‘These aren’t little, lazy, flat rivers’: As Summit County’s rivers roar, the right gear and training are necessary

The Blue River, Tenmile Creek and Snake River in Summit County are narrow with fast-moving water and lots of debris, according to locals with water rescue experience

Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo
A rescuer leaps into the water after a mock victim during a swiftwater rescue technician class in 2021.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

Brandon Ciullo had just joined the Summit County’s Water Rescue Team when he noticed a couple with what he described as “Walmart duckies” — cheap plastic river tubes — getting into the Upper Blue River.

The spring runoff had the river rushing, and Ciullo, who was about to set out on his boogie board with some friends, warned the couple that the rapids ahead could pop their tubes. Wearing a helmet, dry suit, pads and a personal flotation device, Ciullo said he looked like, “an army guy,” compared to the plain-clothed couple who set out on the river despite his warnings.

“Every person that I have pulled out of the Blue River is someone who had a Walmart kayak,” Ciullo said. “These rivers are not for novice people. They are dangerous and meant to be rafted by experienced rafters only. None of these rivers are tube-able. None of these rivers are raftable on anything other than commercial-grade river equipment.”

Sure enough, after waiting for the couple to hit the water so he’d be upstream of them if they needed rescue, Ciullo spotted the man and woman a short time later, walking back up to the highway with deflated tubes.

While the couple did not end up needing rescue, they apparently realized their recklessness, Ciullo said, and left an apology note and a six-pack of beer on his vehicle at the pullout. Several other people needed to be rescued that day though, most of whom had improper equipment.

One woman on what Ciullo described as a “pool toy” bailed before some rapids and became trapped on a rock. He helped her to safety. Then, further down river, he discovered another woman stranded on a rock after she and her boyfriend — neither wearing personal flotation devices — flipped their kayaks. Her boyfriend was later located at a pullout.

“Keep in mind the rescuers you put in danger by doing stuff like this,” said Ciullo, who is also a member of Summit County Rescue Group. “Every time you get hurt and something happens, now we’ve got to put five guys in the line of danger to get you out, which puts us at risk.”

With Summit County’s rivers and creeks again filling with spring runoff after a particularly wet May, residents and visitors who want to recreate in and around swiftwater should be aware of the dangers, Ciullo said.

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Summit County has three natural-flowing rivers — Tenmile Creek, Snake River and Blue River — which are sometimes rafted recreationally, depending on the conditions, according to Ciullo. With a strong winter snowpack and plenty of precipitation, all three are running with rafters expecting a good season, he said.

Still, Colorado has already seen several swiftwater fatalities this year. Of the at least four swiftwater fatalities in the state so far this year, one happened in nearby Eagle County when a juvenile died after being separated from his family when a boat capsized on the Upper Colorado River. Meanwhile, a man remains missing after he was last seen getting into the Colorado River in an inflatable kayak on May 18 at the Pioneer Park campground in Hot Sulfur Springs.

“Everything right now is super swollen and pushing fast,” noted Matt Parker, a member of Summit County Rescue Group with swiftwater rescue training. “Obviously the greatest at-risk group is the rafters and kayakers in the waters, but then there are also people near campsites or at the Silverthorne Pavilion that can find themselves in the water when they don’t intend to be.”

Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo
Several rescuers practice their swiftwater rescue skills during a training in 2021.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

Anyone recreating near streams or rivers should keep a close eye on children and pets at all times and should stay away from water if they cannot swim and do not have a personal flotation device, said Parker, who is also a firefighter and paramedic with Summit Fire & EMS. Anytime someone is within a body-length of the water, they should exercise additional caution because there is a risk of falling in, he said.

Ciullo noted that rushing water can sometimes dig out the edges of river, creating overhangs similar to cornices that are hard to see from the river’s edge but could collapse underneath someone who steps too close to the water.

People should avoid entering the water unless they need to or have the prerequisite knowledge for the recreational activity, such as fly fishing, Ciullo added. If someone does want to enter the water, they should choose a calm section rather than a section with rapids and wear a personal flotation device, he said.

“A lot of people don’t understand how much force water has,” Ciullo said. “Usually when the water gets up to your mid-thigh or your waist, that is when there is enough pressure to sweep your legs out from under you.” 

To give a sense of the strength with which some of these creeks and rivers can be flowing this time of year, Parker noted that when the speed of water doubles, the force that water exerts quadruples. So a river moving 5 feet per second will exert 33 pounds of force, while a river moving at 10 feet per second will exert closer 134 pounds of force, he said.

“So that ability to pull you under and hold you under, if you get pushed against a submerged tree or rock or foot entrapped — it can be very significant,” Parker said.

Anyone who witnesses someone fall into a river or creek should call 911 or direct someone to do so immediately while also trying to keep track of the person in the water, Parker said. The person in the water should try to swim aggressively to the safest shoreline, he said.

Someone who does find themselves in swiftwater can also assume a swimming position known as “nose and toes,” Ciullo said, where they are on their backs, arms extended, with their nose out of the water and their feet and toes pointed downstream. In that position, someone can use their feet to push off rocks while angling their body toward the safest shore, he said.

Rafters and kayakers should also be aware of strainers, Ciulllo noted. Strainers are anything that is blocking the river, such as downed trees or hanging branches. If someone encounters a strainer while in the water, they should flip onto their stomach and go headfirst into the strainer, trying to push themselves up and over the obstacle.

“When you encounter that strainer, use everything you have to climb on top of it,” Ciullo said. “Do not, do not, do not — and I emphasize — do not go under the strainer. That’s how most people die.”

Going under a strainer can be dangerous, Ciullo said, because debris that may not be visible from above the water can trap a person and drown them.

People should also be aware of foot entrapments, Parker said. Anytime someone is being washed downriver and puts their foot down, there is a risk that their foot can become trapped under a rock or in debris, he said.

“Their foot doesn’t release, and they can be held under the water because water is insanely powerful,” Parker said.

Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo
A participant swims in strong water, during a swiftwater rescue technician training in 2021.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

With the Blue River flowing right through Silverthorne and past several campsites, people may see more experienced rafters on the river and may want to hit the water themselves, Parker noted. But both Ciullo and Parker warned about entering the water without the proper equipment. 

“These aren’t little lazy, flat rivers that you might find in other parts of the country,” Parker said. “And I know we’ve had accidents and fatalities where people bought single-chambered rafts from Walmart, a craft that isn’t meant to run these kinds of rivers.”

Anyone heading out on the water should always have a proper vessel, go with a partner and be wearing a personal flotation device, Ciullo said. He also recommends a whistle in case of emergency and a helmet to protect against head injuries that could leave someone unconscious in the water.

Since most of the creeks and rivers in Summit County are narrow and fast-moving and therefore best for experienced rafters, Ciullo recommends that anyone who wants to try rafting out book a trip on the Arkansas or Colorado River with a professional guide.

“There is a very fine line between having fun and almost dying in rafting,” Ciullo said. “You can be having the time of your life and a split second later be in the water.” 

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