Tag Archives: Front Range Colorado

Wildfire

Some of the golden hills of California just turned black.  This time it is north around Santa Rosa and the wine country.  Usually it is the San Gabriel mountains or other Southern California areas.  The conditions leading to destructive wildfire are the same.  There are essentially two seasons; when it rains and when there is no rain.

This year there was a lot of rain in what passes for winter in all of California.  Everything greens up and grows.  It means good feed for cattle, and lots of fuel in the fall when it dries out.  You are probably familiar with the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.  The desert Great Basin east of the mountains cools off, creating an area of high pressure.  The pressure creates west-flowing winds, blowing to the coast.  As the winds hit the mountains, they rise, cool, then flow down the west side of the mountains, warming as they flow west.  Thus the Santa Ana winds, hot dry wind flowing west and drying all that foliage that grew during the rainy season.

In Northern California, the winds are called Diablo winds, after the local Diablo mountains.  The high pressure west of the coastal region originates from high pressure following storms blowing into the basin from the stormy northwest.  The high pressure again creates west flowing wind howling down the west side of the mountains.  The fires are set or lightning started, and burn across the valleys.  That means the golden hills, vineyards, and Santa Rosa suburbs.

The fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen.  The fuel grew, much heat comes with the wind, which also supplies plenty of oxygen.  Add an ignition point, and it burns.  The wind and fire blows down canyons, and people like to live in the canyons.  When all the space in the canyons is full, people move into the hills.  It is called the urban-wildland interface.  The entire American West is growing in population, and the new people moving in want to experience some open space.  The open space is open because it periodically burns, thus no forest, just chaparral and grassland.  And houses.  Destruction.

Is climate change partly responsible?  You decide.  California has always had destructive fire blowing in from the west, but is climate change exacerbating the natural phenomena?

Here in Colorado, we also have destructive wildland fires fanned by downslope winds.  Here the winds are from the west, hit the mountains, rise, cool, and roar down the eastern side of the mountains, fanning fires.  People are moving into the areas where the fires have always burned, and their houses burn.  The Plains east of Denver see huge grassland fires, especially after a wet spring.

Storm King Fire, Glenwood Springs CO

Western Colorado also has wind accelerated fires.  Westerly winds encounter the west side of the Rockies, rise, cool, and descend into the area around Glenwood Springs.  The country is the Colorado equivalent of California Chaparral.  The brush burns got, killing firefighters and threatening towns.  It is only a matter of time before things get hot in Glenwood, Newcastle, and Carbondale.

The West is a wonderful place, with open space, mountains, deserts, and a harsh climate.  People moving there beware, the conditions are more violent than in the well-watered East.  Oh, and don’t forger the landslides and avalanches where it is steep, along with fire.  There is lots of steep country.   There is steep country just west of all the people living along the Front Range.  The fires just might burn into town, just like Santa Rosa.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs has seen fire, along with Boulder.  Some day a fire may want to go downtown in a Front Range city. It is also likely a mountain town like Evergreen or Estes Park will burn.  The Mountain Pine Beetle has left a lot of standing dead trees ready to burn.

Why do I seem to be writing about fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other means of destruction? Maybe because I am confronting my own mortality.  I just turned 75.  I know it is surprising because I look so young.

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

 What is now is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge once was the Rocky Flats Plant where triggers for nuclear weapons were manufactured.  The main raw ingredient for the triggers was plutonium, one of the most toxic and radioactive substances known, with a half-life of over 4000 years.  During the forty years the plant operated, there were two major fires in glove boxes where plutonium discs were handled.  In this and other incidents, many pounds of plutonium were released.  The Wikipedia article has an excellent summary and bibliography.   

I was talking to a woman recently about Rocky Flats.  Her father worked there for several years when the plant was in full operation.  He had to deal with a glove box where the plutonium had started to burn.  The gloves were so hot he had to wear other gloves before he could put his hands into the glove box gloves to stop the reaction.  He probably saved some lives.  He died of cancer. 

