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“You’re a River”

by Erin Block
photos by Erin Block

“In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it.”

– Jim Harrison

Fly Fishing Boulder ColoradoThe floods rearranged us. Drainage after drainage across the Front Range. Rains came down just like for Noah in the Sunday School song, and if you were of a religious bent, the prayers went up. But they just kept keeping on, anyways. Concrete buckled, crumbled like stale saltines into soup. Driveways disappeared, gas lines broke, well-water turned to dirt. Roads closed because they weren’t there to be open anymore.

The rain began on September 9, 2013, and settled in like a headcold. Cordwood and Tonka trucks flushed down the canyon like fish in a toilet bowl. A deer carcass clogged a culvert. Birds didn’t sing. All you could hear was water.

We ate through the freezer and pantry and drank through the booze. Rationed supplies like you read about in turn of the century adventure books—where someone always eats someone else, eventually. I tend to over-buy now. Stock up. Because you just never know. Same way as I never let my truck get below half a tank. Perhaps that comes from being raised protestant, always planning for the worst, hoping for the best. Or growing up in a state with long stretches of lonesome.

After a few weeks Gross Dam Road re-opened, winding down to South Boulder Creek and back up the canyon before switchbacking Flagstaff Mountain on its descent into Boulder. It’s a popular section of the creek with anglers, there below the dam, staying open for most of the winter and only a short walk to access. And it has the most beautiful rainbows I’ve ever seen. My commute time doubled, the cabin’s roof started leaking around the chimney, and the driveway needed some fill dirt, but that was the worst of the floods for me. Which is to say, I was lucky.

Parts of the Gross road were still missing, gnawed on the edges by rising water and debris. And gullies washed out at curves and draws, like when you leave the hose running in the driveway and return to a miniaturized alluvial fan, as if for a museum diorama you made off the cuff. It would be impressive if it wasn’t a waste.

I wondered what the fishing would be like when things got back to normal, whatever the new normal might be. Because I know everything that’s come before continues. Memories, people, dreams—in one way or another there’s always a “downstream.” Always a scar if you know where to look. My mother even says there’s dinosaurs in our dust.

It was over a year ago now that Highway 72 re-opened. With smooth pavement, solid yellow lines, ribbon cut by the governor. Yet high-water marks remain on roadside conifers. Grasses clump, wrapped around trunks like the beginning of a basket weaving, waiting for skilled and patient hands. The boat that was twisted in the same way was hauled away some time ago.

Access to the river re-opened too, and while there are lingering concerns about dispersion and construction pollution for populations in drainages farther north, my homewaters seem okay. At least, things look the same. It was a bit like going home after things have changed on the inside—you’ve been divorced, grandpas have died, dogs have died; you’ve been remarried, you’ve lost your faith. Things got rearranged. But the front door’s still there and still opens. And so you walk in, just like you never left.

And the rainbows are still there and still gorgeous.

When I moved into this canyon my neighbor Tom came across the road to give me some Sears coupons. For a snow blower, he said, “you’ll need it.” And as long as he was over, he wanted to know why I didn’t have a husband and warned me about bears that would break into the cabin at even the faintest smell of bacon. Freeze your fat, he said. And get a man.

His old-army-drill-seargent bullshitting aside, the one thing of interest he said was that there used to be trout in the creek that runs between us, on his side of the road. It was a trickle then, mid-July, and I was skeptical. But a few years later when I picked up a fly rod for the first time, I remembered what he said. And wondered.

Late last spring I was walking my dog, taking a hard-right from the dirt road over the creek that was now wider with stretchmarks and scars, and back on to the hardtop, a shadow caught my eye from a pool off to the left. I’ve always kept in mind what Tom said and checked here for trout. It seemed promising yet never showed a thing. But standing there, that shadow turned into a handful of fingerling trout, feeding on a caddisfly hatch at the head of the run. Private Property: No Trespassing signs are posted, so I just look from the road. I’ll never cast a fly to them, but each time I pass I check if they’re still there.

I wonder where they came from, somewhere upstream. From a heritage-population of miner-placed trout, maybe, along this old supply road to Blackhawk and Silver City. Or a privately-owned pond, stocked just for kicks and giggles and grandkids.

In the canyons we were all touched by the floods, “lightly or deeply,” as Jim Harrison writes of water. We were all rearranged. The wildlife and trout, too. And they remind me that though I’d like for rains to stop and creeks to stay in-banks, and for my well-laid plans to work as a corduroy road, slapdash getting me places I think I need to go faster than I know I should, “life herself moves, and you can’t stop it.” All I can do is move along, and dodge debris when needed.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Raised on an Iowa farm and then educated as a classical guitarist, Erin Block now works as librarian by day, writer by night, and a fly fisher and fly tier on her days off. Living in the mountains of Colorado, she and her dog Banjo roam the high country exploring alpine lakes and small streams as well as slog through mudflats and warm water ponds in pursuit of carp and bass along the Front Range. More of Erin's writing can be found at:
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  • mjo

    It was about 4:30a on the day all hell broke loose that my daughter and I realized we were trapped. “Trapped”, I should say — we were home, where you’d want to be when a deal like that goes down, 150 feet or so from the creek, dry and reasonably supplied. The creek sometimes hits 250 cfs on the gage 10 miles and two tributaries east, but that morning carved away the dam by 8:30, turned the five-acre pond into a wide spot on wild, muddy river, and carried my browns and ‘bows and some hugh jass creek chubs down to Berthoud or Ogallala or New Orleans. By the time we reluctantly got on a Chinook two days later (evac’ing with a couple fly rods strapped to my backpack), the creek was more like 75 feet from the house, and I was pretty sure our ride was one way. Ten days later I made the first foray back in, dropping into the drainage above the house and walking the creek down. Midges were coming off and water striders were skittering around in the pools, signs that not everything was blasted out on to the prairie. But we were. Water is powerful stuff. It has shaped my life, slowly and steadily, in hard to see increments most of the time, though not that time.

    • Erin Block

      mjo – Powerful stuff indeed. Seeing a flood like this….awesome in the true sense of the word.

  • Jim Jenkins

    “Roads closed because they weren’t there to be open anymore.” Wow! What a wonderful and powerful turn of phrase. Always enjoy your writing Ms. Block.

    • Erin Block

      Thank you very much, Jim! I appreciate it.

  • kindle

    This blog is very informative.

  • Jason Rolfe

    I visited my dad in Loveland last month and we drove up the Big Thompson canyon–almost unrecognizable from the river I remember fishing a few years ago. And yet, you’re right, it’s still the Big Thompson, just with scoured rocks and fewer willows along the banks.

  • Flatlander

    As someone who has come along after the fact, I can’t imagine what the flood must have been like. I’ve driven the Boulder to Nederland route a few times and seen evidence, but the good news is that stretch of road is, to me, one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. I’ve also been up the road in Lefthand canyon. Very heavy damage in that region.