The River Runs ‘Round It
By Christina Freeman
Photo by Roger Wade
By Jennie Lay
Marvin Meyers has an intimate and ingenious relationship with water.
As a California farmer, he has averted the ravages of drought. An avid fly fisherman, he plies his own five-mile stretch of the free-flowing Yampa River. And his idyllic home, set a mere 50 feet off the banks of the river, emerged unscathed during the 2011 flood.
Meyers and Tish, his wife of 40 years, built their custom log home west of Steamboat Springs amidst tall grass and hardy cottonwoods. Long-time locals undoubtedly pondered the riverfront site selection as they passed along U.S. 40. But this house was designed for a delicate balance with the river’s fluid nature. It sits six feet off the ground on a foundation leveled intentionally to match Union Pacific’s railroad tracks. Even at flood, the home stood dry while the surrounding landscape became a virtual lake.
“I fell in love with this river. It’s all about the river,” Meyers says, surveying the slow arc of the channel that parallels his long, sun-drenched deck.
After graduating in 1956 with an agriculture degree from California State University Fresno, then being drafted, Meyers ski raced for the Army. The former Sierra Nevada recreation ranger also had a cabin for nearly 50 years at California’s famed Mineral King, where he owned a snow cat and had an outfitter permit to ski. Still, it wasn’t Steamboat’s famous snow that lured him here – the Yampa River stole his heart.
The Yampa Valley is Meyers’ refuge from California’s drought-weary Central Valley, where he farms almonds, olives, pistachios and cherries. Flood is really the opposite of Meyers’ water expertise. Meyers has been on the California Department of Food and Agriculture board for 14 years, being re-appointed by Republican and Democrat governors alike to advise them on agricultural issues – especially water.
After planting his first almond orchard in 1989, he quickly realized that without supplemental water his trees would die. His decade of planning with politicians, the Bureau of Reclamation, geologists, hydrologists and biologists ultimately created America’s first privately held water bank west of the Mississippi. In 2002, he started putting water back in the ground, ensuring he’d have enough to spare for inevitable dry years. Over time, this preventative plan has enabled Meyers to keep watering his trees while watching neighbors run dry. It has also created an oasis for hands-on curriculum about water and wildlife for the local school district, and a much-used stopover for birds including sandpipers, Aleutian geese, pelicans, greater sandhill cranes and heron.
At home in Routt County, Meyers remains conscious of water and the land. An Army Corps of Engineers permit allowed him to build eddies along his stretch of river and return the water flow to the channel’s center.
He also restored historic undercutting along the banks. The Meyers’ 1,400 acres span both sides of the river and remain in hay and cattle production via a lease with the family next door – which also means their freezer stays full of grass-fattened beef.
The rustic home can easily accommodate a couple dozen people. Upstairs, the bedrooms are modern-day bunkhouses with eight beds apiece, perfectly suited to everything from a hoard of grandchildren to Tish’s annual girlfriend getaways. Twenty-five foot cathedral ceilings and wide open spaces dominate every aspect of the home – including a mud room that leaves ample space to unload gear from every imaginable mountain activity and a garage shower to eliminate traces of the mucky ones. An unbroken chain of windows looks over the river with a deck running the length of the house. Everyone has room to lounge and enjoy the unobstructed view.
“When we’re here, everybody’s together. That’s what I wanted. It’s a warm, happy place. People love it,” Meyers says. “This is my place to come out to, kick back, bring the kids, and enjoy.”
The home’s logs were standing dead lodgepole pine from northern Montana – six truck loads worth. Each log is a full round scribe, which means there is no chinking or caulking between the seams, showcasing tight craftsmanship. Each dormer is full log with log gables; the home encompasses no lumber framing except for the sub-floor. The floors are Vermont white pine in eye-catching 20-inch planks. An imposing river rock fireplace and mantle usher the surrounding landscape into the heart of the living room. Efficiencies like in-floor radiant heat and R-49 roof panels not only regulate cooling and heating, but are designed to help protect the rural home from fire.
Meyers, 78, underwent three hip surgeries and four back surgeries while Gabe Butler of Montana Log Homes was building his house. He trusted much of the decision-making to his contractor, right down to building their ranch-style dining room table. Jake’s Drafting transformed the Meyers’ vision into architectural plans before Butler made the house a reality. “Gabe is such a caring builder. Every house he builds is that way,” Meyers raves, with gushing compliments to the craftsmen who added to his home’s precision.
“We trusted him. He knew what he was doing,” Meyers says, noting that his wife stepped in to handpick finishes like the mottled red kitchen cabinets and lively bathroom tiles. Most importantly, the 6,000-square-foot home encompasses everything Meyers ever dreamed about – a place for his three children and all his grandchildren to congregate.“My biggest concern was keeping us above the 100-year flood,” Butler says. Having checked on the railroad’s history, Butler perched the house at the same height, using only a foot of excavation before building a slow, barely noticeable grading that elevates the home 30 feet above the surrounding meadow. The finished floor is about two inches above the train tracks. “After last year, I know it will never flood,” he says.
As Meyers’ son takes over day-to-day operations on the California farm, he is finding more time to enjoy Routt County. “When we’re here, we’re here,” he says, pointing to the ground beneath his feet. “I wouldn’t take millions for it. This place offers stuff you can’t replace.”