Damage on Lulu Creek, after a section of the Grand Ditch blew out in 2003, sending a huge mass of debris down the mountainside. © John Trotter
The Grand Ditch © John Trotter
Well, to the handful of you out there in internet land who are following this trip, I apologize for not posting anything here over the past couple of days. It’s not because nothing has been going on. Quite the contrary. I’ve just been working too hard and haven’t had enough time to sit down with my laptop, then sling said laptop over my back and pedal the ten miles down to the Blue Water Bakery Cafe here in Grand Lake, Colorado to hook up to their free wireless and eat a sandwich for dinner.
I came to Grand Lake with all my photo and video gear today to gather some images of this place, which is utterly dependent on the tourism that Colorado River water makes possible by filling Grand Lake itself. But today has been wet and I’ve twice now been soaked to the skin out there, so I’ve decided to catch up on the last couple of days here on the Blue Water’s own PC. If you’re a Jimmy Buffett kind of person, then the Blue Water is your kind of place.
I have much to report and not much time with which to work. First off, I’ve been meaning to comment on the word ‘Grand’ that I’ve been tossing about. This part of the Colorado River was actually called the Grand River until 1921, when Edward T. Taylor, a congressman from the state of Colorado, was able to get the name ‘Grand’ changed to ‘Colorado’ as a way of locating the headwaters of the West’s most notable river in his home state. I knew that when I came here and persisted, even though I have long felt, as many others have, that the river’s headwaters could more accurately be located at the beginning of the Green River in Wyoming. I may yet go there. But enough of that. I’m here in Colorado and the headwaters I’ve been photographing around definitely flow down into the river I’ve spent a lot of time these past few years exploring.
What else has been going on? Well, I should tell you that yesterday I got busted by a couple of horse-mounted National Park Service rangers. Perhaps the word “busted” carries connotations of devious criminal behavior, which I’m not going to cop to. But to clarify what happened, I have to go back to my previous day, spent with Covey Potter, a graduate student at Colorado State University. We’d met up at the campground and he’d agreed to take me out along the Colorado River, where he was sinking some monitoring wells (basically 1.5″ pvc pipes with simple electronics inside) as part of a project to restore an area near the defunct mining town of Lulu City, which was decimated when a section of the Grand Ditch (that word ‘Grand’ again… it actually was originally called the Grand River Ditch), high above on a mountainside, blew out in 2003. Covey says that roughly 9,000 dumptruck loads of debris came rushing down the hill, wiping out about 20,000 trees along the way. The Grand Ditch is considered the very first diversion of Colorado River waters, as it captures mountain runoff along its 8-mile length before it even reaches the river, sending it across the Continental Divide and down to agriculture on the drier eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a perfect example of the importance of the seniority of water rights in the West, as the ditch began delivering that water in 1890, 25 years before the founding of Rocky Mountain National Park itself.
Nevertheless, the National Park Service decided to sue the Water Supply and Service Company, which owns the ditch, for damages and won a $9 million settlement for restoration. Covey showed me the affected area a couple of days ago and I would have attached photos I took of Lulu Creek tumbling its way over the six-year-old mountain of boulders and assorted debris, but as I said, I’m not on my own laptop. Maybe later. Suffice it to say that he and his cohorts have a huge job on their hands and though he described a rough plan of action to me, I have no idea how they’re going to accomplish it. I’ll be very interested to see how it all goes.
During our day hiking around in the wilderness, Covey encouraged me to go up and see the Grand Ditch for myself and meet the two men whose job it is to make sure that water flows along it without interruption. Covey, quite the mountain biker himself, seemed duly impressed that I’d ridden my way up here with all my gear from Denver and felt that the best way for me to go up to the ditch was to push my bike up a steep, extremely rocky two-mile road. Once I reached the ditch, he said, I’d have a very level, regularly graded road to ride, which was the road that the ditch guys themselves cruised along in their pickups during their inspections. He felt that I’d enjoy meeting the guys and that I’d be able to see a lot of the ditch by bicycle on the way.
We’re just about back to the horse mounted rangers, I promise…
The next morning, Covey went out to check his wells and I set off for the ditch. He gave me instructions to get to the ditch road, which went through the Holzwarth Historic Site, a defunct dude ranch. At the entrance to the site I was met by an elderly NPS volunteer, who pointed out the sign, forbidding bicycles along the trail (actually a wide, flat path). I asked him what harm would be done if I walked the bike along the trail and he just shook his head and told me that it wasn’t allowed and it was not his to question why. I told him that a Park Service employee had told me I could take it through there (Covey is partially employed by the Park Service in his research) and went ahead. The encounter left me with a funny feeling, unexpected as it was, though I had no problems besides some rain all the way up to the ditch camp.
When I got there, I saw a sign on the door that the guys were gone, working “down ditch.” I pulled out the video camera and made a minute of footage of a ragged little American flag flapping in the wind next to the ditch, then turned the camera on the ditch itself, as it flowed down toward the other side of the Divide. That’s when I saw the two rangers on their horses, riding in my direction. I even filmed them for 15 or 20 seconds, then stopped to change lenses on my Mamiya to photograph their arrival. I’d just got the camera ready when they rode up, but could immediately tell from their faces that they were in no mood to be amiable. They were a man and a woman.
“Is that your bicycle?” asked the man.
When I said it was, he asked how I’d arrived with it here, so I told him. “I don’t believe you!” he said and climbed off his horse.
I knew I was in trouble then. He explained to me that the roads I’d been on were considered trails by the park and that since bicycles were not allowed on trails, I was in violation of the law. I told him that I’d been encouraged by a researcher to come up there in that way and he angrily told me, “He has no authority to tell you that!”
And alas, my time here at the cafe is up and I have to go without finishing the story. But isn’t that how Dickens himself used to do it when his novels were being serialized in the newspapers? Well, I’m no Dickens, but I promise to give you the conclusion to the story when I next have an opportunity to write, which might be a couple of days from now. Tomorrow morning I have to ride over Trail Ridge Road (the second highest paved road in the lower 48 states) to the other side of the park and then down to Denver. I’ve got to get back to New York, as I’ve only been there four days since the end of May.
Thanks for reading and I hope I haven’t rambled too much for you.