What it was like to grow up in Waterton Canyon
By Jessica Mahaffey
For most people in the Denver area, Waterton Canyon is a nearby recreation destination, perfect for weekend family hikes, morning bike rides and afternoon fly fishing.
But for me, Waterton Canyon is home. It’s more than a beautiful place, it’s a living part of my memory, a leading character in my life story.
I was a caretaker’s daughter.
For 21 years, from 1987 to 2008, my father worked as a Denver Water caretaker, which required our family to live at two mountain reservoirs: Williams Fork and Strontia Springs, better known as Waterton Canyon.
Winter 1989: The author, right, with her brother Jason and sister Katie, in their first winter living in Waterton Canyon. The concrete remnants of the Platte Canyon diversion dam — a favorite fishing spot — are pictured in the background.
In my formative years, I had little, if any, access to television, learned to use a party-line phone, burned our trash in a barrel and experienced isolation.
I loved everything about it.
With my schoolmates, it was hard to explain my dad’s job and where I lived. The conversation on the playground usually went something like this:
Schoolmate: What street do you live on? Maybe you can come over after school?
Me: I don’t live on a street. I live in Waterton Canyon.
Schoolmate: Do you live in Roxborough Park or in Deer Creek Canyon? Why do you drive so far to go to school in Littleton?
Me: No, I live in Waterton Canyon. You know, the place people ride their bikes and go fishing? My dad is a caretaker, so we live there.
Schoolmate: Caretaker? Is that like a park ranger?
Mark Kirk, author’s dad, pictured in June 1991. Kirk retired and the family moved out of Waterton Canyon in 2008.
What I wanted to tell them was that Dad worked for Denver Water. He was in charge of maintaining the canyon and managing the flow of the South Platte River through diversion dams, conduits, the High Line Canal and Strontia Springs reservoir.
He also ran the hydroelectric power plant at the 243-foot, double-arch concrete dam. Sometimes he let me go with him into the belly of the dam. I’d sit at a desk near the generators and turbines, doing homework while he read the gauges.
My schoolmates would ask why they never met my dad. Why doesn’t he come to back-to-school night or field day?
I knew my dad wanted to go to my school events. But his work required him to be on-call (like a doctor) in the canyon in case something happened. Sometimes he would respond to emergencies like wild fires or high water in the area, but most of the time it was something minor, like a rockslide or the generator tripping.
But whenever I attempted to explain this, my friends completely lost interest and changed the subject to a more relatable topic, like lunch or sports. Until I invited them to my house. I could see their eyes light up with understanding as we drove through the canyon (around the bikers and hikers) to our house.
The adventure, freedom, security and beauty of our home became a sanctuary to many of our childhood friends. My brother built a firepit behind our house, and my sister and I would collect driftwood along the riverbank for slumber-party bonfires.
Sometimes we’d go fishing late at night and cook fresh trout on the open flames, play guitar, dance and sing loudly to the stars. We didn’t have neighbors to disturb, so we would carry on late into the night.
We lived secluded in nature, far from neighborhoods, parks, swimming pools and grocery stores. I liked not living near a lot of people. Just our family, the other caretakers (who were like family) and nature.
My parents didn’t warn us to look out for strangers or traffic. Instead they warned us about rattlesnakes, rockslides, high-water conditions or iced-over water. They encouraged us to explore our environment, to be curious and free. We took full advantage of our time and were almost always outside, claiming the canyon like wild explorers naming landmarks along the way.
Spring 1995: Author standing in the rain on the family’s back patio in Waterton Canyon.
One such landmark we called The Beach, a sandy section of riverbank about 2.5 miles up the canyon. I can imagine what the mothers and fathers hiking with their children thought of the three of us: parentless, setting up beach towels on the banks of the river, putting on sunscreen, sipping lemonade and listening to Beatles cassettes on our battery-operated radio.
As an adult, I have sat poolside at five-star resorts, but nothing compares to the cold, clear water of the South Platte on a hot August day in the canyon.
Of course, we weren’t the only people enjoying the canyon in the summer. On any given weekend, we shared Waterton with thousands of hikers and bikers. One summer, we set up a lemonade stand in front of our house.
People told us they had left their wallets in their cars, so I made a sign on poster board that read: “Fresh lemonade 3 miles up the canyon. 50 Cents. Don’t forget your wallet in your car!” My sister rode her bike down the canyon and hung the sign in the parking lot.
That must have worked, because on busy days we made a nice profit.
Connected to nature, connected to life.
We also shared the canyon with an abundance of wildlife and learned first-hand about the cycle of life. We witnessed bighorn sheep lambs following their mothers in the spring, and in the fall watched their fathers butt heads, sending thunderous echoes along the canyon walls. We learned the habits of the herd and knew where to find them, depending on the season or time of day.
One year, on a trip to the top of the dam, my brother and dad came upon a dead ewe with her lamb huddled close by. My brother wanted to rescue the lamb, so dad agreed to stop back on the way home to see if they could reunite the lamb with its herd. It was too late; an eagle, or some other predatory bird, had found the lamb and plucked out its heart. My brother was upset for days.
Nature isn’t always peaceful and beautiful. In our adventures we discovered animal carcasses, mountain lions stalking prey, aggressive trash-diving bears and raccoons, and skunks and porcupines harassing our dog.
Nature can be a harsh teacher, but it’s better than learning those lessons from the evening news.
We also made our share of successful rescues. One evening, my dad released an owl caught in a fishing line in the river. Though Dad was slightly wounded in the process (owls have powerful talons), we were happy to see the powerful bird regain its freedom.
I can’t be sure it was the same owl, but from that day forward, we heard an owl hooting at night from the light post in our yard.
The author, pictured in summer 1996, the year of the Buffalo Creek Fire and subsequent heavy flooding. The family had to evacuate the canyon for a short time while father worked day and night with the other caretakers to remove debris in Strontia Springs Reservoir.
We felt connected to the animals that shared our habitat and made up stories about them. There was a fox that sat on our back porch nearly every evening. We named him Todd (from The Fox and the Hound).
On the morning of my wedding, Dad drove me to church. As we reached the bottom of the canyon, a bear crossed the road. It was unusual to see a bear in the morning hours, and Dad said it had come to send me off and wish me well.
Dad then decreed my wedding day the Day of the Bear. On our one-year anniversary, my husband and I saw a bear as we drove up the canyon to see my parents, reinforcing Dad’s decree and adding an extra layer of special to our already special day.
My family also felt connected to the river. During my teen years, when I was angry with my parents, heartbroken or worried about school, I would sit next to the river and let the sounds and currents show me the gentle way forward.
I’ve poured my heart and secrets into those waters. I’ve observed the patterns of how the river flows through seasons: high water or low, shallow or deep, always moving forward to provide life for animals and the people downstream.
I have always been proud of my dad’s contribution to the flow of the water, to life. Now that I work at Denver Water, I am honored and humbled to continue his legacy in my small way, reconnected to the river and land I love.
Spring 2015: Author returns to the canyon as a Denver Water employee.