The flood and the faces that matter

A bike trail near the home of the author.

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

Over the past dozen years, living in Longmont’s Southmoor Park, I’ve gone on lots of walks and bike rides with my kids on the path that runs along Left Hand Creek, which is about two blocks from our house.

The path, especially east of South Pratt Parkway, was a shaded trail that we adored, in no small part due to what we called the “faces in the trees” — mask-like visages of concrete created by artist Jerry Boyle that ranged from haunting females with blank eyes to rotund and jolly Shakespearean characters. The faces were affixed to tree trunks, cemented to boulders along the shore and lying under shallow water. With each walk or ride, we’d try to find any well-hidden characters that we might have previously missed.

So it was with great dismay that, over the past year, we witnessed the dismantling of that stretch of the creek, as the city cut down scores of trees, including many that had the carved faces, clearing and grading the banks of the channel so that it was wider and more open, in the name of flood mitigation.

Sure, we appreciated the new trail underpass that was installed below the bridge at South Pratt Parkway as part of the project, since we no longer had to cross that street, but we lamented the loss of our woodsy stretch of path — and our silent, mysterious faces, frozen in time like portraits on headstones.

After the initial shock of having a favorite haunt stripped bare, we noticed that at least some of the faces had been relocated to other trees, other rocks, at other points along the path. Some consolation, but the whole project felt like a violation.

• • • •

The faces in the trees were the furthest things from my mind when we got the reverse 911 call at mid-day on Sept. 12. I had been monitoring the flood warnings since the night before, and I began to take them a bit more seriously when the 4:45 a.m. call from my kids’ school notified me that classes would be canceled, but I wasn’t overly concerned about the tiny Left Hand Creek rising, considering that it’s usually no more than a two-foot-deep, 15-foot wide stream at this time of year.

I got a bit more concerned when CU closed. When my office closed. When we couldn’t deliver the new edition of Boulder Weekly on time.

And when the phone rang, telling me that we were under a mandatory evacuation, I was numb, not quite believing what I was hearing.

It was something I had considered before, during the wildfires that have ravaged our state over the past several years. What would you take from your house if you had an hour or less to get out?

But I didn’t want to panic, even though my wife was in a state of low-boil crisis. We took the time to move photo albums and other items with sentimental value upstairs, we filled up coolers of water, packed food and clothes for a few days, loaded up the pets and assured our distressed 9-year-old daughter that it was just a precaution to be extra-safe, that we’d be back home soon. And then, trapped in a triangle formed by the two overflowing waterways that had wiped out bridges connecting virtually every north-south route through town, we headed for the house of some friends who lived west of us, in the opposite direction of the clogged eastbound lanes caused by the closure of Highway 119 towards I-25.

Driving away, I wondered whether it would be the last time I’d see all of our belongings in our lower level. The last time I’d see my house intact. But then I remembered that the only things that really mattered were the people in the car. Material things can be replaced. My kids can’t.

• • • •

As it turned out, the water never reached my house, and we returned the next day. I didn’t think about the creekside floodwater “improvements,” the tree-clearing along the banks and the relocation of the faces in the trees, until later.

And then it hit me. As much as we hated that project, it may well have saved our house, and the houses of many neighbors. If those trees had been left intact, they may well have fallen into the floodwaters, creating dams that could have caused the creek to back up and widen, inundating our neighborhood streets and homes.

As sad as it was to lose some of those faces in the trees, I’m much happier that I still have the faces in the house.


This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.


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