August 15, 2008
ASPEN ” Like many people in the U.S., Kim and Glenn Schryver have a garage door opener clipped to the visor of their vehicle. But their garage door doesn’t open into a garage. Instead, it reveals a round, dark, dripping ” and sometimes foggy ” 4-mile tunnel.
Since April, the Schryvers have lived at Grizzly Reservoir, TK miles up the Lincoln Creek drainage east of Aspen, and the tunnel, buried under Independence Pass, runs from their home to Twin Lakes. For much of the year, that tunnel is their only physical connection with the outside world. Lincoln Creek Rd., which connects to Hwy. 82, isn’t plowed in the winter, and nor is Hwy. 82, for that matter, past the winter gates outside Aspen.
Because of their curious transportation situation, the Schryvers’ son, Cole, 13, is probably the only Pitkin County resident who attends school in Buena Vista. Every day during the school year, Kim or Glenn drives Cole through the private tunnel to the small town of Granite, where he catches the bus to Buena Vista. Friends who want to visit must be ferried through the tunnel, Hobbit-like, by one of the Schryvers.
Tunnel No. 1 was built between 1930 and 1936 to divert water from the Roaring Fork watershed to the Front Range. According to Glenn, crews worked from both sides, using dynamite to carve out the tunnel from the rock, until they met.
Now the tunnel is owned by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, which employs the Schryvers to monitor water levels at Grizzly Reservoir and divert water through the tunnel. Only 5 percent of the water is still sent to Ordway, where farmers originally schemed to build the tunnel, says Glenn. The rest of the water goes to Aurora, Pueblo and Pueblo West, with the lion’s share heading to Colorado Springs.
For six weeks in the spring, water is sent through the tunnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rest of the year, the Schryvers can turn off the water and drive through the almost perfectly round tunnel, which, at 9.5 feet in diameter, just barely fits a car.
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They know this from experience. After their first two weeks at Grizzly, Kim was driving the couple’s larger truck through the tunnel when a tire blew out. Echoing in the tunnel, the noise of the tire popping was so loud Kim thought someone had been shot, she said. Though she soon realized it was just a blown tire, she was then faced with another problem: The large truck fit so tightly into the tunnel that Kim had no room to get out and change the tire. So she did what she had always been instructed not to do, driving out on the flat tire.
The Schryvers now drive only a smaller pick-up in the tunnel, which allows enough space on either side so they can squeeze out of the truck in an emergency.
Because the tunnel is straight and narrow, it isn’t necessary to hold onto the steering wheel while driving through it. As on a Disneyland ride, the car steers itself. Inside, the tunnel is perfectly dark, save for a small pinprick of light at the other end. Summer or winter, the temperature is always about 45 degrees, said Kim.
During a 15-minute trip through the tunnel with Kim, she revealed that if Glenn were driving, he might turn off the headlights suddenly to scare first-time tunnel travelers riding alongside him. And sometimes, she said, he pretends the tunnel is about to flood. In several places where the original engineers didn’t want water pressure to build, spring water streams from the ceiling. Upon encountering the seeps, Glenn has been known to shout, “Oh, no, they told me this could happen!”
Generally, the Schryvers try to turn off the water an hour and a half before they drive through the tunnel, so that most of it can drain out. But, Kim noted, in an emergency, they could probably drive through the water. The former caretakers, Louise and Norm Barker, did so once, when Norm was having a heart attack.
Kim said driving through the tunnel still makes her a little nervous some days, even though she knows it is inspected yearly. But she admitted that it’s near-impossible to hit anything while driving through the tunnel. “It’s probably the safest 4 miles we drive,” she said.
Wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt with “Peace, love and Aspen” printed on it, Kim offered a recent visitor strawberry-rhubarb pie and a thousand stories about the couple’s first few months on the property. Glenn, meanwhile, was hard at work building a fence around the propane tank to keep it from being knocked off its concrete pad by avalanches.
Kim and Glenn first met the Barkers roughly 10 years ago, when they brought their five children to camp along Lincoln Creek and ride motorbikes up to Grizzly Reservoir.
Determined to someday have Norm’s job, Glenn sent in a resume to make sure he was in line for consideration.
