Flood update: Buckhorn Canyon

According to Dan Fink, who spent a lonely winter in his mountain home rendered inaccessible for weeks by flood waters last September, happiness is having your neighbors return. Not all, but many of them, came back to their homes.

Sally Roth and Matt Bart returned to their place in the Upper Buckhorn in late March. Richard England and his wife, Karen, who stayed the course, are working to get their 80 acres with a mile or so of river meandering through it, into a condition which they hope will withstand the spring runoff. Following the flood they reached civilization by hiking out over the hill on an old goat trail.

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Hal Braden and his wife, Carrie, are trying to be patient until federal funds make it possible to repair Larimer County Road 27 and allow them a shorter route to town. These days, Upper Buckhorn residents must drive the Rist Canyon Road making the round trip to town an hour at best.

One of Braden’s neighbors, who makes the trip frequently, counted 118 turns on the road that rises to 8,000 feet above sea level. “The scenic route gets old,” Braden said.

In September, 17 inches of rain in two days resulted in flood waters that ravaged roads, bridges and culverts, damaging everything in its path.

None of the hardy folk I talked to considered leaving their mountain homes. Fire did not chase them away and neither could flood.

Fink, who has lived in the hills since 1991, was trapped for two weeks and eventually made his way out by way of a primitive road over Pennock Pass. He spent a couple of months in Boulder ,but found town life didn’t agree with him so returned to the canyon in December. He lives on a hill so his home was spared, but before he could settle in for the winter, he had to deal with frozen plumbing, making it necessary to tear apart the kitchen and bathroom.

He calls the pioneer road scratched out for 11 miles on Larimer County Road 44H from the junction of CR 27 toward Pennock Pass a “FEMA miracle road. It’s narrow and muddy and is only a temporary fix but it provides critical access,” he said.

These days it takes Fink 90 minutes to get to town. A solar- and wind-power consultant and installer, he can often work from home, but needs to do field work on a regular basis. He’ll be relieved to have a shorter commute.

Braden is more than ready for anticipated Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to become available so that work can get started on the portion of CR 27 that connects the Upper and Lower Buckhorn Canyon. According to Braden, Larimer County crews cannot begin the work until the federal funds are assured.

Work will include replacing the washed out culverts, widening the road and making it “more robust,” Braden said. He said engineers use the term “armored” as well, but from experience he knows there’s no such thing as a road guaranteed to survive nature at its most powerful. The plan is to use existing rocks and pieces of the destroyed road to build the new one.

England, whose property is adjacent to the upper end of the devasted stretch of CR 27, Buckhorn Canyon Road, is taking the long view. A stone mason who raises a few cattle, he’s been in the area since 1972, and he’s seen it all. The original house that he and Karen live in was once part of a homestead and was moved to higher ground years ago to avoid flood waters. “It’s not the first time we’ve experienced floods,” England said, explaining that years of drought have made people forget.

He lost 20 acres of pasture as the waters raged through the grassy area in front of his house, leaving gaping holes as wide as 50 feet. For the last six months he’s been reclaiming the land hauling loads of dirt and rocks, one trip at a time with a back hoe and a dump truck. “It looked like an earthquake hit,” he said. He’s resigned to spending three years to complete the job. “If I don’t do anything else, I’m going to get the grass to grow back in this pasture,” he insists.

England, who moved to the canyon at age 22, the year after he graduated from Colorado State University, is originally from Carlsbad, N.M., and said he was looking for a place to get out of the wind. A political science major, he has spent most of his working life as a carpenter and stone mason in the hills and in town.

He worries some about constructing a new asphalt road to replace the old one and points up the hillside to the site of a former dirt road that would be far from the reach of flood waters. While the road could be rebuilt there, it isn’t likely because the abandoned road doesn’t fit the FEMA description of a damaged roadway. “Politics,” England said.

As he strolls down the canyon pointing out the havoc, his love of the place is apparent. He points out the high water line, the long split in the asphalt his wife describes as “the zipper road,” and the series of weird upheavals he has dubbed the “Salvador Dali Memorial Highway.”

“Mine is an awesome place,” he says. “The way I look at it, there’s an opportunity in every disaster. This is my chance to create just what I want. I didn’t know how to do that when I was 22.”

Sally Roth and Matt Bart, who live 12 miles up the canyon from the Englands, are delighted to be home. They are grateful to FEMA for rental assistance during the winter and FEMA funds which will help to repair their property. The damage to their driveway has not been repaired which meant “sledding” their belongings into their home from the hill above them. “Right now we’re just enjoying being home, watching our birds, planting our garden and just generally saying ‘Ahhh,’” Roth said.

The two-mile stretch of road that must be rebuilt is a “forgotten place,” England said. Unlike the road to Estes Park which was repaired in a hurry, nothing has been done yet to make CR 27 passable. People often show up to drive or bike the road, unaware that it is impassable. It is estimated that 1,000 people live in the area impacted by the absence of the road, a number that is perhaps not large enough to draw much attention.

The hope is that construction will begin by July 1 with completion scheduled for Nov. 1, an ambitious date given the task to be undertaken.