How safe should we make the rivers?
September 5, 2010
Kimberly Appelson’s body remains missing nearly two months after the 23-year-old Breckenridge woman fell off a raft into the Arkansas River. Her death and disappearance have brought into question a particularly hazardous feature of the Arkansas and how much should be done to alter a natural feature to make boating the area safer.
The notorious underwater feature at Frog Rock rapid, about 2 miles north of Buena Vista, claimed another life despite efforts to make people more aware of the danger.
Appelson, an off-duty first-year rafting guide living in Breckenridge, fell in after the boat hit a rock the afternoon of July 11. At least six deaths have occurred at the area since 1990.
A married couple, Jennifer Down-Knorr, 36, and Bernd Knorr, 39, died in the hazard together in August 2001, according to a Colorado State Parks incident report.
Luca Angelescu, a 12-year-old boy. died there in July 2000. Items such as his lifejacket, his long-sleeve spraytop and his cotton T-shirt surfaced the evening he went missing, and his body was recovered the next day about 70 feet downstream, at the bottom of the river.
The deadly feature at Frog Rock is an underwater sieve, which works likes a narrow tunnel of rocks funneling water and creating high pressures. It’s more easily avoided when the river flows above 1,000 cubic feet per second, but by mid- to late-summer it gets to about 700 cfs and becomes considerably more dangerous.
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“This is just really ridiculous that this is continuing,” Mara Frazier, Jennifer Down-Knorr’s sister said shortly after the news about Appelson was published. “How many more people have to die?”
The search to recover Appelson’s body has involved free diving, underwater cameras, technical rope systems, boat systems, probes, reducing flows and bringing volunteers from neighboring counties.
“We’ve just about used all the tricks in our book,” said Stew Pappenfort, senior ranger at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
Flow levels were reduced to 160 cfs in mid-August, in an attempt to retrieve the body. Pappenfort said the current “still went right where we were trying to work.”
Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting company – where Appelson was employed – said the efforts are appreciated.
“It’s been a hard summer for us as a company, and we obviously want to see Kim come off the river,” he said. “The river has challenged us.”
Pappenfort said a cofferdam is being considered to finally allow access to the body’s likely location. This would involve bringing in a tracked excavator and building up a mostly rock and dirt dam to move the water away from the site.
The expensive process would involve either building a road of about 100 yards from a nearby railroad track or using a National Guard helicopter to give the excavator access. Pappenfort said both options are open, and he’s working on the logistics.
Search dogs gave “very strong indications” of a scent in the area in previous weeks, and Pappenfort said he’s “reasonably certain” that’s where she is. He said the cofferdam is a “rarity,” but it’s something people have used to locate bodies in other rivers.
With heavy equipment so close to the deadly hazard, just eliminating it altogether might save some lives.
“A lot of people say, ‘You’ve got a trackhoe in there, why not pick up the rock and get rid of it?'” Pappenfort said. “It’s controversial … How many people have fallen off one of the climbing faces at Rocky Mountain National Park or Yosemite?”
He said the industry’s general opinion is that “we don’t take wild places and turn them into Disneyland scenarios.”
This certainly isn’t Pappenfort’s first recovery at the hazard in his more than 20 years of river work; he was involved with finding the bodies in both the 2000 and 2001 incidents.
“My ethics as a manager are resistant to changing a natural feature,” he said. “However, my professional sensibilities – having been at Frog Rock way too many times already – say I’d rather not go back there again.”
Pappenfort has contacted river managers across the United States and Canada regarding the Arkansas hazard’s removal, and he said some rivers have indeed been altered “for public safety.”
While many river features can be the result of human development, this segment of the Arkansas is natural.
Whitewater parks are built on rivers. But these are often restoration efforts that help slow the water’s flow after people have tried to straighten them out. People developing communities by rivers had a tendency to manipulate them, he said.
Because the river is on U.S. Forest Service land, there would likely be a complex process to get permission to alter the natural feature.
Noah Klug, an attorney in Breckenridge, said the situation appears to be one “more easily resolved through politics than through law.”
Or perhaps rafting companies could take action to get it altered.
Bradford said he’s supportive of eliminating the hazard.
“It needs to be done,” he said, adding that “with some minimal use of a backhoe” the flow could be altered away from the hazard.
But liability issues do arise when a party makes an effort to change a feature. And many river enthusiasts could have ethical concerns.
“It’s a tough situation in a tough area,” Bradford said. “Any time you alter a river, I think everybody needs to think about it.”
Signs warn people from about 100 yards above Frog Rock to stay to the left side of the river.
“The efforts after the first two instances we thought were working,” Pappenfort said.
Nearly two months after Appelson went missing, the river’s flows are waning and rafting companies are preparing to close for the season. Pappenfort said he anticipates ending the search that began July 11.
SDN reporter Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.