I became more interested in Rocky Flats after reading Full Body Burden, by Kristin Iverson, an English Professor who grew up in the area.  The book is controversial, disagreeing with the environmental assessments by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Given all I have read, I am skeptical of the official lint that the area is safe, and exposure to the public was and is minimal.  Decide for yourself. 

Iverson writes that a large area of contaminated topsoil was covered with more topsoil and pronounced safe.  Rocky Flats is aptly named, as millions of tons of glacial erosion products have covered the area with gravel.  The surface is called ground armor, mostly rock, as the high winds in the area have blown much of the finer material away.  That continues, and rodents burrowing bring buried soil to the surface where it blows into the Denver Metro area..  

The nearby Standley Lake, a large irrigation reservoir that provides water to Westminster and Broomfield, allows boating and water skiing but bans swimming because the lake bottom is contaminated with plutonium.  Many experts have advocated banning development in the area, but houses are going up. 

I got interested again recently because the NOAA National Weather Radar website is my go-to means of weather monitoring.  The TV weather people are either warning the apocalypse is imminent or it is fine, no rain, just before a major hailstorm.  Over a period of months I noticed a nearly constant radar image indicating precipitation over the NWR.  Day or night, weekends or weekdays, the image is there.  If it really is rain, the refuge would be a major swamp at the base of the Rocky Mountains.   

Many years ago I was a radar repairman in the Army.  One of the radars we maintained put out so much radio frequency energy it would kill birds flying in front.  We had quite a bit of training about ionizing radiation.  Radars emit radiation, so does decaying plutonium.  I could not come up with any explanation for the radar image other than radioactive decay.  This would be  disastrous, as much of the Denver metro area is downwind of Rocky Flats.   

I sent a number of emails to the NWS, TV stations, and the CDPHE.  I guess I stirred things up a bit, because I got a long, thoughtful letter from CDPHE outlining the investigation I generated.  The conclusion reached is that the radar image is from dust coming from a gravel mining and crushing operation just adjacent to the refuge.   Here is the letter:

Begin forwarded message:

From: “Spreng, Carl” <carl.spreng@state.co.us>
Date: July 13, 2016 at 3:56:58 PM MDT
To: levanks@me.com
Cc: Phillip Peterson – CDPHE <phillip.peterson@state.co.us>, Surovchak Scott <Scott.Surovchak@lm.doe.gov>, “Moritz, Vera” <Moritz.Vera@epa.gov>, Lindsay Masters – CDPHE <lindsay.masters@state.co.us>, Darr Bob <Bob.Darr@lm.doe.gov>, Rob Beierle – CDPHE <robert.beierle@state.co.us>, Smith Warren <warren.smith@state.co.us>
Subject: Rocky Flats

William Shanks

Mr. Shanks,

Your message sent to Phill Peterson in our Radiation Control Program was forwarded to me for response. I discussed your observations with a representative of NOAA. NOAA scientists apparently notice a fairly consistent dust cloud in the Rocky Flats area. This is consistent with the adjacent gravel operations — current and historic. You can observe the dust that rises off these operations as you drive by the site.
During remediation, the source areas of radiological risk in the Central Operable Unit (managed by the US Dept. of Energy) were excavated and shipped out of state. The human health risks inside the Central Operable Unit and the remainder of the site (managed as a refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) were assessed following remediation and risks were found to be very low. A final decision for the site declared that any conceivable use would be appropriate in the Refuge area. That decision was based on an enormous amount of data (surface soil, subsurface soil, groundwater, surface water, air). After the remediation was completed, an aerial survey was conducted using a low-flying helicopter with detectors.
Offsite areas in the vicinity of Rocky Flats are also safe for any use. Numerous offsite surveys confirm the conclusion that only a few samples just east of Rocky Flats detected plutonium concentrations above background levels. You can read more information about the sampling on and around Rocky Flats on the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) web page at:  http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/rf/index.htm.
 
Please contact us again if you have more questions.

