Friday, July 31, 2009

Night of Fury - birth of a suspense author - Carol Steward

Today is an anniversary that I'll never forget. Thirty-three years ago today, my parents took my little sister and I on our first camping trip. I was 15 years old. It had been one of the best summers ever – the nation's bi-centennial, and August 1 was Colorado's Centennial. We met up with friends from Wyoming on Friday afternoon, and settled on a place to camp, outside another friend's cabin in Rist Canyon – a decision that saved our lives.

Saturday, we hiked to the peak and watched storm clouds roll in. I attended church camp in the Estes Park area every summer, and afternoon showers were normal so I wasn't concerned. We got back to camp and started cooking supper over the campfire, but the rain put the fire out. When they left, the friends who owned the cabin had left us with the keys in case we needed to get inside for anything. We finished supper and went out to our pickup-camper to call it a night. There was a small creek about 10 feet from our camper, and I recalled my dad checking it often, but he never said anything to alarm us girls. I loved the sound of rain on the roof, but this was more intense than I'd heard before. Even after we went to bed, I remember dad going back outside, but I thought he was going out to smoke a cigarette. We were used to thunder and lightning, so even that wasn't enough to keep us awake. But at one point, everyone in the camper awakened. We weren't sure why. My dad, again, went outside with the flashlight, and said the creek was slightly fuller, but we were fine. My mother didn't seem concerned, and served brownies and a glass of milk and went back to sleep. At least my little sister and I did.

The next morning, the parents all decided we'd best get an early start, "to beat the tourists down the canyon." Mom, Dad, and my little sister rode in the pickup, and I rode with our friends from Wyoming for one last visit. As we drove down the canyon, we saw more and more people sitting along the banks on the other side of the river. Bridges were washed-away, and traffic was heavy for a Sunday morning. My friend's dad turned on the radio, but it was almost half an hour before we could get a station to come in. And when it did, we found out how blessed we had been to have chosen the campsite we had. A mere mountain top stood between us and The Big Thompson flood, a once-in-a-lifetime flood which literally washed the canyon, and 145 lives away. (Now 144, as I just learned one of those listed as dead, was found alive in Oklahoma in 2008.)

We realized then why we'd woken during the middle of the night, it was the rumble of house-size boulders crashing down the other side of the mountain. I found out just a few years ago that one of my coworkers was one of the victims stranded on the mountain that deadly night. I'm amazed that even before we knew one another, only 11 miles of rugged mountain peaks stood between us, though we share our memories of that horrible night. Each year, I remember that night. I remember the state patrolman whose son had been my brother's good friend, who lost his life that night trying to warn tourists to get to higher ground. I remember what the canyon had looked like each summer as my parents drove me up to church camp. And I remember the year after the historic flood, after the canyon had been rebuilt. On our way home from church camp, my dad was able to get a friend to give us a police-escort down the canyon the day before it was officially re-opened to the public. The lush willows and pine trees were gone, the scarps where boulders had scraped each other looked as if they'd just happened. Everything beautiful had been stripped away.

As we drove down the barren canyon I realized God's tremendous power to move mountains and change lives. As I stared at where the river-side highway had been, I thought of the campers who'd climbed the canyon walls to safety and I realized we could have been one of the lives lost that night. The canyon is beautiful again, but it will never be the same beauty that I remember as a child. And still, the memories of that night are fresh to all who share that experience.

The Big Thompson Flood, July 31-August 1, 1976

Left, the storm growing from my view a the top of the mountain the afternoon before the flood,

Middle, My dad and little sister packing up the camper the morning after the flood.
Right, the aftermath of the flood in Big Thompson Canyon.


Leann said...

Carol, my husband and I honeymooned in Big Thomason Canyon. We took our baby daughter there a couple of years later. That was before the flood. I remember that weekend when the world was washed away.

Carol Steward said...

I'm so glad you had a chance to see it before, Leann. And very thankful that you weren't there with your daughter that night.

My husband and I spent our honeymoon in Estes, and it's still one of our favorite getaways, since it's just an hour and a half away.

Linda said...

As a kid/young adult, I lived on the farm. One night we had a 9" dump of rain. Lost a friend who tried to wade through deep water over a bridge. My uncle almost got washed away in his pasture--a wall of water came at him and he wrapped himself around a post and hung on for dear life. Another set of friends ended up in the river, as they couldn't see the bridge washed out. Biggest thing I can ever remember. We weren't in any immediate danger, but I can imagine my dad doing what your dad did had we been in danger's way. Water, can't live without it, but it is a powerful force when deluged upon.

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