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The most thrilling commute in Colorado: How Grizzly Reservoir’s caretakers keep water flowing

Married couple among the army of longtime custodians making sure water from the remote reservoir east of Aspen makes it to thirsty populations in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora

To exit or enter their home at Grizzly Camp, Glenn and Kim Schryver must pass through a 4-mile long tunnel flowing with water on its way to Grizzly Reservoir, shown her on Oct. 9, 2019. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

TWIN LAKES — As the speedometer reaches 45 mph, Glenn Schryver turns off his headlights.

The blackness is absolute in the arrow-straight tunnel a couple thousand feet beneath the Continental Divide. The engine roars, reverberating off the walls only a few inches from the sides of Schryver’s rushing pickup. 

“OK, I’m getting creeped out,” he says, turning the headlights back on as his passengers finally exhale.

Schryver, 61, and his wife, Kim, 59, have what is probably the most thrilling commute in Colorado, driving through the Twin Lakes Tunnel beneath Independence Pass to reach their home on the banks of the remote Grizzly Reservoir. 

Entering the tunnel: Glenn and Kim Shryver reach their home on the shores of Grizzly Reservoir through a 4-mile tunnel built in the 1930s to ferry water from the West Slope to sugarbeet farmers on the Eastern Plains. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun) Click above to turn on sound

 

The tunnel, built in the 1930s about 10 miles up Lincoln Creek Road off the closed-in-winter Colorado 82 south of Aspen, diverts water from the Grizzly in Upper Roaring Fork River Basin to the Arkansas River Basin, where it flows on from Twin Lakes Reservoir to quench the thirsty cities of Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora. The hardy Schryvers, who have been caretakers at Grizzly since April 2008, are among an army of custodians guarding remote mountain reservoirs for the water’s owner, the city of Colorado Springs.

Those caretakers spend lonely winters high in the hills and busy summers making sure the water flows freely. And this past summer was exceptionally busy after massive March avalanches clogged countless ditches, canals and streams high in the mountains. 

“It’s a long winter up here. But after this summer, we’re looking forward to winter,” Kim says. “Be nice to have a little quiet.”

Turning the lights off: “OK, I’m getting creeped out,” says Glenn Schryver after a few seconds of driving without his headlights at 45 mph in the pencil-straight tunnel beneath Independence Pass. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

 

When the landscape shifted

Kim and Glenn Schryver, with their dog, Bella, walk past avalanche debris piled near their home. The Schryver’s are one of the caretaker families that watch over remote reservoirs for the Colorado Springs Utility Company. The Schryvers say they’ve never experienced a winter like 2019 with more than 70 inches of snow and avalanches, including the one that struck just 100 yards from their home. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On March 8, Glenn rose before the sun, as he always does. The window in the bedroom of the century-old cabin he shares with Kim was ajar and everything inside was wet. Odd, he thought, as he peered outside.

“Oh, crap,” he remembers muttering as his eyes adjusted to the dawning.

After monster, back-to-back storms dropped a total of more than 70 inches of exceptionally wet snow, the 13,000-foot peaks above his reservoir had shed their heavy blankets overnight, ripping out entire groves of aspen, lodgepole and spruce and dumping them in the lake. His 15-ton road grader was tossed like a toy and ripped into several pieces spread across the frozen lake. The slides deposited a mangled mass of timber, snow and mud halfway across the ice. Farther down the valley, a canal that funnels water from the Lost Man Tunnel into the reservoir was wedged with shredded trees. The couple had slept through a landscape-shifting event.  

“We didn’t hear a thing. It took about two minutes for the mountains to come down, and it’s taken me six months to pick up all this garbage and trash,” says Glenn, standing above brand-new grates that connect reservoir and tunnel, which he replaced after avalanche debris left the previous versions “twisted up like pretzels.”

The historic avalanche cycle in March 2019 that pummeled Colorado’s high country expanded existing avalanche paths, tearing through old-growth forests and piling debris like tossed toothpicks like this slide path in Brooklyn Gulch. Note the solitary pine tree surrounded by its fallen comrades. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

 

The deluge of avalanche debris trapped Kim and Glenn for nearly three weeks. It took more than two weeks to clear Lincoln Creek Road to Colorado 82, a task that typically takes a few days. They were unable to access the tunnel or even snowmobile out for supplies — not that big of a deal for the two, who can go weeks during winter without seeing another person beyond a rare glimpse of adventurous snowmobilers. 

Winters are lovely but lonely at Grizzly. Once the snow starts, the Schryvers’ compound is accessible only by a long trip on a snow machine or that four-mile tunnel. Several years ago, their teenage son commuted to high school in Buena Vista through the tunnel. (Cole could have snowmobiled down to Aspen for school, since his family’s cabin is in Pitkin County, but the tunnel was a safer option.)

People used to marvel that Cole, now in his 20s, drove through the tunnel to reach school every day. 

“I’d tell them that was the safest four miles of his drive,” says Kim, who once destroyed a rim after her tire blew out in the tunnel. “What was I going to do? You can’t get out of the car in there.” 

Clearing the lake after the avalanches was no simple task. When Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal workers from Ordway finally could reach the reservoir, they joined Glenn on his heavy machinery yanking timber from the ice. As the ice broke up, they would jump on floating bergs to lasso the trees and pull them out with the machines. When the ice was gone, they used paddleboards, maneuvering around trees bobbing in the lake and trying to rope the timber before it floated into the grates at the mouth of the tunnel. 

The stand-up paddleboard lassoing wasn’t too effective, Glenn says.