 

Carl Spreng
P 303.692.3358  |  F 303.759.5355  |  C 303-328-7289
4300 Cherry Creek Drive S, Denver, CO  80246-1530
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Carol Leavenworth <levanks@me.com>
Date: Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 12:39 PM
Subject: Rocky Flats
To: phillip.peterson@state.co.us

 

Sir,
I notice there is a consistent radar image over the Rocky Flats NWR when viewing the NOAA national weather radar website.  I am no physicist, but ionizing radiation is detectable by radar.  Is this the case at Rocky Flats?  Is there a radiation hazard outside the closed zone?  Is there a public health risk for the nearby residential areas?I was a radar repairman in the Army in the 1960’s and remain interested in the field.  There weren’t many RF energy safeguards back then and there were nuclear weapons stored where I was stationed in Germany.
Thanks.
William Shanks
2032 S. Logan St.
Denver CO 80210
303-830-0599

After Cleanup

After Cleanup

I was skeptical, so I drove out there.  I made a couple of circuits around the area, passing through new subdivisions where grading was going on and decided that was not the source.  I then turned off SH 93, the road from Golden to Boulder into what used to be the west gate to the bomb plant.  I went past lots of no trespassing signs to a big gravel mining and crushing operation.  The crusher was producing a significant dust cloud.  There were lots of big gravel trucks, indicating a major operation.    

I left without getting stopped for trespassing and made another lap around the refuge.  The gravel operation is to the southwest of the refuge, and I could see the dust cloud from north of the refuge.  Mystery solved.  it is not ionizing radiation creating the radar image, it is dust.  

There is no radioactive cloud coming off Rocky Flats.  There is, however, still a lot of radioactive and chemical pollution out there.  I suggest you not buy one of the nice new houses being built in the area..  

Dirty Denver

Windstorm

Windstorm

The wind blows here in Denver, and it is not all air.  Those mountains just west of us are wearing down.  Most of the sand and dirt ends up in the rivers, put the wind blows some of the mountains away.  If you park your car outside, you already know this.  The dust covers everything on the car, and you have to wash the damn thing.  Mostly the dust is that tan/brown dirt color, but sometimes it is red when parts of Utah decide to take a visit.

The constant deposition of wind-blown dirt is why ancient cities get buried.  The process is slow, but relentless.  Denver is being buried, but we haul a lot of it away.  Our older house has what seems to be sunken sidewalks.  It is the wind- blown dust combined with organic matter (grass clippings) to form topsoil.

Carol likes to say that a lot of the stuff that accumulates is spider legs.  True, along with the exoskeletons of millions of insects.  In geologic terms the rate of deposition of all that stuff is fairly rapid.

Here on Colorado’s Front Range we get wind, but nothing like the mountain winds, unless you live in Boulder or other places at the foot of the mountains.  The mountains are high enough to get some of the higher altitude winds that the flatlands don’t get much of.  Also, when a weather system blows in, the mountains act as a barrier, forcing all that moving air up.  As it rises, it cools, gets more dense, and descends on the lee side of the mountains. As it falls, it gains velocity and tends to warm up, creating our famous chinook winds.

Loess Soil Windblown Dirt

Loess Soil
Windblown Dirt

As the wind moves on the plains, it’s velocity decreases and some of the dirt it carries falls out.  Close to the mountains, a lot of it is sand.  That explains the sand hills we have close to the mountains.  You can identify the sand because it does not support plant growth as well as soil.  Sandy areas are cow country, no farming.  A little farther east, the dirt falls down.  A lot of dirt falls down, forming loess, a German term for wind-blown dirt deposits.  Eastern Colorado has thousands of square miles of loess.  Without irrigation, it is usually planted in wheat.

Of course, all the water or wind-borne sediment is headed for Mississippi, Lousiana, or the gulf.  Most of that Mississippi mud will end up as shale.  At some point plate tectonics will shove it up as dry land and the cycle starts over.  Most of the sand will eventually end up in the streams, get buried, and form sandstone like the Dakota sandstone dinosaur fossils are found in.  In other places, tremendous deposits of wind blown sand accumulate, eventually forming the sandstone that blankets the Colorado Plateau.

