Water ‘rangers’ help Summit County counter Colorado’s record-setting pace for drownings

Paddlers and relaxers take to the Frisco Bay Marina Thursday, July 14, 2022.
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

Summit County hasn’t had a single drowning death this year, but that’s becoming increasingly unique in Colorado, which is on track for a record number of water-related deaths in 2022. Rangers with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office are doing what they can to keep Summit County from adding to that total.

The previous state record was set in 2020 when 34 people drowned, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This year, as of July 9, there have already been 24 drownings across the state and one non-drowning fatality, Bridget Kochel with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said. That already surpasses 2021’s yearly total of 22, according to Kochel. Since then, there’s already been at least one more death after a kayaker died Wednesday, July 13, on Lake Granby.

Summit County falls into the northwest region, which has seen seven drownings this year, she said. Regionally, the southeastern quarter of Colorado leads the state with eight drownings and one water-related fatality, Kochel said. 

The last drowning in the county came two years ago following a sudden storm, Erin Sirek with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office Ranger Program said. Since then, while the waters haven’t always been calm, her and her fellow rangers haven’t seen any serious incidents, she said. This is largely as a result of well-informed and well-prepared boaters and the group efforts of the reservoir’s many partners.

The ranger program began back in the ’90s, Sirek said, with just one ranger and one support staff. In its early days, the ranger was just a member of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations program assigned to the reservoir, rather than a ranger dedicated to the reservoir, Sirek said.

The program has grown with the county and the popularity of its waters, Sirek said. It’s increased to two full-time, seasonal rangers and two part-time, seasonal rangers patrolling Dillon Reservoir. Sirek and team member Kevin Kelble make up the rangers’ full-time, seasonal staff. Both have backgrounds in ski patrolling, and Sirek still splits her year between the slopes of Breckenridge and the waters of the Dillon Reservoir.

The Sheriff’s Office’s ranger program employs a fleet of three boats: a pair of single-engine, roughly-20-foot-long Boston Whalers and a smaller, inflatable muskrat. It’s also got a new, larger, twin-engine vessel on the way, Watson said.

High elevation, high risk waters

Special Operations Director Mark Watson said the reservoir’s elevation and temperature make it unique, as does its weather patterns. Those characteristics influence the rules and regulations governing boaters.

It’s too cold to swim safely, Sirek said. On Wednesday, Sirek spoke with a person who had been swimming off the dock near the Dillon Amphitheater. The man said he was visiting from Texas and said he was unfamiliar with local rules.

“People can’t swim. … They don’t understand how cold it gets and how it affects your body so fast,” Watson said. Sirek said the water is so cold swimmers can start to lose muscle coordination, increasing the risk of drowning.

Adding to the natural risks, storms will often spill in from Tenmile Canyon or from the south toward Quandary Peak, Watson said. It’s usually a microburst, he said.

“It’ll only last for a quick period of time, but it’s chaos. Our rangers will be immediately going around the lake advising people, ‘Get in, get in, get in,’” Watson said. Otherwise, after the storm, they’ll go around cleaning up flotsam and strewn paddlecraft, he said.

One microburst last summer took down 20 boats and sent one empty kayak into the Blue River with two shoes and a debris trail behind it, Watson said. It turned out the kayak’s owners had abandoned the kayak after they were helped out of the water, he said.

To assist responders in such situations, Watson and his rangers encourage everyone to put their name, phone number and address on their paddlecraft. Otherwise, rangers treat an ownerless kayak as a potential emergency, he said.

Talking about kayaks, Sirek also encouraged paddlecraft owners to make sure their vessel is properly lit at night. She said this especially goes for folks enjoying concerts from the water at the Dillon Amphitheater, which can often end late in the evening. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2022 Boating Handbook, a vessel under oars must either have lights attached to it or the paddler may have a handheld light source.

In addition to lights at concerts, folks should watch their alcohol consumption, Watson added.

Before going out on the water, Sirek said the rangers encourage everyone to review Colorado’s boating statutes and regulations and the Dillon Resrvoir’s Recreation Area rules and regulations.

‘Minions’ warn of life jacket requirement

“We have what we call minions,” Watson said.

The large, bobbing, yellow buoys out on the lake warning divers of the necessity of a life jacket. Every person heading out on the water needs a life jacket with them.

Boaters without a life jacket can borrow one for free from the rangers’ loaner program located at Pine Cove. Sirek said people can donate life jackets in good condition. A good test of whether a life jacket is in good condition is whether the inner label is still legible, she said.

People using personal watercraft like jetskis — which are not allowed on the Dillon Reservoir — must wear a life jacket at all times in Colorado, as is the case for some other activities like windsurfing and towed tubing — which are also not permitted on the reservoir.

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