The exquisite edge of snow and spring runoff in the Colorado Rockies
by Allen Best
It’s edge season in the Rocky Mountains. It can rain or snow on any given day in May. But on the first Friday, when we drove from Denver west on I-70 to Edwards for a business meeting, the Continental Divide sparkled with sunshine dancing off the residual snow of winter. Everywhere it looked like I feel after a good night’s sleep, stretching my way into a new day.
How very different it was in the spring of 1983. I was working in Winter Park that year and living in Granby. Mid-winter had been relatively mild. Then, after the lifts closed in April, the snow came on in earnest. Andy Miller, until recently a reporter for our newspaper, the Winter Park Manifest, had gone to the Arctic Circle with explorer Will Steger. Returning to Fraser late in the month, he reported that he had seen more sunshine in the Arctic than we had seen in the Fraser Valley.
I recall little melting of snow until the second week of June. Then, there were ponds everywhere. A majority of the water in the Colorado River lies in these mountain headwaters, mostly in Colorado, at an elevation of 9,000 to 11,000 feet, or roughly the same band as where ski areas are found.
At Kremmling, where it picks up the Blue, the Colorado River spread widely before thrashing its way down Gore Canyon, which drops more than 300 feet in three miles, the steepest drop of the river’s 1,450-mile journey from Rocky Mountain National Park to its final denouement near Yuma, Arizona, according to a U.S. Geological Survey document I read decades ago. The amount of snow and then runoff took water managers by surprise. The surge of water that summer nearly took out Glen Canyon Dam, just upstream from the Grand Canyon.
This is a very different year. After heavy snows in early winter, March and April were exceptionally mild, even hot. The evidence of heat was all around. The aspen forests on the hillsides above Eagle-Vail, where I used to live, were nearly all leafed out, weeks earlier than I remember. The color of an aspen grove putting on its clothes for summer is sublime. That shade of green upon first leafing is hesitant and delicate, tiptoeing instead of striding, flirtatious rather than a full-on hug. It’s infatuation instead of commitment. In this edge season, aspen groves are the innocence of first love.
We had allocated the afternoon to wandering, but were caught up for awhile in our indecisiveness. We had good cause, including nostalgia, to go in several directions of our earlier lives. “You make a decision,” I told Cathy, but she couldn’t, any more than I could. This indecisiveness can momentarily be maddening, but it’s part of the process, part of the journey. If you know where you’re going, you will only go to where you know. Luckily for me, and perhaps for her, too, Cathy and I dance well when in our vagabond mood. In this way of rambling, unsure of where we want to go, we end up where we want to be.
That proved to be the case on this trip. We drove north with Steamboat vaguely in mind. At McCoy, whimsy led me to leave the paved highway for the graveled River Road. Stopping near Burns, where the great river is joined by Catamount Creek, we watched two stand-up paddle-boarders navigate down the river. At the BLM put-in, two guys were drinking beer at the picnic table, remarking upon the providence of agreeable weather. Three young guys drove up and scrambled down the bridge’s rock rip-rap with their fishing poles.
Dropping my drawers to change from the khaki dress pants of my business meeting into more comfortable blue jeans, I had a sense of being watched. A critter—I think a marmot—was watching me warily from the protection of a plastic discharge tube about 10 feet away. I studied the northern edge of the river, lined by yellow sedges from last year’s growing season and, just a little higher, the red of willows. This is what I had come to see: the mighty Colorado River, not so far from its origins.
Returning to the highway, we followed the route of the explorer John Charles Fremont on one of his four expeditions to the west, topping over a divide to see the broad expanse of Egeria Park.
Egeria Park is a hard place to make a living, hard to get out of your mind once you’ve been bitten. The Yampa River originates here, sandwiched by the Gore Range on the east and the Flat Tops on the west. It’s a place of big ranches, broad meadows, and white-faced cows. From Toponas, I drove a graveled county road through this pastoral heaven, wisps of remnant snow soon appearing along Egeria Creek. I had been on this road once before, 26 years ago, but I wasn’t sure where it would take us. We continued past a few ranch headquarters and then, far up the valley, now getting close to the forested flanks of the Flat Tops, the road veered southwest.
“Shouldn’t we be turning around?” Cathy asked. “It’s 6 o’clock.”
“Just a bit further,” I said, now on a mission.
We stopped just short of a snowbank lingering in the road. Rounded drifts observed the north-facing hillsides. Leaving the car and the road, we picked our way through the gradual slope below the snowbank. The grasses of last year, now brown, were matted down, but between the stalks were glimmers of yellow, marsh marigolds. This is where I had wanted to go, the edge I wanted to see and hear, mountain snow becoming water. I wanted to smell the air at this edge, feel the wet on my feet, maybe even dip my tongue to taste this spring runoff, this edge between winter and summer.
This and a million other places like it are where the river starts, the massive thing we call the Colorado River. Here the land is merely wet underfoot, but below it becomes a rivulet, and then a stream and, below us, Egeria Creek. Egeria Creek flows into the Yampa River, which takes a sharp left at Steamboat Springs before splashing past the yellow canyon walls of Dinosaur National Park for its rendezvous with the Green River. The Green flows through more canyons and hundreds of miles more before joining the Colorado River downstream from Moab in Canyonlands National Park. That’s where this water underfoot was going.
Unless it got diverted to irrigate a hay meadow. Or maybe cool the boilers in a coal plant.
What we didn’t hear was the sound of motorcycles, their mufflers removed, ostensibly in the interest of safety but more truthfully to satisfy the Narcissistic ego’s drive for affirmation of importance. No planes droned overhead, their passengers oblivious to the wonders below, focused instead on getting to a place. True, we had made noise in our journey to find this place. Our existences are compromises.
In a further compromise, we continued up the road, unobstructed except for the lingering partial snowbank, to the divide. From there we could see across three or four river valleys—the Colorado, the Eagle, the Fryingpan and the Roaring Fork—to Sopris, at the west end of the Elk Range. To the north were mountains of the Park Range near the Wyoming border. The water from this divide flowing southward had the more direct route to Canyonlands National Park. The water flowing north into the Yampa had the longer journey.
Then we turned around and returned down the gravel road, past the white-faced cows and their calves, prancing in the hay meadows, and then onto the highway. We were about three hours from the city, a world away.
Post script: After I posted this, Ken Neubecker of Glenwood Springs—who knows far more about rivers than I will ever know—wrote to tell me that Egeria Creek does not flow into the Yampa River, but instead flows into Rock Creek and hence the Colorado River at McCoy.
My mistake was common, a reflection of how much our understanding is directed by highways. Driving north from the Colordo River,, the incline is steep to King Mountain before crossing into Egeria Park. The gradient between Toponas and Yampa is almost imperceptible, especially if you’re driving> Maybe the divide would be readily apparent if walking or riding a bicycle, although I suspect not.
What this does illustrate is that I’m a visitor, not a local to that area. But it also brings up for me an interesting perplexity: I thought I KNEW the geography of that area. I wonder how many things that I fervently believe I KNOW that are in fact not correct.