That dirt accumulating in your lawn and garden is part of a recycling process going on all over our planet for millions of years.  The process will continue long after we are all gone, as long as there is air and water on the planet.  To me, the whole thing is a miracle, all these geologic processes creating conditions existing long enough for the evolutionary mistake known as humanity to develop.

Weather

Climate Change

Climate Change

2013 Flood

There is currently a lot of controversy about climate change and whether humankind has a role in the warming trend.  While I think it is true that pouring huge amounts of sequestered carbon is the culprit, I don’t think it matters much for us here in Colorado and much of the west. 

We live in a land of extremes except for the rainy Pacific Northwest, but, they have their earthquakes and volcanos.  Here in Colorado, we dwell in a land of extremes.  The west is dry, it snows in the mountains, the Front Range is kind of a mix, and it is pretty dry in the east.  That varies from year to year.  It varies a lot.   

In the late nineteenth century it was a wet cycle in the eastern prairie, and the railroads made millions enticing settlers to buy their land and get rich farming.  The population in eastern Colorado peaked then and has been declining ever since.  The mountain ski areas have lots of snow some years and almost no snow other years.  The western desert country looks dry and desolate most of the time, but I have seen it bloom in a stunning variety of color.   

Then there are the floods, blizzards, and tornados, often followed by drought.  The one thing we can count on is change.  There are long term trends.  Most archeologists think one reason the ancestral Pueblo Indians left southwestern Colorado was a prolonged drought cycle.  Anyone who tries to raise dry land beans in that country can tell you not much has changed. 

2013 Flood

2013 Flood

Here along the base of the mountains we have the extremes as well. There was the drought of 2002, and the floods of 2013.  The mountains create an unusual weather pattern that stalls along the mountain front, bringing more moisture than the land can handle.  That is when lots of the mountains wash out into the flat country.  It has been going on for more than sixty million years.  The gravel in the Platte River in Nebraska is Rocky Mountain gravel.  Some of the Louisiana mud is Long’s peak mud.   

Some climate models say climate change is going to dry Colorado out, other models say it will be wetter.  My money is on more extreme weather.  Longer, more violent wet periods and long droughts.  Look for more frequent floods, not the thirty or forty year cycle we have had since the first European-American settlers and miners arrived.  Think about the tornados and hailstorms recently.   

I like the extremes.  We have our regular four seasons here but the winters are milder than in Iowa.  It can get hot but there are few days over one hundred degrees, but not like southeastern Utah.  I think that may change, hotter in the summer.  I don’t think the winters will be colder.  I can remember forty below in Boulder when I was flunking out of CU.  Twenty below seems to be more the cold winter norm now.  What I do not like is the hailstorms.  I don’t think the insurance companies like them much either.  Homeowners insurance costs keep rising.  That hail is hard on the garden as well. We had only one tomato plant survive last year. 

One of the big impacts of climate change will be on water supplies.  The amount of precipitation may not change, but if it is warmer, the snowpacks will not last as long in the spring.  That means more spring floods and a shorter runoff period, which will impact water storage.  That could be bad news for the populated Front Range.  People keep coming, but there will not be more water, and a lot of the big spring runoff will go out of the state.  That will be good for the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, but bad for Parker and Highlands ranch. 

I spent a long time in the water business, and it always disturbed me watching all that high quality drinking water being used to attempt to replicate Surrey or Connecticut foliage in the Great American Desert.   All that bluegrass will have to go. The urban forest will have more drought-hardy trees.  Denver Water’s customers have done a good job of conserving since the big drought of 2002, but the bluegrass model of landscaping continues.  In Denver, daily water consumption is about 110 million gallons per day in winter.  I the hot part of summer, it’s over 400 million gallons per day, most of it run out onto the ground. 

At our house, we have significantly reduced the size of our lawn, but we still have a lot of crabgrass.  It should be buffalo grass and blue grama, both native drought-resistant grasses.  They don’t stay green all summer, so we are stalling and paying the water bill.  Marijuana legalization is bringing lots of people to Colorado, and the economy is booming.  Those people use water, and lots of water is used growing the stuff.  One of the unintended consequences of legalizing pot is increased water consumption. 

