The canyon that cradles the Big Thompson River in the mountains of Colorado offers the traveler such sensory delights that it’s not easy to forget. I’ve made the memorable journey between Estes Park and Loveland many times— sometimes stopping and getting out of the car to enjoy the music of the water and to dip my feet in the refreshing but painful chill of the snow-born stream. Surrounded by high rock walls and lined with willows and alders, the Big Thompson makes its way for about 15 miles rapidly downhill from Estes Park. It flows through a multitude of twists and turns over and around boulders that have been rounded smooth by centuries of hydraulic sculpting.
The size and abundance of these rocks, however, reveal a fearful truth about this normally confined river. Whenever longtime residents of this narrow canyon hear the drumming of distant thunder, a guttensing reflex reminds them that the Big Thompson Canyon is one of Colorado’s most likely spots for a destructive flash flood.
The most deadly of the canyon’s floods happened on July 31, 1976, when a rare combination of weather factors created a towering stationary thunderstorm that dropped 8 inches of rain in just 1 hour. Because of the narrowness of the canyon and the steepness of its rocky sides, the overabundance of water had nowhere to go but into the shallow river channel. The huge wall of water that resulted moved so fast that many in its path had no time to scramble to safety. One hundred and forty people died in the rampaging waters.
Whether in their calm or chaotic state, the properties and power of water fill us with respect and awe for something as gentle as a summer morning mist, as hard and cold as ice, or as irresistible as a pounding surf. In the many faces of water we see a reflection not only of our own existence but of something far bigger than life itself.