Rebound advice: ‘Don’t worry about what you don’t have’
In choosing an epicenter for the 2013 flood, a good candidate would be the iconic Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch at the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon.
About 9 a.m. on Friday the 13th of September, 2013, Sylvan Dale’s brother-and-sister co-owners, David and Susan Jessup, watched from the north bank of the raging Big Thompson River as it chewed its way southward, undercutting its bank toward the horse barns that were perched high above the river.
“By that time the river had gotten so big,” Susan Jessup said in August as she gazed across the placid Big Thompson nine years and 11 months after the flood. “Dave and I were watching the land on the other side just fall into the river, just peel off. By the time it was done, over the next couple of days, there was a 20-foot wall from the horse barns down to the river. We put up a big extension ladder to get up there.”
By the time the Jessups were watching the river widen from just a few feet to hundreds, it had already ripped apart the main lodge where they and their staff had spent the previous day moving precious antique furniture from the first floor to the second. In the wee hours of Sept. 13, half the lodge toppled into the Big Thompson, taking most of the oak dining tables and chairs with it.
“Then I looked over and I saw that one of our cabins, which ironically was named Molly Brown, was completely gone,” Susan Jessup said. “I mean, there was no foundation. It was as if it had never existed.”
In all, Sylvan Dale sustained about $7 million in structural damage, although neither of the Jessups talks much about dollar values. Susan Jessup said decisions about whether, and how, to continue operating the ranch were guided by two factors: One was the outpouring of support from friends of Sylvan Dale, and the other was the advice of her father.
“I had thought, ‘How are we going to recover from this?’” She said. “I think my dad’s words were pretty valuable for me. He said, ‘Don’t worry about what you don’t have.’ I think that was the turning point when I was discouraged. His words were the ones that made me push forward and make it work.”
In the flood’s aftermath, Sylvan Dale became a working laboratory for river restoration, as David Jessup joined forces with other landowners to form the Big Thompson River Restoration Coalition and served as the group’s first president. Loveland civil engineer Chris Carlson, who was a prime organizer of the coalition, said the flood’s effects had made the ranch an ideal testing ground.
“They sit at the mouth of a very narrow canyon, with high-velocity water,” Carlson said. “Imagine a jet nozzle, firing water out of the canyon. As it slows down and spreads out, every boulder and rock it was carrying just drops out. Boulders the size of small cars were dropped there. Lots of sediment essentially just filled that part of the valley. Of course, the water damaged every building, every road, destroyed the bridge.”
Working with the new coalition, and having secured grant money to fund it, the Sylvan Dale restoration project became a model for other property owners up and down the Big Thompson.
Shortly after the flood, the group expanded its reach and under a new name — the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition — has become a powerful force for making the Big Thompson, Little Thompson, Buckhorn Creek, the North Fork and every other BT tributary more resilient.
Sylvan Dale also took on a broader role in the flood’s aftermath, with the formation of the nonprofit Heart-J Center for Experiential Learning.
Susan Jessup said the emergence of the two – Heart J and the watershed coalition – was a reflection of how even the most wrenching trauma can bring on happier endings.
“Natural disasters are good for people,” she said. “They bring people together. People come out of the woodwork to help one another. That is the blessing.”
The Heart J Center’s website has plenty of information on its mission as the ranch-based location for outdoor learning, arts, history and conservation. Find out more at www.heartjcenter.org
The Big Thompson Watershed Coalition has dozens of projects completed or underway along the waterways within its operating area. Learn more about the coalition at www.BigThompson.co