Myself, I am not too concerned about climate change for myself.  After all I am 73 years old and don’t live on the coast.  Long term change is a reality, but as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long range we are all dead”.

 

Motorcycles

Kawasaki KLR 650

Kawasaki KLR 650

I have owned and ridden three motorcycles.  I like motorcycles. They are as close to flying as one can get on land.  There are challenges, such as trying to stay upright on two wheels. I know people who have never been down on their bikes.  I once fell over right by the front door of the biggest motorcycle accessory shop in Denver.  It trapped my leg and some guy had to lift it off me.  I bet he is still telling that story.

I have crashed on city streets, on a paved canyon road (sand), in parking lots, and an uncountable number of times in the dirt.  Two of my motorcycles were what is now called dual sport; they are able to be used on the street and in the dirt.  They aren’t top notch in either role, but some riders do things most people can’t imagine.  80 mph on the highway, and some challenging back country roads and trails.  Lots of good dual sport roads in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming, where I traveled.

One of the best grew up riding on the streets of Mexico City, where you have to be good to survive.  I could keep up with him on the highway because we had the same bikes.  In the dirt, he could go places with that fairly heavy thing that I didn’t even dream of.  He and quite a few others have done 50 mountain passes in Colorado in 50 hours.  I am good for about six in a day, and hurt for two days. He also did a lot of single track trails, something I never attempted.

I liked road trips with some gravel or dirt roads thrown in.  Forest Service roads were about as gnarly as I wanted. On the asphalt, it was curves in canyons.  Fortunately, Colorado’s Front Range has lots of canyons.  There was a geological event that bumped the long bench from Conifer to its Estes Park.  That bench was once at Denver’s elevation, but got pooched up to where it is now.  We call the road the Peak to Peak Highway.

Golden Gate Canyon

Golden Gate Canyon

Go up any of the canyons from Deer Creek to the Big Thompson, ride those fast sweeping curves a ways, then down another canyon.  My favorite was Golden Gate Canyon, where I tore my posterior cruciate ligament when I hit some sand on the road.

It’s the lean, folks.  Go around a curve on two wheels and you lean.  Go faster, lean more.  Go faster, and crash.  I went fairly slow for a motorcyclist.  I still got some lean, and was able to look at the geology.  A low side crash is when the bike slides out from under you and goes off the road ahead of you.

High Side Crash

High Side Crash

A high side crash is the bad one.  The front wheel starts to slide, then gets traction.  You are flipped off and into the air, while the bike bounces along behind until it lands on you.  Both are bad, but you really do not want to high side.  Some riders get flipped into the guardrail.  Ouch.

My knee wrecking crash was a low side.  My knee was bent, the tibia-fibula stopped on the pavement while the femur went a little farther.  It really hurt.  Hurt bad. I picked the bike up and rode on until I couldn’t stand the pain and called for help.

Aside from the crashes, I loved motorcycling.  Yes, it is dangerous.  Other drivers don’t see you and turn in front of you.  You crash all by yourself.  There is a famous twisty road in North Carolina where a biker went into the bushes. Just in front of him was another motorcycle with the remains of the rider.  He went into the bushes and nobody saw a thing.

Yamaha SR 400

Yamaha SR 400

I always wore all the protective gear.  Those Harley riders who won’t wear a helmet because their balls will protect them are nuts.  Mass delusion, those Harley people.

This spring I got the itch again.  Yamaha makes a single cylinder bike that looks a lot like the classic British thumpers from the 1950s.  It isn’t fast, but sure would be a good canyon bike.  Nah.  Too old and slow myself.  I guess I will stick to four wheeling.

 

Colorado Rain, Ritual

Denver floodRain for a month.  In Colorado!  The climate change deniers must be having second thoughts.  It rains on the unrighteous (Republicans) as well as the righteous (me).  The upside is that we have been finishing up our landscaping project which began with our new garage last summer.  There are just a few loose ends, a little planting, support for the raspberry bushes, and cleaning up after the hailstorm.

