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.