On a sunny day, July 31, 1976, my friend and I were headed up the Big Thompson Canyon, as we continued our cross-country bicycle trek, from Connecticut to California. There were many people picnicing and sitting along the river, enjoying a 3-day weekend to celebrate Colorado's 100 year statehood. We stopped and spoke with many, and even shared some of our sandwich with a squirrel.
We arrived at the H-Bar-G Ranch in Estes Park and checked in to the AYH (American Youth Hostel), and stowed our gear in a cabin that we'd be sharing with 2 German fellows. Clouds were beginning to build over the mountains as we headed to the mess hall to cook our dinner, and we met our bunkmates there doing the same. We stumbled through our language barriers and after dinner, started playing Foosball against them. (more like them scoring, us wondering "what just happened?") The rain had begun and soon it was coming down hard enough that visibility was only about 30 ft. We hoped for a break in the downpour to hike up to our cabin.
The break never came, and we were pretty wet by the time we got there. Lying on our bunks, listening to the thundering rain on the roof, we could hear a different sound - a sort of hissing noise like tires on wet pavement. Dark now, we grabbed a flashlight and opened the cabin door on the uphill side. Our beam of light revealed a small stream, 2-3' wide, that was flowing under the building. Running to the other door, downhill side, we saw the stream continue on in the darkness.
We readied our gear, not knowing if the cabin would get knocked off it's foundation as the rain intensified and the stream grew deeper and wider. Sometime after midnight, the rain began to subside, and we relaxed enough to fall asleep.
The sun was out when we awoke and we looked down hill at the stream that began just past our cabin. The erosion started out about 3 feet deep and the short distance to the mess hall, it had become a gorge, big enough to fit a delivery truck into. The main lodge had been flooded pretty badly, and we helped the owner shovel 12" of mud out of the rooms.
Later that day, we learned that a whopping 12" of rain had fallen in about 4 hours, and sent a 20' flood wave down the Big Thompson Canyon, sweeping buildings, cars, and 143 people away. USGS estimated the wave was moving 50 miles per hour, and it's sound must have been terrifying.
We continued on our journey a few days later and completed our trek, but I'm haunted by the memories of the people we met in the canyon that were swept away. It was a humbling experience for a young man.
- Don Gabler (Los Osos, California)