For longtimers in the area, talk of a strong El Niño and its possible effects on the weather may have stirred memories of the epic blizzard of October 1997 – also a strong El Niño year.
My wife and I were here at the time, but still lived in the city. Since our move to the country, though, I’ve wondered how we’d fare during such a storm; just keeping a path open from the house to the barn would be quite a chore.
The ’97 storm struck on a Friday – Oct. 24 – and continued to ravage the area throughout Saturday, dumping as much as 3 feet of snow in areas and paralyzing the city. At least four people died in Colorado as a result of the storm, which also decimated livestock; the storm killed an estimated 50,000 cattle on the eastern plains and in southwestern Kansas.
Terry Galbreath raised Highland cattle at his Bonny Burn Ranch near Calhan at the time; the herd of 17 crammed into the loafing shed during the storm.
“There was a drift from west to east that went over the horse barn, completely covering the loafing shed,” he recalled in an email. “It took me three days with the front-end loader to get the cattle dug out and make a path for them to get out to where the snow had been blown away and some ground showed. … When I finally broke through, April, our herd alpha, poked her head out and it was like ‘Storm’s over? Where the grub?'”
Dave Doran, who lives with his wife, Tracy, in the Calhan area, remembers the ’97 storm as “a really, really bad blizzard” – but also acknowledges that they’ve been through so many storms over the years that he had to consult Tracy’s scrapbook to refresh his memory of the October blizzard.
“We’ve had some doozies,” he said. “It’s hard to remember them all.”
The ’97 storm completely transformed the landscape; there was, for example, a 10-foot drift in front of the garage. He and Tracy tried to walk to their wood pile to get fuel for their wood-burning stove, but drifts and the relentless falling snow kept them from their task. “We literally couldn’t even find it,” Dave said.
They didn’t have cattle, but their kids did have chickens and pigs.
“We had secured them a pretty good place to keep them good and warm,” Dave said, but they did have to dig through the snow to make sure the animals weren’t buried. They brought in some younger pigs that stayed in a trunk in the laundry room for the duration of the storm.
Early on, Dave tried to drive to Calhan in his four-wheel drive vehicle to get a few supplies; he made it maybe 2 miles, he said, before the engine compartment became packed with snow and the truck died.
His only option: walk home, even though he was disoriented in the whiteout conditions. Luckily, a neighbor came by and drove him home, “but it took a long time to make those 2 miles.”
A friend who was building a house nearby, meanwhile, was stranded and he, his wife and their children hunkered up with the Dorans. That evening, Dave, worried that his truck was not far enough off the road and would be in the way of snowplows, took off with his friend in his truck to find and move his vehicle.
“It took us 35 minutes to go less than a half-mile,” Dave said. They abandoned their effort, but it was fortuitous that they were out there because they spotted a car with its headlights on in a ditch.
“We no sooner pulled alongside by it that the doors flew open, this lady grabs these two little kids, a little baby and a small toddler. She didn’t say hi, this is my name, I need help, nothing. She just opened the door, threw the kids in the truck and she got in.”
They had been stuck there, the woman told them, for three hours. Disoriented in the storm, she didn’t realize she had driven past her home, which was only a quarter- mile away. Dave and his friend got them home, then crept back to the Dorans’ house.
Dave remembers the skies clearing that Sunday, although it was late Monday before they could go anywhere.
“The kids,” he said, “had a ball sledding once we got out.”
For more in-depth articles about Colorado, check out the OutThere Colorado JOURNAL.
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