Colorado whitewater rafting season starts strong, but experts urge caution |

Colorado whitewater rafting season starts strong, but experts urge caution

Story, photos by Sebastian Foltz
Swiftwater rescue students paddle across Clear Creek Play Park Thursday to set up a rescue line as part of their certification training. With rapid snowmelt area rivers are seeing high water levels that could be potentially dangerous for inexperienced boaters.

Drowning. In the world of whitewater rafting and kayaking, it’s a very real concern. Anyone who’s ever unwillingly been tossed from a boat or flipped a kayak in whitewater may be more than a little familiar with the feeling. There’s a moment when time slows down. Those who know what they’re doing seize that moment and react; those who don’t panic. The difference between the two is often as simple as experience, knowing what to do, taking a moment and clearing your head — not getting overwhelmed.

The reality in many fatal whitewater accidents is that often they could have been avoided. Sometimes it’s as simple as having the right body position when swimming.

“Gaining that knowledge and being able to pass it on is important,” swiftwater rescue instructor Christian “Campy” Campton said.

It’s the focus of his whitewater rescue course.

“If you’re not comfortable swimming something, you probably shouldn’t boat it.”
Christian “Campy” Campton
Swiftwater rescue instructor

“The more people that know it, the safer our waters will be,” he said.

Campton’s program, sanctioned by Rescue 3 International, is a three-day course that teaches the essentials of whitewater safety and rescue.

The program trains guides, private boaters and public workers like firefighters in the how to respond when accidents occur, concepts that may be especially critical this whitewater season following a big snow year.


River accidents are frequently the result of inexperienced boaters getting into unfamiliar situations. This year, with water flows in rivers already climbing toward peak levels because of rapid snowmelt, there’s some concern among those in the rafting and kayaking industry. While it’s safe for professional guiding companies and experienced boaters, those less familiar with how to read rivers and recognize features may struggle in places where they would be fine during other times of the year.

Stretches of water can change dramatically with higher water flows, making ordinarily tame rivers far more challenging.

With flow levels on some rivers currently as much as 10 times higher than what they might be later in the summer, places like the usually tame Upper Colorado River may be far more technical.

“There’s a lot of beginners out there getting in over there head underestimating the high flow,” Matti Wade, owner of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks in Frisco, said.

The Upper Colorado, for example, now has flow levels approaching 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), when much of the season it runs closer to 500-800 cfs.

“The Upper C is usually more of a fun float,” Wade said.

In the summertime it’s a place where people even learn how to paddleboard. But rafters and kayakers reported there were a number of boats flipping and rafters getting in trouble over Memorial Day weekend.

Bureau of Land Management spokesman David Boyd went so far as suggesting people reconsider rafting if they are not planning on going out on a guided trip.

“If you’re not experienced, it’s a good time to stay out of the water,” he told the Daily.

But for those who know what they’re doing it’s shaping up to be a banner start to the season.

“It’s awesome,” Campton, who also runs KODI Rafting based in Frisco, said. “We haven’t seen flows like this in a couple of years. Now is the time to go see big water.”

He, too, suggested going with a guide outfit.

For private boaters he emphasized awareness.

“If you’re on a new river, know before you go.”

That means reading guide books and being sure to know flow levels. And perhaps above all, be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“If you’re not comfortable swimming something, you probably shouldn’t boat it,” Campton said.

Assuming the weather stays warm, water levels are expected to continue to increase.

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