Mother Nature has produced some icy treats on the Roaring Fork River this winter |

Mother Nature has produced some icy treats on the Roaring Fork River this winter

Ice jam releases can be a wonder to behold

The sustained cold temperatures this winter have produced numerous ice jam releases on the Roaring Fork River after thaws, with the latest occurring Tuesday afternoon.

I happened to be walking along the river with my dog, Max, at 4:45 p.m. to get a picture of a particular feature in the Basalt River Park. We stopped along a set of stairs dropping to the river behind Rocky Mountain Institute’s Innovation Center and Roaring Fork Conservancy’s River Center when a surge brought the water level up several inches. Seconds later, the leading ice chunks came crashing along.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit concerned with all issues related to water in the valley, along with emergency responders and the National Weather Service are concerned about the ice jam releases because they could bowl over and potentially drown unsuspecting anglers.

While there have been several ice jam alerts this winter, Roaring Fork Conservancy has documented only three actual releases. There were five last winter, according to Christina Medved, director of community outreach.

“(Tuesday) was a big one,” she said, noting there had been a lot of ice building up on the river in Snowmass Canyon.

Tuesday’s release was a bit unusual because the temperature remained cold. An ice jam alert was issued at 1:45 p.m. that warned the area from Snowmass Canyon to Carbondale could be affected.

At Basalt River Park, the water surge was instantly followed by a jigsaw puzzled of ice chunks, the largest the size of big screen TVs. They were all jumbled together and screaming along at a fast pace. It’s always amazing how much debris the water and ice picks up on its race downstream. Mixed in were branches, small trunks and a few stumps. Occasionally an ice chunk the size of a dresser would float down, ramming its way through the ice and debris like an oversized bully in a crowd. The chunks bobbed up and down and created jagged sharks teeth on their journey.

Once several years ago, I saw a muskrat riding the ice while I was watching from the Midland Avenue Bridge. The rodent was just going with the flow (or would that be floe) and presumably felt comfortable enough to hop off at some point, then worry about getting back home.

After filming video of the ice jam release on an iPhone for about a minute, Max and I wondered upstream. A handful of observers were watching the show from the Midland Bridge. After a couple of minutes, the ice chunks got smaller and carried less debris but the water remained fast and furious a while longer.

The debris left behind confirmed that Tuesday’s release was a big one. It was apparent on another dog walk on Wednesday morning that ice chunks were left high and dry at least as far downstream as the riverbank beneath Crown Mountain Park — roughly 4 miles from Basalt.

The ice jam releases are unpredictable and can occur hours after Pitkin County issues an alert. But if you are lucky enough to be along — not in — the river, they are fascinating to see.