drivable within a weeks time.
Four days later we got cell service back and internet connecting us to friends and family (we did have on neighbor that retained internet and was generous to share this access). This is when I started to truly realize how fortunate we were. So many had lost everything. Our friends in Glen Heaven, Scott and Leah DeCapio, lost their home, studio, car and shop. Others like Erika (friend and co-worker) were still stranded in their neighborhood, the Retreat, waiting for a Schnook to come get them out. They still can only get to their home by a six mile hike but are hoping to get vehicles out before the winter; however, they will not be able to live in their homes until after next summer— on the bright side—at least they have homes.
We were definitely hit economically losing a lot of access to jobs Adam had lined up for the fall and the tourists have not been pouring into town at the typical fall rate. But as a weeks pass and the government opened up we have had visitors not canceling their vacations, driving the long way around (since our major roads are still not open) doing what they can to support the Estes Valley Community. We are fortunate, we had doors to open and people came. Karla and Ed’s and Amy and Kind Coffee will have to wait but they are keeping positive and taking the proper steps to reopen and improve while they have the chance. FEMA and the SBA have been outstanding to everyone I have spoken with during this disaster including ourselves. The community of Estes Park all come together and grew. I am so impressed with so many people witnessing such strength and fortitude in friends, acquaintances and strangers. This was the craziest shit I have ever seen and hope to ever see. I had no clue rain could do so much damage but now I know. I also learned that we all have what it takes to move forward and I am proud to be part of such a strong community.
9/12/13 where our road, Dollar Lake Dr. intersects with Little Valley Rd. Looking up is the photo on the left and down is the photo above.
Little Valley Road
Little Valley Road
Little Valley road and what was a small creek and Jack Burn's truck
9/13/13 Wickwire -- A boulderers tyrolean traverse--the way out
If you look closely Jack's truck was taken down stream overnight as the creek swelled.
Fish Creek and Little Valley Rd
Fish Creek Road
Looking back at the intersection of Fish Creek and Little Valley Rd
All of these pictures were taken along Fish Creek Road
We set up a different traverse for your way back
Adam's Tree Service heading down to North Fork Rd in Glen Heaven helping clear the way for the electric company.
Down town Glen Heaven
These pictures are all along North Fork Rd.