Swift water season arrives for all-volunteer Summit County Water Rescue Team
August 16, 2016
Join the team
If you’re interested in learning more about whitewater safety and the Summit County Water Rescue Team, drop by weekly training sessions every Tuesday this summer at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Team lead Drew Fontana says the team is always looking for recruits who have experience on whitewater, from raft guides and lifeguards to private boaters.
“They are pretty blunt. They’ll let you know we don’t save lives — we’re here for recovery,” team member Brandon Cuillo said. “They tell you that right away so you know what you’re in for.”
The next training session begins at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 31.
Tenmile Creek is the polar opposite of Water World.
Down on Pecos Street in Denver, the largest water park in Colorado is gearing up for the summer season with water slides, wave pools and everything else you'd expect at a manmade water playground. There are dangers to be sure, but everything at Water World is overseen by well-trained lifeguards and managed by tons upon tons of machinery, all designed to keep guests as safe as possible. All you need is sunscreen and a decent breaststroke.
In Summit County, the early-summer scene is entirely different. On Tenmile Creek — the waterway found just outside of Frisco on the shoulder of Interstate 70 — whitewater rafting seems just as enticing as Cowabunga Beach and Turtle Bay in suburban Denver. The river is flowing at 247 cubic feet per second, which is relatively low compared to the May 27 average of 407 cfs. In other words, Tenmile is lower and friendlier than usual, at least on paper, and experienced kayakers are anxious for the true start of a stellar whitewater season.
"Understand that as things start to finally warm up in the mountains, it will get serious out there," said Matti Wade, a veteran paddler and owner of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks, a shop on the shore of its namesake creek. "But, even right now the water is moving so fast that even playing on the shores can be dangerous. Water runoff is a serious thing."
Still, Tenmile looks so inviting and so friendly that inexperienced rafters are tempted to try it now before the "true" start of whitewater season.
"You can't hop on any river in Colorado and expect chutes and ladders," Wade said. "Right now, the water is running high and it is freezing cold. (Water) exposure can impact anyone within two or three minutes, and that's much faster than being exposed on a mountain with clothing."
It's a deadly combination. On the Sunday before Memorial Day Weekend, a duo of inexperienced rafters took a flimsy inner tube on the frigid waters just outside of Frisco for their first private whitewater trip of the season. Within minutes, the two got dumped into the rapids by massive boulders and unpredictable eddies, leading to an eventual rescue within eyeshot of homes and patios on the fringes of Frisco. The two are now safe and sound, but the incident is an example of the difference between Mother Nature and Water World.
"They had no idea what they were getting into," said Wade of the rescued duo, who was first spotted by one of his experienced friends paddling the creek. "They had no idea that Tenmile has a fair amount of rapids, and they were there with no PFDs and everything… I end up stopping people from putting canoes and inner tubes on the water, especially this time of year. Every year I see some drama on Tenmile."
Water team to the rescue
The whitewater in Summit County this weekend is unpredictable — experts expect water levels to peak in mid-June — but it's not entirely unmonitored. From winter to summer, a small corps of volunteers with the Summit County Water Rescue Team helps with rescue efforts when inexperienced boaters get into trouble on the Tenmile and other area waters, including the Blue River, Dillon Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir. As the only trained water-rescue crew in the Rockies, the team also travels to Grand, Park, Eagle and Lake counties throughout the year.
Drew Fontana, lead for the rescue team, came to Summit County from Colorado Springs 11 years ago and soon connected with the government-supported outfit. He's a lifelong diver, which made his skillset a perfect fit for the team.
"Being from Colorado it's kind of difficult to stay with diving, so when I found out I could do that locally, every weekend, that's when I was sold on the team," Fontana said. "It doesn't hurt that we're helping the community with everything we do."
Soon enough, Fontana was deeply involved with the rescue team. He and his fellow volunteers train twice a week, 52 weeks a year, working with traditional equipment like rafts and buoys and more specialized equipment like cold-water scuba gear. For a lifelong river rat, the chance to learn more about high-alpine water safety was invaluable — even though he had no idea it existed.
"I honestly had no idea there was a water rescue team," Fontana said. "A team member recruited me, put it in my ear, and it just sounded like a great idea. You get free training and you get to scuba dive in lake Dillon. Not may people get to do that."
Training for all
Like Fontana, New York native Brandon Cuillo didn't know there was a volunteer outfit when he first moved to Summit County in 2008. His background on the water runs deep — his dad owned a boat as a child, and he worked on a Hawaiian cruise ship for there years before coming to Colorado — but he was relatively new to the intimidating environment of Rocky Mountain whitewater.
It all changed in 2014. On a trip to Wyoming's Shoshone River, he and a group braved the waters at 5,000 cfs. Their raft hit a rock and one of his friends was tossed into the drink with an unstrapped PFD and helmet. He was knocked unconscious and drifted through a long, seemingly endless stretch of rapids before the group retrieved him.
"I'm a big rafter," Cuillo said. "I spend a lot of time on the river and I'd had a couple of small incidents where people in my group had minor injuries, so I wanted to take the swift water course to be prepared."
Cuillo hooked up with the local water rescue team last season and has hardly looked back sense. The team is small, he says, with just about six or seven year-round members, but the experience and training he now has is invaluable for private rafting trips.
"I've honestly helped more people on private trips on my own than when I go on a call," Cuillo said. "Everybody shows up to incidents, but when you have a recovery with the divers, we are the go-to guys."
As Cuillo says, the water rescue team regularly pairs with other local organizations, such as Summit County Search and Rescue, for trainings and emergency calls. But, as a cog in the first-responder team, the water group has a role to play, and it's much different than the EMS aid victims receive from search and rescue members.
"When there is a drowning or accident, we are there to do the recovery on the lake or the river," said Fontana, who's responded to several drownings and other water-related deaths in the past few seasons. "I wasn't trained for this, but it's in-house training we receive. My personality prepared me for it but I really didn't have experience with it."
Cuillo has also responded to several drownings, including a 2015 incident on Grand Lake in Grand County. He and the team retrieved a body that had been in the lake for four days. It's a much different situation from the Tenmile inner-tube incident last weekend, but he says the team has prepared him for the best and worst of the wild, wild waters of Colorado.
"I was alright emotionally, but then I spoke to the parents," Cuillo said of the Grand Lake rescue. "They wanted to thank us for what we did, and just the act of handing over their son — giving them closure — was an amazing thing to experience. If there are only four or five of us who want to volunteer, I'll be one of the five."
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