What appeared to be a banner year for rafting in Colorado, with rivers running high and fast and an abundance of whitewater rapids, has instead been one of the deadliest years in memory.
Colorado’s deep snowpack and long-running snowmelt turned out be to too much of a good thing.
Snowmelt and rivers are finally beginning to subside, but at least 12 people have died in accidents on the state’s rivers. Three more are missing.
The deaths and the publicity about the state’s raging rivers have taken a toll on commercial rafters’ business. The conditions have made people nervous, with some avoiding booking trips this summer, said Mark Hammer, owner of The Adventure Company, based in Buena Vista.
“Industry-wide, I think we’ve all seen a drop in business,” Hammer said, adding that the slow period also could be attributed to unseasonably cool weather in May and June.
“We were still getting snow until about the third week in June in the mountains. I don’t know which had a bigger impact — the weather or the publicity of high water — but I think the combination of those had a negative impact on business, for sure.”
The Arkansas River, where it flows through Avondale, is flowing at almost twice the normal rate for this time of the year, said Russ Schumacher, a state climatologist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
Last year, when the snowpack was at a near-record low, there were only two rafting and kayaking deaths in Colorado, according to river conservation nonprofit American Whitewater.
The last time conditions were similar to this year was 2011, when the snowpack was deep and the snowmelt extended into mid-July, Schumacher said. That year, nine people died in the state’s rivers, American Whitewater reported, with many of the deaths attributed to high water.
As of Friday, Colorado still had 0.3 inches of snow water equivalent, a measurement the National Resources Conservation Service uses to determine snowpack. The snow water equivalent is how deep the water would be if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously, according to the climate center.
A cooler spring and summer this year, until the most recent heat wave, left snow on the peaks longer, pushing the snowmelt later into the year. With most of the snow melted, aside from some peaks in northern Colorado, river levels and flows should be tapering off, Schumacher said, reducing the danger.
The contrast between last year — “one of the driest, worst water years on record” — and this year is stark, said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin Program for the nonprofit American Rivers.
“I think why it’s so dangerous is because last year was so low, people have an experience on a river last year in and around the same date, and they think that that’s just how the river’s going to be always,” Rice said. “‘That was easy and that was so fun and that was the best day,’ and they go out there (this year) and they’re like, ‘Wow, it looks a little bit higher,’ but they don’t quite know what that means.
“Bottom line, it’s just really, really important, unless your skill base is really, really high, people should stay out of the rivers until they’ve come down. Until they’re safer.”
His advice to people who want to get out and enjoy the rivers is to go with a professional.
The conditions make it more difficult for save someone once they are in the water, too, said Pat Caufield, vice president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association.
Caufield, commander of Fremont County’s Search and Rescue Team, stressed the importance of going on the river with people who know the river’s flows and can perform a swift water rescue if necessary.
“A river rescue is very much like an avalanche rescue. The people that will rescue you are going to be the people there when it happens,” he said. “By the time first responders come, it’s over.”
Since June 10, at least three people have died on the Arkansas River in Colorado. Two were on a raft and one was on a stand-up paddleboard, according to media reports.
“It’s a river to have respect for,” Caufield said. “If you are going to go in the water at 3,000 (cubic feet per second), you want to go in and do it smartly.”
To put it into perspective, one cubic foot is about the size of a basketball, Caufield said. If a river is flowing at 3,000 cubic feet per second, imagine 3,000 basketballs going by you in one second. In mid-June, the Arkansas was at its highest, flowing past Cañon City at nearly 5,000 cubic feet per second.
Because water flows vary along the 1,450-mile river, there isn’t a general rule as to when to avoid the river, Caufield said.
There’s no official guidance in judging the risk, either; no public agency regulates recreation on Colorado’s rivers or tracks deaths on them.
“Unlike highways or something, we don’t own the rivers, so I think that’s probably where this comes from,” said Patricia Billinger, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Safety. “There’s no one who’s responsible for safety on the rivers. People are responsible for their own individual safety. And then if they go with a rafting company, then that rafting company obviously has some responsibility for their safety.”
American Whitewater, which tracks river-related accidents nationwide, has records for Colorado going back to 1973.
Of the 12 deaths reported this year by American Whitewater, four died while rafting with commercial rafting companies.
Six people drowned after falling out of a raft. Two others were reportedly floating on an inner tube, two fell off a paddleboard and one person was in a kayak. Another woman was standing at the edge of a river, fell in and was swept away by the high waters.
Hammer said his rafting company makes adjustments when rivers are running as high as they have this year to keep its customers safe. Those include raising minimum ages and swimming ability, he said.
“Usually, high water is over early-, mid-June, and then by the time we really get hit with the big vacationers, families in July, we’re back to medium or lower flows,” he said. To adapt, this year the company chose a calmer route, suitable for families, that brings rafters through Salida.
The Adventure Company follows section-specific recommendations from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Three sections of the Arkansas River have high-water cutoffs: The expert section of Pine Creek, the advanced section of The Numbers and the advanced section of Royal Gorge.
“I don’t know of a commercial company that doesn’t follow those recommendations,” he said. “I think it would be foolish not to.”
But even on the sections that don’t have high-water cutoffs, “that doesn’t mean that we should just do anything any day.”
Although the company’s guides take rafters out on four Colorado rivers, “the vast majority” are on the Arkansas River, Hammer said.
The company has had to cancel trips this year — for example, trips were scheduled on The Numbers when the section was above the high-water recommendation — but tries to offer each rider an alternative.
“It’s tough, because it’s a guessing game because the water rises and drops really with weather, based on snowpack and weather.” He said Thursday that the state’s rivers had just come out of a high-water period and were settling into an “upper-medium flow.”