Lake Fork of the Gunnison River hit by August storm’s powerful reach

Visitors to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison below Red Bridge were greeted this weekend by several new signs warning motorists of road conditions in the narrow canyon following the AUg. 19 storm. There’s never much room along the road, which once was the track for the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad’s narrow gauge spur to Lake City.

Matt Julfeth wasn’t having much luck Sunday fishing the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

Maybe his fortune was affected by the bright mid-day sun blazing in a cobalt-blue sky or maybe it was the unseasonably warm temperatures.

Or maybe it was the massive landslide that a month ago temporarily halted the river.

“The last time we were here, we caught some real nice fish,” said Julfeth, who was fishing just downstream of Red Bridge and a couple of hundred yards up from his father, Dave.

Julfeth said he had just arrived at the river after driving over Blue Mesa and saw the signs newly erected by the National Park Service warning motorists of the disturbed road ahead.

But that was all he had heard of the landslides following an Aug. 19 deluge.

“We’ll have to go down there and check it out,” Julfeth said. “Do you think it’s safe to drive down the canyon?”

Aug. 19 was a singular weather day for parts of western Colorado.

What some Hotchkiss residents consider a “mini-tornado” ripped through that town on Aug. 19, knocking down trees and fences and damaging several buildings.

That same day, apparently part of the same storm system sent walls of water down the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Landslides from side tributaries created new rapids while changing several rapids and left campsites and stream banks covered in mud.

While that part of the storm received plenty of ink, another cell of the storm blasted the Lake Fork, resulting in landslides blocking the river for a short time and covering the former railroad bed, temporarily leaving some anglers downstream stranded by the slumping landscape.

That storm wasn’t noticed by most people for several days because, unlike the Black Canyon, the Lake Fork is isolated and attracts mostly a local audience of anglers.

But Dean Humphrey, a Daily Sentinel photographer, was down there camping with his family and he brought out word of the storm’s punch.

Two weeks after the Lake Fork storm, the Park Service had cleared most of the road, pushing the debris into the river where possible.

In one spot, the slide was so extensive the Park Service merely smoothed the top of the debris and carved out a two-track road so cars can drive the 5 miles from Red Bridge to the end of the road.

Talking with meteorologist Jim Pringle of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, it was noted that the storms were along a cold front moving through southeastern Utah and western Colorado.

“The most intense storms were occurring right along that frontal boundary,” said Pringle, who is compiling reports of the day’s events. “You could just about draw a line from southwest Grand County (Utah) on up to Lake City and the Hotchkiss area and those were the only areas affected.”

The damage to the Lake Fork canyon was limited to about 1 mile starting a half-mile below Red Bridge. Above and below that, there are no signs of anything out of the ordinary.

Similar reports came from Hotchkiss, the Black Canyon and parts of Canyonlands National Park: the storm’s major impact was limited to a relatively narrow strip.

One reason there weren’t more reports of damage simply is because there isn’t anyone there to make the reports, Pringle said.

“Most of the time, we don’t hear any reports because most of the area we are responsible for is uninhabited,” he said.

As for the fishing, Carmen Julfeth, who spent her day along the river reading Gore Vidal’s tome “Lincoln: An Empire,” might have had the answer.

“Last year when we were here, there was a man upstream of us panning for gold,” she said with a laugh. “Matt and Dave caught a lot of fish that day and they thought maybe the man was disturbing the streambed enough to make the fish feed.

“Next time, I may bring a shovel and try my hand at panning for gold.”


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