The Craziest Backpacking Trip Ever

It started around midnight when we heard of flooding in Elk Meadows on my husband’s fire department radio. A couple of hours later he was out the door to help with sandbagging. By 5:30 am we received a phone call that there would be no school because of flooding in the area. Later that afternoon we drove down to the bridge that connects our dirt road to CO Hwy 43, and this is what we saw.

Retreat BridgeIt was Thursday afternoon, September 12, 2013. We had heard on our emergency crank radio that the river was not expected to crest until late Friday night. We knew at that point that the bridge would be gone in the morning. But we never expected the highway to be gone too.

This is what the bridge and Hwy 43 looked like on Friday morning.

The river was still raging, and there were half a dozen propane tanks jammed among the debris. Several were spewing gas, and the whole area smelled like propane. The highway looked like a monster had taken large bites, until it finally ate the whole road in each direction. There was a new waterfall at the sharp turn we call Devil’s Thumb — where the river now ran over the road and dropped off below where the road was gone.

For the next 24 hours my husband was busy helping other residents, especially the old and those dependent on medications. At home, we transferred food to a smaller refrigerator in the garage, and used a small generator borrowed from the fire department to run it a few hours a day — while also charging batteries for the volunteer fire fighters’ radios.

Saturday morning dawned clear and beautiful. I took the dogs for a walk and everything was quiet and strangely normal. Though the highway was gone, our neighborhood was mostly untouched.

A few hours later, we got word that a helicopter would soon arrive to take out 40 people. This created a bit of a panic as people rushed to pack and get to the landing zone. My parents were visiting us from Florida, and they were ready to get out. So they packed up and we took them to catch a Chinook.

ChinookWhile at the landing zone, we talked to neighbors who had too many pets to get them all out. One of them left a cat behind, and another left two golden retrievers in a kennel. We promised to take care of them as we were planning to stay at that point. they were telling us it would be 2-3 months before the road was repaired, and we had plenty of food stashed away.

Later Saturday night, we had a community meeting at the end of our road. The fire fighter in charge told us that evacuations were now mandatory and that everyone should pack tonight and be at the landing zone by 9 am. He said it would be at least one year before the roads were repaired, and anyone staying behind would receive no assistance.

With this information, we began packing. I couldn’t justify keeping the kids out of school for a full year.

Sunday morning dawned and it was thick with low-hanging clouds. Some people did go to the landing zone, but no Chinooks arrived that day. I was able to hike up a mountain and make a cell phone call to a friend in Estes Park. He told me Estes was damaged, but not as bad as we had heard. The news I got from him gave me hope. I went home and re-packed all of our bags with the intention of going to Estes Park to live rather than going to Florida to stay with my parents.

Monday morning was cloudy, but not as bad as Sunday. I took all of our perishable food to a neighbor’s house where there was a large generator and people who were staying would use it as a storage space. By mid-morning the sky was clearing, the house was as ready as we could get it, and our backpacks were packed.

BackpacksWhen we heard choppers in the area, we headed for the landing zone. There were already a lot of people there. Since my husband is a Glen Haven volunteer fire fighter, he wanted to wait until everyone else was out first. So he told us to wait for the last Chinook. While we were waiting we chatted with neighbors and I shuttled some people from the back of our neighborhood up to the landing zone. We brought with us our two dogs, Buddy and Kota, along with the cat and the two golden retrievers that had been left behind.

While we waited, I found two other residents who were willing to take the two retrievers down to Ft. Collins and hand them over to the Red Cross workers. I gave them the owner’s name, address and phone number. We kept the cat with us, and after several hours of waiting and a few bee stings, there were only eight people and a few pets remaining at the landing zone.

It was our turn to fly.

The ride was a bit bumpy, but the kids and I loved it. My daughter said when we landed that it was too short. The dogs, however, were not fond of the ride at all. I had to pick up Kota to get her on the Chinook. Both of them were terribly antsy on board and had to be constantly held and petted to stay somewhat calm.

When we landed, there was water for the dogs, a vet, a medical tent, snacks, water, and a bus to take us across Ft. Collins to Timberline Church. The dogs liked the bus ride much better than the Chinook flight!

Bus rideAt the church there were warm chicken sandwiches and lots of other food, and my daughter also picked out a new stuffed animal. We contacted a local friend who came to pick us up and let us stay in his home for a few days to re-group. Cleaned up and showered, the kids thought it was all a big adventure.

Kids at Perry'sThe next adventure would be finding transportation, working our way back up to Estes Park, and finding a place to live.

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3 Responses to The Craziest Backpacking Trip Ever

  1. Can’t wait to read the next part! Well done Tonya.

  2. westerner54 says:

    Wow. What a story. Your kids are troopers.

  3. Derek Buck says:

    Best of Luck, hope it all works out for you.

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