For the next decade, the Schryvers continued to visit the reservoir in the summer, and Glenn continued to update his resume with the water company every few years. But the Barkers ” who ended up staying 19 years ” were not ready to retire.
Meanwhile, the Schryvers raised their children in Lamar and, later, in Gunnison. Glenn worked in cattle research for 25 years, and then went on to manage property and construction projects. Kim held jobs with the school district.
Suddenly this January, the couple received an e-mail that Norm had died of a heart attack ” and asking if they were still interested in the Grizzly Reservoir job. They jumped at the chance, and by April 4, they were slowly moving their belongings through Tunnel No. 1. Louise Barker stayed on the property for nearly four months (there are two houses) to help teach the Schryvers what she knew.
According to Kim, taking the job this year was particularly nerve-wracking because of the unusually high runoff. Water nearly flooded the control building, and the Schryvers were almost to the point of opening the dam gate. Two cool days slowed the melt and saved them from having to suddenly send a lot of water downstream, she said.
The emergency plan for such a high-water year involves contacting everyone from downstream neighbor Kevin Costner to local authorities. But the Schryvers were really glad they didn’t have to put it into action. “If we would have somehow flooded Aspen … ” Kim said, trailing off. “We were so thankful Mother Nature did her share to make us look good.”
The Schryvers may be isolated, but Kim pointed out that they’re “not suffering.”
Two big generators run electricity to both houses, each of which has modern amenities like washers, dryers and dishwashers.
Kim said the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company is warming to the idea of changing over to solar power, technology that she’s excited about. While noting that the sound of the generators can be comforting in the winter, she said she’d love to know what the valley sounds like without them.
A radio phone keeps the Schryvers connected with the outside world; when they had problems with it this winter, Qwest employees arrived by helicopter to fix it. A satellite phone acts as backup.
The technology has improved a lot from when the first caretakers were at the reservoir, said Glenn. The first phone line came over Green Mountain and didn’t work at all in the winter. Later, microwave technology worked better but kept getting knocked out by avalanches.
Today, a satellite dish provides television and Internet access, though, Kim said, she had to coax the installer through the tunnel. When she met him in Twin Lakes, he was a little surprised to find he would have to drive his truck through a 4-mile private tunnel he hadn’t even known existed in order to set up the satellite dish.
In the summer, the popular Grizzly Reservoir campground ” the nearest neighbor ” brings numerous campers. Helpfully, Kim maintains the campground for the Forest Service, sweeping out the bathrooms and restocking the toilet paper. Campers stop by to ask for favors ranging from help blowing up their air mattress to 911 calls for broken arms.
And the Schryvers said they’re hardly running out of things to do or places to explore. They’ve made good use of their fishing licenses this year, and Glenn recently hiked to the top of the ridge across from their house to see what was up there. Cole said he’s ridden his motorbike as far as he can in nearly every direction.
A visitor who used to herd sheep in the valley recently told them there are 33 lakes in the basin. “One by one, maybe we’ll hike and find them,” said Kim.
In the winter, the campers at Grizzly Reservoir will leave, and the Schryvers will be left to themselves, with only snowplowing, snow-measuring and equipment maintenance to accomplish.
But they said they’re not worried about the isolation. After 28 years of marriage, they’re still finding it novel to work together every day. Kim laughed as she said she hadn’t realized how bossy Glenn can be.
Still, Kim admitted to being a little nervous about avalanches. Louise had told them that one year an avalanche moved her house 6 feet off the foundation. And a couple of years ago, an avalanche closed the road between the tunnel and Twin Lakes, trapping the Barkers for two weeks. This winter, an avalanche had dropped 17 feet of snow on the driveway. The Schryvers spent the spring cleaning trees out of their front yard.
But so far, the two said, this life is turning out to be all they had dreamed it would be.
“I just feel blessed,” said Kim.
They still remember how much they wanted the job, and they offer encouragement to anyone who wants to be next ” but warn people not to plan on it anytime soon. Kim points out that nearly everyone who has taken the job has done it for at least 20 years.
“We plan on dying up here,” she said, smiling.