Frog Rock, a rapid on the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista, looks nothing like a frog.
“I don’t know why it’s called Frog Rock. I’ve never been able to make a frog out of it,” said Stew Pappenfort, a park ranger with the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area who has been rafting this river for 35 years.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in 2010, but it begs a still relevant question of whether or not we should alter nature to make it safer.
The flat-topped, rectangular chunk of granite doesn’t look like much of a threat, either. It’s a deception that has claimed the lives of four boaters in the past decade, including 23-year-old rafting guide Kimberly Appelson, of Breckenridge, who fell in and disappeared below the water July 11, 2010. It took four attempts in as many months to recover her body. After a temporary dam was built, divers from the Colorado Springs Fire Department finally pulled her out Oct. 27. She was still wearing her life jacket.
At the time, her death spurred intense debate and calls for action among Colorado’s boating community. Should officials alter the deadliest spot on the most-rafted river in Colorado in the name of safety? Could they? And why, in a place where the thrill of risk is a big part of the draw, would they?
Rushing water and falling rock are two of the most destructive forces in nature, and they meet at Frog Rock, where a cliff long ago collapsed onto the right bank and into the Arkansas. What remains is an underwater sieve, a tangle of rocks and chambers through which water rushes but a person can become trapped and drown. That’s what happened to 12-year-old Luca Angelescu in July 2000. And to Jennifer Down-Knorr, 36, and husband Bernd Knorr, 39, in August 2001.
At high water, the danger is nonexistent; boaters shoot harmlessly down the left side of the river. But from midsummer on, low water flow exposes the risk, and shallow water and exposed rocks on the left side of the river can make the dangerous right side difficult to avoid.
After those deaths, Colorado State Parks, which manages the area, installed a sign upriver warning river runners to stay left or, when water conditions make that impossible, to get out and portage.
Appelson, an off-duty first-year rafting guide, and her friends knew of the sieve danger but missed the warning sign. When their raft wedged against Frog Rock, Appelson tumbled out.
Said Pappenfort: “She was out and underwater before anyone even recognized she was missing.”Someone has since strapped several orange cones to the warning sign, to make it more visible.
A call for changing river
Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures, Appelson’s employer, never considered himself a proponent of changing a river.
“In this situation, we’ve done that for recreation. I don’t think it’s a jump to do it for a hazard,” said Bradford, referring to whitewater parks that have been built in cities along the river.
Like many rafting companies, his company does not lead commercial trips down that stretch of the river when the water is flowing at less than 700 cubic feet per second, but private boaters may still run it. And it’s easy to miss the warning sign, he said.
“What happens, when the river gets channelized in lower water, it doesn’t give the boater a lot of options, other than going down the right side close to the hazard,” Bradford said. He thinks rocks or other structures should be placed where they would divert water down the left channel.
At rafting and boating message board mountainbuzz.com, many more and radical suggestions have been made, everything from dynamiting Frog Rock to yanking it from the river. Some have encouraged people to go out and drop rocks in the river to plug the sieve.
“It’s not a natural way to go. You have to make an effort to stay left,” said Bob Hamel, with Arkansas River Tours in Cotopaxi and chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
The association has no position on altering Frog Rock, though Hamel said he supports alterations that would make it easier for rafters and kayakers to stay left.
“The Arkansas parallels (U.S.) Highway 50 and parallels the railroad for the entire route that’s rafted. The railroad has influenced what occurs in the river, as has the highway,” Hamel said. “This is not a completely natural situation here. It’s not a wilderness river.”
Terry Peavler, president of Chaffee County Search and Rescue North, argues against altering the rapid. Breaking up the rock or changing the river’s course could make the rapid more dangerous, he said.
There is also a philosophical argument.“The river is dangerous. The mountains are dangerous. The backcountry is dangerous,” said Peavler, incident commander of the recovery efforts. “People come up here, they get badly injured. They get killed. That’s a part of it. It just goes with it.”
A liability concernIt was pragmatism, not philosophy, that led Colorado State Parks to opt not to change the rapid.Officials talked with river managers and trade groups across the country and found no evidence that altering a rapid makes it safer. Concrete plugs wash out, rocks tumble and rushing rivers stubbornly refuse to be changed.
So after officials built a diversion dam to allow divers to recover Appelson’s body, they restored the river’s natural course.
“The river is the way it is for a reason. The decision was made based on previous examples we were not going to try and alter this rapid. We were going to perform the recovery and return it to a natural state,” said Pappenfort.
It’s the same conclusion reached in 2006 concerning perhaps the most notorious rapid in the nation: Dimple Rock on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania, where nine boaters have died since 1980. It has a similar undercut where boaters become trapped, but officials concluded altering it might make it more dangerous.
Instead, warning signs and ropes help rafters line up and carefully avoid the hazard, said Risa Shimoda, executive director of the Maryland-based River Management Society.
Using concrete, rocks or dynamite to “fix” a rapid has seldom worked anywhere and is an approach she called “short-sighted.”
“If you were to fix every possible dangerous place on every river that is heavily rafted, you’d spend your whole lifetime working on it,” Shimoda said.
Pappenfort said there is also a liability concern: If the state changes the rapid, is it legally responsible for future deaths or injuries?
Parks officials will put additional, larger signs upriver by next spring, and brochures handed out to boaters will contain a warning about Frog Rock. Also, the contractor who built the diversion dam unintentionally altered the left channel by removing large rocks that hindered boaters during low water, Pappenfort said.
He declined to comment on the philosophical debate about altering the river.
“As far as the ethical question of should you go around monkeying with rapids, gosh, I’ll leave that up to Mountain Buzz.”
Call for signage
Appelson’s family, who lives in Illinois, hopes officials find a way to avoid future tragedies, said her brother, Doug Appelson.
“We think it is best to let the park service determine the best course of action for the river itself,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That being said, it is absolutely necessary for there to be clear signage that the rapid is dangerous and that any raft or kayak should portage.
“I have been to the rapid and just by looking at it you cannot tell how dangerous it actually is.”
“If you write anything about the rapid please also mention how amazing Kimberly Appelson was. She was beautiful and funny and loved life. She gave more to this world than she took, and there aren’t that many people you can genuinely say that about.
“She was the type of person that this world needs more of and I will miss her every day.”
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in 2010, but it begs a good question of whether or not we should alter nature to make it safer. Share your opinion below.
Here’s an update from Sky-Hi News on the subject of changes, published in 2010.
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