Hiking in to a stranded town
By Rick Wilking
My rule in covering natural disasters has always been: Find the worst damage first. That’s what the reporters will be writing about and it’s what people want to see. It also may be the hardest to get to.
Such was the case in the Colorado floods of 2013 that started on September 11.
Word came in early that the Boulder County town of Jamestown was devastated and cut off from all road traffic. Three creeks converged right in the middle of downtown, sweeping away whole houses. A man killed in a house collapsed by the flood waters was the first reported death in the tragedy. But there was also (supposedly) no way to get to the town short of going in on a helicopter. National Guard CH-47 Chinooks were ferrying people out so the logical thing was to try and get on one of those. That ride was denied immediately so I decided I would take another route, coming in the “backdoor” as it were.
Jamestown isn’t that far from where I live, normally taking about an hour. But with road closures it took almost two and a half hours just to hit another road block six miles from the town. I was fully prepared for this, having planned on hiking in all along.
Before I left I put the topographic map for the area in my hiking GPS so I knew I wouldn’t get lost. I am used to hiking vertical terrain for miles this time of year, bow hunting elk in the high country, so I was hopeful I could physically handle it. But Jamestown is in the bottom of a valley (hence the converging creeks) so while the hike in would be a traverse downhill, the hike out would be over 1,500 vertical feet.
Despite that, my biggest fears were keeping my gear dry in the still-pouring rain and the very real possibility that even by hiking I wouldn’t get in – police have a way of stopping us right at the last minute.
So, off I went downhill all the way. The terrain was slick, steep and muddy. I ran into new creeks coming down hills that normally wouldn’t be there at all and my heart sank when I came to a mudslide with flood waters still cutting a 100 foot deep and wide trench in the mountain, far too hard (and dangerous) to climb down into and back out again. But, then I saw where it stopped and hiked down. I soon realized I was standing on 20 feet of mud crossing the access road to the town. Hiking over that wasn’t hard and then I was there. A road crew worker on the other side spotted me and said I wouldn’t believe what I was about to see.
Then I met several Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) workers who were really curious: “how did you get HERE?” The town was as described with the most striking thing a house with one outside wall torn off. Looking from the outside in it appeared like a doll house, with bar stools still sitting at the bar, a sofa and a piano all intact somehow suspended above a floor that had fallen away.
There were a few holdouts hanging around with the rescue team so I had some people to get in the images.
There was no sign of law enforcement anywhere to “bust me” and throw me out as is usually the case in an evacuated area. So, I had the place to myself competition wise, but had to work fast because I sure didn’t want to be making that hike out in the dark. I got what I needed, said goodbye to the town dog and started hiking. By the time I got to the giant mudslide, road crews were trying to chew it open with heavy equipment. Just as I had resigned myself to an agonizing climb out, a RMRG Jeep came wheeling in trying to get to their workers in the town. When they realized that wasn’t happening, and after another question of “how did YOU get here?” they agreed to give me a ride back up through their own authorized access.
I got to the town of Nederland nearby that still had cellphone coverage and started sending out my exclusive pictures. Soon after the local press started calling and texting me – “how did you get in there, you blank blank blank!”
It was the next day before the Denver Post arrived down there (after a friendly briefing from me on how to do it) and no television got in for another two days after that. So, it was worth it on many levels. Showing the world the place they had heard so much about for the first time was most important, telling the story of the flood through this one little place. But I can’t lie, getting an exclusive, at least for a day was pretty sweet too!