Curious Colorado: How An IT Director Spent His Summer Capturing Water

Aug 16, 2018

In June KUNC posed a Curious Colorado question to listeners: "Are you a teacher - or do you know one - who has to get a summer job to make ends meet? Share your plans with us."

Kery Harrelson, the IT Director for East Grand School District in Granby, Colorado, responded, saying he 'crisscrossed' the Continental Divide.

His summer break essay follows:

Over my summer break I walked about 180 miles.

I've been the IT Director for East Grand Schools for well over a decade but have worked several side and summer jobs as well. I've been a bellman, a raft guide, freelance computer tech, network engineer and graphic designer. Colorado home prices can be prohibitively high so my side jobs - especially my latest - have been essential in augmenting my income and ultimately allowing me to buy my house.

I moved to Colorado to be outside and am very familiar with the mountains and rivers in the northwestern part of the state. I'm very comfortable navigating them on and off trail in any season. This skill, along with my technical background and knowledge of local water issues, landed me a position on the Platte Basin Timelapse in 2011 as a field technician maintaining time lapse camera systems.

Platte Basin Timelapse, or PBT, operates about 45 of these cameras across Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska from the headwaters of the North Platte at Lake Agnes which is near Gould, Colorado, to the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers at Plattesmouth, Nebraska. I am responsible for about a dozen of them.

Each system is placed to tell the story of water at that location by taking a picture every hour, every day, year round. None of my cameras has wireless reception sufficient to transmit large format photos so I have to visit each system about every three months to swap memory cards.

Kery Harrelson checks on a camera system for his second job as a field technician with Platte Basin Timelapse.
Credit Lindsay Dalton

Why do I do It? There are loads of facts and figures and data and charts and graphs about water and snowpack here in the mountains, but photos and, in particular time lapse photos, bring all those numbers to life. The real magic of time lapse photography is its ability to capture change that happens too slowly to be noticed otherwise - like when fall foliage turns each year, or when the lake ice forms or breaks up, or fluctuating reservoir levels.

In 2016 as part of my job with PBT, I participated in a documentary called "Follow the Water". It's being released this fall by Nebraska Educational Television production in partnership with PBT. The PBT team biked, paddled and hiked more than 1,300 miles from the Winder Rivers Range in Wyoming, through Colorado and eventually finished in Nebraska where the Platte and Missouri rivers meet.

After weeks of planning, my wife and I joined the team on July 7 for the hiking part of the trip. We started at Cameron Pass near Gould, Colorado and took the first steps of the 180 miles that would follow over the next three weeks. During that time, we would crisscross the Continental Divide and watersheds on our way to Kenosha Pass near Grant, Colorado.

We walked and watched and learned all kinds of things. And we filmed the whole thing.

We passed through habitat formed thousands of years ago that is home to moose, marsh marigold, greenback cutthroat trout and American dippers. We saw dams, diversions and massive projects like the Colorado Big Thompson that diverts large portions of whole watersheds for municipal and agricultural use miles away. We depended on the very water we were there to study, camping each night where we could refill our containers and sheltering from storms that refilled the streams where we camped.

Kery Harrelson (right) hiked 180 miles through the mountains of Colorado with his wife, Lindsay Dalton, and Michael Forsberg, co-founder of PBT, in 2016.
Credit Michael Forsberg

One morning we got up at about 1:30 a.m. to climb Grays Peak, the highest point in the Platte Basin watershed. After summiting at sunrise, we followed the Continental Divide Trail toward Argentine Peak until we were chased down by a fast approaching thunderstorm. Hail and high winds pummeled our little tents until it let up leaving just enough sunlight to filter water and talk about the day to come over dinner.

On July 29 my part of the journey ended. A month later and a month after returning to my school job, just as the rest of the team was leaving Plattesmouth, I was again standing on a ladder swapping memory cards in a camera that I placed years earlier. The images from that camera will someday tell the complicated story of the water that originates here in the mountains of Colorado and flows in all directions supporting people, agriculture, plants and wildlife from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River.

It's been two years since that trip, but we at PBT are still following the water. I spend several days each month collecting photos and repairing camera systems. There are still stories to tell. From time-to-time a teacher will plan a lesson on water and invite me to share my experience. It's always a welcome break from staring at a computer screen.

This story was edited and produced by KUNC's Stephanie Daniel.