Steamboat Springs Last summer's drought touched the lives of virtually everyone who chooses to live in Northwest Colorado in order to satisfy a passion for the outdoors.
The below-average snowpack of last winter cut the kayaking and rafting season short and virtually wiped out the tubing season on the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife appealed to anglers to voluntarily stop fishing for trout in the Yampa River near Steamboat for much of the summer. The fish were in peril because low flows and warm water temperatures were reducing dissolved oxygen to levels that could have, but did not, kill the fish. Bans on campfires went into effect early in the summer. Beginning in early July and continuing into August, wildfires exploded in the Flat Tops and Mount Zirkel Wilderness.
As if drought and wildfire weren't enough, DOW biologists found wild deer in western Routt County that tested positive for chronic wasting disease, a life threatening condition caused by a rogue protein that attacks brain tissue.
The Steamboat Ski Area received more snow in the winter of 2001/2002 than it had the previous winter, but the 287.5 inches of white stuff still fell short of the average of 333 inches. Yet, skiing conditions throughout the winter were better than the year-end snow total might suggest. Small, regularly spaced storms kept the slopes fresh.
Steamboat had respectable monthly snow totals in December 2001, January and February 2002, of 67, 71.5 and 58 inches. But March was a little disappointing at 39 inches. April produced a sketchy 3 inches on the mountain, foreshadowing the deepening drought pattern.
The record winter at Steamboat was 447.75 inches of snow that fell during the winter of 1996-1997. That winter produced 119.75 inches of snow in January alone.
If there was a plus side to the skinny snowfall in the spring of 2002, it was the relatively early date at which the area's mountain biking trails dried up.
Good news for mountain bikers did not translate into good news for kayakers in Northwest Colorado. The town fleet was eagerly watching to see a new standing wave take shape in the carefully constructed "D Hole" on the Yampa River near the Depot Arts Center. The early runoff never allowed a glimpse of what the D Hole's potential was. Ironically, the water feature designed by former Steamboat local Gary Lacey still managed to produce one of the best holes in the region for a kayak rodeo. Paddlers from all over the West were drawn to the Yampa River Festival.
There was another bonus for fly fishermen in June who picked up on a hatch of mayflies known as pale morning duns or simply, PMD's. In many summers, the Yampa is still too high to allow the hatch to be fished effectively.
That was not the case in June 2002, and anglers who were tuned into the hatch fished emerger patterns in the surface film. They enjoyed fishing within the city limits that would rival anything the Rocky Mountains have to offer.
Even as the trout were slurping mayflies, a cloud was building over their future. Low water in June could only spell trouble in July.
The community's commercial tubing operations were the first to react, announcing they would suspend operations as long as the river was extremely low.
Fly fishing guides followed suit and on July 6, DOW imposed a voluntary ban on fishing on the Yampa from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream to the confluence with the Elk River.
With few exceptions, anglers heeded the ban, which was intended to relieve the pressure on the fish that results from being caught and released.
The fishing ban alone wasn't going to be enough to save the trout, as flows on the Yampa at the Fifth Street Bridge began hitting all-time lows for each successive day. Streamflow on the Yampa dipped as low as 12 cubic feet per second on July 18 compared to the historic average of 200 cfs for that date.
Water temperatures were nosing into the low 80s during the late afternoon, a level that is often lethal to trout. Scientists monitoring the river reported dissolved oxygen levels of 4.4 parts per million. DOW biologist Kevin Rogers said at the temperature levels being recorded in the Yampa, fish could begin dying when the dissolved oxygen reached 4 parts per million.
People using the Yampa River Core Trail began to notice a startling phenomenon. Hundreds, even thousands of trout, many of them large browns and rainbows were beginning to stack up where Fish Creek enters the Yampa. The fish were packing into a relatively deep run to take advantage of a colder trickle of water coming form the creek. Colder water is able to suspend more dissolved oxygen and the fish were desperate to take advantage of it.
The Storm Mountain Ranch development voluntarily installed an aerator, similar to the ones it uses on its streams and ponds, in the Yampa at Fish Creek in an effort to help save the trout.
As the plight of the trout worsened, dry lightning strikes kicked off serious forest fires near Big Fish Lake in the Flat Tops, Green Creek in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness south of Rabbit Ears Pass. The Hinman fire north of Seedhouse Road flared up in July and firefighters were close to having it under control by July 19. But lightning-caused fires would continue to plague the National Forest.
There was no sign on Aug. 11 that a smoldering fire from a week-old lightning strike would explode the next day. But that's what happened, and on Aug. 15, a hiking party had to be rescued from the flames by helicopter in the vicinity of Dome Lake.
The Forest Service acted quickly to close some of the most popular trails in Zirkel. Seedhouse Road leading to the Slavonia Trailhead was closed, as were the trails it accessed, including the Gilpin Lake/Gold Creek Lake loop, and the trails to Red Dirt Pass and the Summit of Mount Zirkel beyond.
Late August brought monsoon rains that effectively doused the forest fires and saved the trout in the Yampa.
The DOW lifted the voluntary fishing ban on Aug. 30 as overnight water temperatures dipped to a trout-friendly 61 degrees and streamflows in the early morning rebounded to 60 cfs. The streamflows were aided by downstream coal-fired power plants that made calls for water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir.
Fisheries biologist Kevin Rogers acknowledged he was surprised there weren't significant fish kills on the Yampa by summer's end, and praised the public for complying with the seven-week fishing ban.
Assessing the damage of the fires, Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said hikers in the summer of 2003 would definitely notice the charred landscape in Wolverine Basin. The flames burned close to Wolverine and Ptarmigan lakes. But Pristine Lake and Dome Lake, in higher, rockier terrain, were spared.
Lakes in the area of the Hinman fire remained relatively untouched. Mica Lake did not show signs of burning up to the water's edge. But the trail leading to the lake was burned over.
North Lake, Three Island Lake, Gilpin and Gold Creek lakes were untouched. But the Slavonia Trailhead, where hikers begin hikes to those likes, saw the flames weep through. Some trees at Slavonia burned, others survived.
Some historic mining buildings at Slavonia were charred.
The Hinman fire burned through Diamond Park, claiming dead trees from the old Routt Divide Blowdown. But the fire didn't burn the grasses in the park.
Vogel called the results of the fire "healthy burns" in the sense that they didn't burn so hot that they damaged soil organisms. "There is a great opportunity for regeneration," Vogel concluded.
Chronic wasting disease didn't turn out to be a deterrent to big game hunters in Northwest Colorado. DOW spokesman Tyler Baskfield said the availability of low-cost testing of harvested game animals for CWD, combined with the opportunity for out-of-state hunters to purchase a license good for a bull elk plus a cow elk, kept hunter turnouts high. Final statistics on hunting season won't be available until February 2003, but Baskfield predicted hunter turnout will surpass last year.
As summer slipped into autumn, residents of the Yampa Valley were rewarded with an uncommonly intense display of fall color in the large stands of aspen surrounding Steamboat. There were more tints of orange and red in the aspen leaves than usual, and the leaves persisted longer than in most seasons.
On Oct. 4, Buffalo Pass received a blanket of six to eight inches of snow. It was one of the heaviest snowfalls to visit the valley while the aspen leaves still clung to the branches in more than 20 years.
And it seemed as if nature had begun to heal itself at last.