“The flows were so strong underneath the water that when the trees would pop up, you’d try to paddle over there, and by the time you got there, they were back underwater,” says Glenn, who counted 128 rings on the largest tree he pulled from the reservoir. “So, when flows got really high, everything just got flushed toward the tunnel and we used a backhoe to fish the timber from the grates. What a mess it was.”

“I’d like that job a lot”

The cabins, shops and storage sheds of Grizzly Camp sit near the shore of Grizzly Reservoir. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Schryvers were working in Lamar in the 1990s and early 2000s when they started spending summer vacations camping at the Portal Campground on the banks of Grizzly Reservoir. They would hike through the White River National Forest above the reservoir in the shadows of Truro, Larson, Garfield and Grizzly peaks and explore the long-abandoned prospector homes in the ghost town of Ruby. They got to know the caretaker of Grizzly back then. 

“I thought I’d sure do like that. I’d like that job a lot,” says Glenn, who built his home in Lamar and worked at a cattle-research facility. 

So, every year, he and Kim would send a letter to the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. in Ordway, making sure the company that built Grizzly in the 1930s for water-hungry Eastern Plains sugarbeet farmers knew they were keen on caretaking. 

After a decade of writing letters, the Schryvers moved to Gunnison and had pretty much given up hope for the caretaking gig when Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. called and asked whether they were still interested. The caretaker had died on the job, just as the previous caretaker did.

The Schryvers moved into the cabin a couple weeks after that call. 

They relish both the busy summers and quiet winters. They’ve developed a routine over the years, plumbing the network all summer and spending the winter preparing for the next summer.  

Every spring, Glenn pilots his four-wheeler through the 2-mile, six-and-a-half-foot-wide Lost Man Tunnel that ferries water from the Roaring Fork River to Grizzly, making sure there are no logs or clogs. That tunnel is yet another part of the Independence Pass Transmountain Water Diversion System, built in the 1930s by the sugarbeet farmers around Ordway who needed West Slope water. The system captures water from a 45-square-mile basin and diverts about 48,000 acre-feet from the Upper Roaring Fork to the Front Range cities of Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora that took over the system when the sugarbeet industry collapsed in the 1970s.

Water from the Roaring Fork is directed through the Lost Man Tunnel, where it actually flows up the valley toward Grizzly, without any pumps, thanks to engineers who designed the mountainside canals running downhill into the reservoir.

“Not a single pump in the system. All gravity fed. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?” says Glenn as he checks a water-measurement station on the canal below the Lost Man Tunnel that uses floats and pulleys to mark water levels every two hours on a paper scroll that Kim will eventually transcribe into a computer database. 

When the Schryvers plow the New York Canal road, which follows an underground water-collecting pipe across Lincoln Gulch from the Lost Man Tunnel, Glenn leads in the tracked bulldozer and Kim follows in the loader, scooping snow off the edge of the road. The four-mile road is carved into an exceptionally steep mountain side and traverses several avalanche paths. This year, the drifts were as deep as 30 feet and avalanche debris was piled much higher than the cabs of their machines. 

“It’s a good time to catch up on your prayer life,” Kim says of the process. 

In the winter, things slow down. Glenn clears snow and rebuilds machines. Kim enters the summer’s flow measurements into a database. For fun, they snowmobile. They have satellite television. Glenn paints and makes furniture out of willows that he has cleared from the shoreline. Kim crochets and has a small grow room where she tends seedlings for her summer vegetable garden.

“I try to start all my seeds under lights,” she says. “In February, when you feel about ready to die because there’s so much snow, you can come play in the dirt.”

Caretakers have several duties

A road grader, twisted and smashed by an avalanche, sits alongside a road near Grizzly Camp. The avalanche picked up the machine and deposited on the ice of Grizzly Reservoir. The Schryvers spent all spring and summer clearing massive amounts of avalanche debris from the roads, reservoir and the spider web of canals delivering water into the lake. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Springs owns the majority of the water in Grizzly and Twin Lakes. So, while Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. directly employs the Schryvers, Colorado Springs Utilities is their boss’ boss. Colorado Springs has about 20 caretakers watching over 25 mountain reservoirs that store and send water toward taps. They must be engineers, welders, heavy-equipment operators, mechanics, machinists and lumberjacks as well as possess the sturdy, ready-for-everything demeanor necessary for isolated mountain work. 

“We’ve got this really sizable group of people who have all these awesome skill-sets to survive in the mountain and keep the water flowing,” said Keith Riley, the general manager of water systems for Colorado Springs Utilities. “They have to be able to work on valves and pipes and pumps and do all the welding and mechanical stuff. They are gritty. You really need people who are independent out there.”

The Schryvers, who lived with only their youngest child, Cole, at the reservoir, have a gaggle of grandkids who flock every summer. The city likes to employ families as caretakers. Many of their reservoir guardians are raising kids. 

“Can you imagine being by yourself all winter long in a cabin?” Riley says. 

Kim and Glenn are certainly independent. They each play important roles in making sure their reservoir is well tended and its water protected. As a team, they are formidable. They rely mightily on each other’s support to navigate and weather hard seasons that might intimidate most people. They share tasks in an almost military manner. Maybe that’s what happens when you live in isolation for months on end. They laugh when asked for any marital tips gleaned from so many hustling summers and hushed winters in a mountain cabin.

“You come into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be so great. We’ll be together all day, every day,’” Kim says, “But yeah, we can kind of overdose on each other. That’s when we go do our own things.”

They say the beauty of their place helps carry them through any brief stretches of discontent. 

“There are days you just walk out and it takes your breath away,” says Kim, scratching the ear of Bella, their Australian shepherd. “The day we don’t have that moment where we notice the beauty, that’s the day where we should probably move and pass it on. This is blessed life without a doubt. Huh, Bell?” 

Rising Sun