Some of our new plants are a bit ragged, but I don’t think we lost anything.  Our neighborhood does not seem to get quite the weather extremes as other areas in the metro area.  We have a lot of leaves down I will rake up if it ever dries out.  I had sense enough to put my pickup in the garage before Thursday’s hailstorm.

Climate change.  It seems like this area will be wetter with more extreme events than in the recent geologic past.  Our front range mountains are good at catching moisture brought in from both gulfs by a low pressure system south of here.  Some call it the Albuquerque Low.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring much rain to California.

This area may become something of an oasis in a growing desert.   What is clear is that we can no longer count on the status quo.  Humanity has to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.  Of course, the earth seems to have self-correcting systems that restore a balance.  It takes a long time however, and may mean the extinction of the species responsible for disrupting things.  Once again the adage is proven true:  “In the long run, we are all dead.”

On a completely different subject, I am I the coffee shop right next to the Denver University campus and today is graduation day.  There were all these people all dressed up at 8:00 in the morning.  The woman across from me at the table flew in from L.A. Last night for her best friends graduation.  These rituals were on the wane for lots of years.  I did not even entertain the idea of add ending my graduation from CSU, but of course it was the sixties.  The only important ritual was passing the doobie.

Preschool

Preschool

Now ritual seems to be returning.  The Masons and the American Legion are dying out, but preschoolers are wearing caps and gowns to graduate.  Ritual brings us together, and we need more.  I don’t know what will replace the obsolete organizations, but something will probably happen.  People need one another, and have to come together to reaffirm that need.  Which reminds me, my 55th High School reunion is in September

A Trip to Hell

Hell Frozen Over

Hell Frozen Over

Tuesday I went to Hell.  The other name for Hell in Denver is Park Meadows Mall.  Nothing Dante imagined can compare to the real thing.  Every year I resolve to do all my shopping early and every year I find myself among the throngs.

I had two goals, go to The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Highlands Ranch (Purgatory) and then on to Hell.  I am experiencing something of a seasonal depression and my new meds haven’t kicked in yet.  When I am depressed I am also irritable, which interferes with rational thinking and civilized driving.  I am able to control one, but not both.

I concentrated on my driving behavior and got lost.  It was snowing, and I couldn’t see the mountains.  I have been to the bookstore down there several times, but not Tuesday.  Consult the map or the GPS?  Who, me?

So I wandered through the suburban desert to where I thought Park Meadows should be.  Behold, I was on the wrong side of C-470.  I was able to find Quebec Street and struggle through the traffic to Park Meadows.  If you have never been there, the streets were laid out by Satan.  There is no rational pattern to the traffic flow, especially when every car in the Metro Area was there.   People were pretty nice to one another in their cars, so the Season’s spirit was operating to some degree.

I got lucky and found a good parking place which turned out to be on the opposite side of

Styx

Styx

my destination.  I had the opportunity of traversing the entire place.  Full of people, packed, glutted, overloaded, crammed, and crowded.  Some shopping, many just getting out of the house.  There were lots of young Marines just out of boot camp.  There were probably G.I.’s as well, but with enough sense to be in civilian clothes.

The general mood was festive and happy.  My experience of Cherry Creek Mall is more negative.  People seem more hurried and unfriendly.  I was able to do my shopping and make my way back to my car.  I took secondary streets home to avoid the traffic.  I was even able to calm down a bit.  Still could not find the Tattered Cover.  Look at the map or consult the GPS?  No.

Next day I was able to finish my shopping on Colorado Boulevard, Denver’s busiest street, but less frantic than Hell.  Will I be able to do my shopping earlier next Christmas?  Probably not, but I will do my best to avoid Hell.

Freezing on Deadman’s Hill

Deadman's Hill Lookout Tower

Deadman’s Hill Lookout Tower

I did a ramble to Deadman’s Hill and some other places. I did survive, but it was not easy.

