Two recent whitewater rafting deaths in Colorado underscore the importance or caution and safety, experts say. The reality is that many rafting accidents are avoidable. Time and again incidents are a result of inexperienced boaters getting in over their heads.
“I think that people aren’t taking the rivers serious,” Summit County Rescue Group president and swift water rescue technician Colin Dinsmore said of the accidents this season. “Especially the Upper Colorado where people think it’s a float.”
Dinsmore cited a lack of experience and a lack of respect for the water when asked about potential causes.
“You don’t see a lot of people with experience getting into these types of accidents,” he said.
He added, however, that even experienced boaters should consider going with a professional guide outfit for a first descent on any river.
Other river officials point to higher runoff from this year’s snowpack as a cause for frequent incidents so far this season.
“When we get to the high water marks we see more incidents,” Stew Pappenfort, senior ranger for the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area.
His district is home to Browns Canyon — one of the state’s highest trafficked stretches of whitewater — and his office tracks whitewater incidents in the region.
As to other causes for accidents, he said, “It’s normally not one thing or the other, but a combination of risk factors.”
Agreeing that inexperience can be a major factor, he also cited a lack of familiarity with a river — even with experienced boaters — as a cause for concern.
“Sometimes people are not honest with themselves,” he said, reminding boaters to study their routes and scout lines whenever possible.
Additionally he said that it’s crucial for any rafter to be prepared to swim any section they are rafting on.
“Ability to self-rescue is important,” he said. “For a certain amount of time you’re on your own. You’re going to have to depend on your own abilities.”
Some incidents occur when victims of accidents simply aren’t able to properly respond to a situation either physically or mentally.
“When you start combining these risk factors it’s what I call stacking the deck against yourself,” Pappenfort said. “That’s when we start to see the more serious accidents.
Both Dinsmore and Pappenfort said proper education can drastically reduce the sport’s inherent risks.
Pappenport encouraged any private boater to at least take a swift water rescue course.
“It’s something that you never want to have to use, but if you are in that situation you want to have the skills,” he said.
Another important safety consideration that may go under acknowledged is how much a river can change at different water levels.
Higher runoff or water volume can drastically alter the character of a river, Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Charles Pitman explained.
“These rivers to change a lot,” he said. “Private boaters need to be aware of how the river changes.”
A river like the Upper Colorado, for example, can be fairly tame late in the summer when it’s flowing at 500-800 cubic feet per second.
But earlier this season it reached flows over 10 times that volume (10,000 cfs or more), causing numerous incidents.
Details emerge in Blue River Death
Both Pitman and Dinsmore were on scene with the Summit County Rescue Group as part of the rescue effort for last Sunday’s rafting fatality on the Blue River, north of Silverthorne. Charles Emery, 70, of Denver, died when he and 8 others flipped while rafting in a private — non-commercial — raft on a Class III/IV rated stretch of the river. The exact cause of Emery’s death has yet be determined by the county coroner, Dinsmore said. Emery died prior to being pulled from the water, drowning or cardiac arrest are among likely causes.
“From what we can gather, one of the first rapids they went in they flipped,” Dinsmore said adding that the party’s level of experience may have been a factor.
He described the start of the rescue as somewhat “chaotic” with an initial report that nine people were in the water. All other members of the group were safely rescued or accounted for. Pitman said the initial search had to cover a substantial distance along the river — above Green Mountain Reservoir.
Witnesses estimated the raft carrying the nine boaters to be up to 16 feet long. Most commercial rafts in the region are typically 13-14 feet in length.
The full sheriff’s report on the incident was not completed at press time.
Updating Colorado River Drownings
Two other incidents were reported over the weekend on different sections of the Colorado river.
One of the two fatalities was confirmed by a Garfield County Sheriff’s Department spokesman as not rafting or fishing related.
The body of George Hoskovec, 61, was discovered in the Colorado River near mile marker 91 on Interstate 70. The spokesman with the sheriff’s department described Hoskovec as a transient living in the Glenwood Springs area.
The other incident occurred on the popular rafting section of the Upper Colorado River, between Pumphouse and Radium near the Class III Needles Eye Rapids. Boaters responded to two inflatable kayaks that had flipped in the river. One of the paddlers had made it safely to shore; the other — William Fliris, 67, of Lusk, Wyoming — drowned. The rafters who responded attempted CPR but were unable to revive Fliris.
“He was found pretty quickly and they did everything they could,” Grand County Coroner Brenda Bock told the Vail Daily, “but it was already too late.”
“I think that people aren’t taking the rivers serious — especially the Upper Colorado where people think it’s a float.”
Summit County Rescue Group president and swift water rescue technician