Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content 2014 has been record-tying, deadly year on Colorado waterways

By Matt Steiner Updated: July 27, 2014 at 4:41 pm

A grim trend that began in late May and surged through June has continued this month on Colorado's rivers.

Another rafter died Thursday after the vessel that a 57-year-old Texas woman was riding became lodged in a suck hole and capsized, the Chaffee County Sheriff's Office said.

Mary Johnson, who was on a rafting expedition on the Arkansas River about 14 miles north of Buena Vista, became the latest victim in a record-tying whitewater rafting season that has claimed 14 lives along the state's rivers. Another person died in late June on North Sterling Reservoir, bringing the boat-related death tally to 15, matching the total set in 2009, according to Abbie Walls a spokeswoman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Colorado officials and representatives of the state's whitewater industry point to "inherent risks" associated with riding the rivers. Mike Kissack, the president of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, said early-season high water and myriad risks come into play every time thrill-seekers climb into a raft or kayak.

"There's no one thing that contributes to a river fatality," Kissack said. "It's a piling on of factors."

Witnesses said the raft Johnson was in Thursday entered Class-5 - the most difficult - rapids when the guide for Timberline Tours fell from the boat. The raft then got stuck in the suck hole, rotated and threw multiple people into the river, the sheriff's office said.

Other riders made it to shore safely, but Johnson floated farther downstream and was pulled out of the water by a safety kayaker, who administered CPR immediately. Chaffee County emergency medical technicians arrived a short time later, but were unsuccessful in reviving the woman.

Johnson was pronounced dead at the site of the tragedy, marking the seventh death on the Arkansas this year.

The rapids in which Johnson's raft overturned hadn't been traveled much this summer, said Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area manager Rob White. He said early season water conditions prompted constant high-water advisories for the Pine Creek Rapids where the death occurred.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife issues such advisories when river flow rates exceed 1,250 cubic feet per second. Flow rates measure the amount of water that moves past a given point in one second.

White and Kissack each said the waters are slowing down as the season progresses and have been at "moderate" ratings this week. According to the Arkansas River Outfitters Association website, the flow rate on Friday was just under 900 cfs.

White said high-water conditions this season are due to higher than normal snowpack in the mountains above the channels. The early season raging waters can shift things around in the rivers, he said, moving rocks, changing holes and making the waters unpredictable even for experienced guides.

White said large rain storms that roll in and dump a lot of water will increase river flows "for a few hours." But rains do not lead to sustained high-water conditions.

Kissack said commercial whitewater companies are continuing to stress safety to those seeking whitewater thrills, and reminded all that rafting and kayaking are simply dangerous sports.

"There's not a commercial operator out there that would ever guarantee complete safety," he said.

Commercial companies provide guides, equipment and safety briefings. Kissack said the most important safety factor comes with honesty from the customers when asked about skill levels and limitations.

"Everyone might want to do Class-5 rapids, but not everyone is suited for Class-5," Kissack said.

According to Kissack and White, rafters and kayakers - whether participating with guides or on their own - need to be ready to take part in their own rescues. Kissack said people "can't just float on their backs and expect someone else to save them."

Even in Class-1 sections of the rivers, Kissack said, the nature of the sport brings risks.

"We tell them rocks are just as hard on Class 1 as on Class 5," he said.

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Contact Matt Steiner: 636-0362

Twitter @gazsteiner

Facebook: Matt Steiner

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