Deadman’s Hill is west of Redfeather Lakes on a road that ends on the Laramie River road.  This is one of the more remote mountain areas east of the Continental Divide in Colorado.  Redfeather is a resort community northwest of Fort Collins and north of Rustic, in Poudre Canyon.  There are lakes, a store and post office, a restaurant, and many cabins.  There is a year-round population of about 250 people.  It is a bit funky, and nothing like the ski resorts with their upscale condos.

I went to Colorado State in Ft. Collins, lived there for several years, and never got to the area.  I have had Deadman’s Hill on my list, and tried to go over the road last spring.  Alas, the road is closed from December to June.  I was too early, but not too early to see a bear feeding in a meadow just before the closed gate.

I went back last week, the road was open and well graded.  It climbs through a Lodgepole Pine forest to a spur leading up to a fire lookout tower that has a view of most everything from Rocky Mountain National Park to Wyoming and from the plains to the Rawah Wilderness in the Medicine Bow mountains.

From the lookout tower I went down the hill a ways to a long meadow looking right at the Rawahs.  A little creek ran through the meadow and a pair of bull moose would drift out of the timber, feed for a while, and move back into the trees.

Meadow With the Rawah Mountains

Meadow With the Rawah Mountains

I got the tent up just in time for the first rainstorm, and had another storm a couple of hours later.  A pleasant and lovely late afternoon, with the solitude I always seek in the back country.

If it is not raining steadily, I set up my cot outside, with the sleeping bag inside a canvas bedroll along with a wool blanket.  I slept for a short while, got up to pee, got cold and stayed that way for the rest of the night.  I reached outside the bedroll and felt a layer of ice.  It seemed like my feet were as cold as those snowfields on the flanks of the Rawahs, and the rest of me had just come out of the water draining the snowfields.

I tried a few things that helped my body a little, but my feet got colder every time I left the sleeping bag.  Oh, and the sleeping bag zipper jammed.  No sleep, much misery.  At about 4:30 AM I climbed into my pickup and ran the heater to warm up.  Everything in the cab of that truck is lumpy or pokes you if you are trying to sleep.

At 5:30 I threw everything into the bed of the truck and went down the hill to the Laramie River road.  From there I went north to Woods Landing Wyoming, hoping to find coffee and food.  Closed.  On to Mountain Home, Wyoming, nothing there.  I went west to the road from North Park Colorado into Wyoming and south to Walden.

I found coffee, heat, food, and a semblance of civilization.  There were four old guys, retired ranchers from the look of them, sunning themselves on the patio in the 45 degree morning.  I saw some bicycles parked nearby and asked them if the bikes were theirs.  One shook his head, taking me literally at first.  None of them had been on a bicycle in at least 60 years.  You don’t ride bicycles if your headgear is a cowboy hat and your shirts have snaps, not buttons.

The bicycles belonged to some city folk having breakfast and fixing a flat tire.  They were in their 60’s.  Hardy people there, in Jackson County.

From Walden I went back north along the North Platte River into Wyoming.  The Platte and Laramie River valleys are what I think of as mountain ranch country.  Irrigated hayfields and pastures flanked by sagebrush hills rising into the timber.  Everyone waves at you.

Snowy Range

Snowy Range

I then went east over the Medicine Bow Mountains, capped by the Snowy Range.  This is one of my favorite drives.  The mountains are snowy white, jagged, and have lovely lakes at their base.  The white rock is 4 billion year old quartzite, older than anything in Colorado.  Just off the highway on the way to a campground are some stromatolites, or petrified algae, some of the oldest evidence of life on earth.Deadmans Hill 2014 012

I had lunch in Laramie and decided to return to Redfeather and get a cabin for some sleep.  There were no cabins available, so I went to Poudre Canyon, where a cabin was too expensive.  By that time I was so tired I just went home.  A tired, cold trip in some fine country.

Colorado’s Front Range Floods

2013 flood

2013 Flood

Those of us who live along the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains enjoy a unique set of circumstances; a fine climate, mountain views, a mountain playground, and rivers that provide much of our water needs.  There are millions of people living in an urban area that runs from Pueblo to Fort Collins.

Most of the time, the physical setting and the climate combine to make the Front Range a fine place to live.  There is risk, however.  Most of the time we don’t have quite enough water for every need. The people are along the Front Range, and the water is on the western slope.  On occasion, we have way too much water.  We are subject to drought, our own waste of the water we have, and the floods that come out of the mountain canyons.

To understand these problems requires a look at two histories, the Rocky Mountain history for the last 75 million years and human history from 1859.  Around 75 million years ago the Rockies began to form.  As they grew, they also wore down.  The debris from the mountains spread from their base to as far as Nebraska.

The streams were bigger then.  Drive east to Bijou Creek and see the valley that obviously was not formed by the current flow in the creek.  The wind blew.  It still does, leaving eolian sand deposits.  Sand Creek, draining the area east through Stapleton and into Aurora is appropriately named.  You can identify the sand hills – they are grazing land, not good for farming.  That sand and dirt comes from as far as Utah and coats our cars.

 

Today, the Rockies are not eroding as fast as they did during the ice ages, but they are still coming down.  Back in the Precambrian when I took geology, the assumption was that erosion was a steady, gradual process.  Taking the long view, that is so, but on a human time scale, erosion is punctuated by periodic floods.  Some of the floods are from spring runoff from wet winters.  The catastrophic floods pound out of the canyons when storms park themselves over an area and it rains.  And rains.  Sometimes it rains more in a few hours than it does in several normal years.  Sometimes the rain is where the people are, just east of the mountains.

Large amounts of moist monsoonal air from the Gulf of Mexico move north along the Rockies and encounter a cold front coming from the west.  Sometimes the rains are short in a fairly small area.  At other times, as in 2013, the rain comes down over a large area, and it rains for days. To humans, these storms seem like unusual events, but they have been happening for millions of years.  Along with normal erosion, they have filled the Denver Basin with 13,000 feet of debris.  That is a lot of rocks and mud.

 

1864__Cherry-Creek-Flood~p1

1864 Cherry Creek Flood

One of the first recorded monsoonal floods was in 1864, not long after Denver was settled.  Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians told the settlers seeking fortune not to build where Cherry Creek and the South Platte meet.  The town builders built there anyway.  It was a logical town site.  Trails met, grass, trees, and water were available, and the gold-rich mountains just a short distance away.  Much of the new town went downstream.

 

The town was rebuilt in the same place.  Floods came again.  Denver flooded in 1876, 1885, 1894, 1912, 1921, 1933, and 1965.  Pueblo flooded in 1921, the Big Thompson in 1976, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs in 2013, and much of the Front Range from Denver to Fort Collins in 2013.  The link is from the Atlantic Monthly, with dramatic images from the 2013 flooding.

Most vulnerable are towns at the base of the mountains: Manitou Springs, Palmer Lake, Morrison, Golden, Boulder, Lyons, Loveland, and Fort Collins.  Towns along the South Platte, St. Vrain, Cache La Poudre, and Big Thompson rivers are at special risk.

DSCN0960

Jamestown 2014

Will people stop building there?  Rebuilding is underway in every area flooded in 2013.  While researching this piece I traveled to Boulder, Jamestown, Lyons, and the farmland along the St Vrain.   I saw travel trailers parked nest to damaged homes with building permits on the flood-damaged houses.

Some actions do prevent floods.  Denver has Cherry Creek, Bear Creek, and Chatfield dams.  They are flood control dams designed to capture floodwaters.  Let’s hope they are big enough.

The photo above has a lot of rock in the foreground.  The rocks range in size from sand and silt to head size.  They were exposed by the 2013 flood, but were deposited by a previous flood that had enough force to carry that debris and dump it there.  upstream, there are narrow gulches with the lower ends scoured down to bedrock.  That debris went further downstream.

The Rocky Mountains are on the way to the Mississippi river delta in Louisiana.  It will take many millions of years, but they will wear down and become Mississippi mud.  Floods will hasten the process.