The lure of the river is undeniable as temperatures rise, and although water levels have fallen since June, river recreation is never without its risks.
Two fatalities have been reported between Aspen and Rifle so far this year, with a kayaker missing near Marble presumed dead as well. That’s about average for the area, where first timers and experienced river runners alike occasionally run afoul of nature.
Statewide, five of at least 15 drowning deaths this year have been in rafting accidents, according to news reports.
“Anything can happen to anyone at any time,” said Jesse Hood, a Swift Water Technician for the Glenwood Fire Department.
Still, people can take numerous steps people to protect themselves.
“The thing I can’t stress enough is wear a life jacket,” said Hood. “You need a PFD (personal flotation device) when you’re in the water.”
That applies across the board, from kayakers to tubers. A whitewater and Coast Guard approved type III or type V life jacket is recommended. They should be in good condition, free of tears and frays and with a legible label. If you can lift a secured life jacket more than 2 inches off your shoulders, it doesn’t fit and won’t do much good. A pool floatie or a life jacket you’re not wearing is even less helpful.
“Once you flip it’s too late,” Hood said.
Life jackets are available at many local sports stores, but if you can’t afford to rent or purchase one, the Glenwood Springs Professional Firefighters have you covered. Local raft companies have donated more than 100 life jackets as part of the “Kids’ Don’t Float” program to provide PFDs to adults and children alike.
Call 970-274-9676 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for to get fitted with a free life jacket to keep.
Hypothermia is a possibility even on hot days, so it’s a good idea to avoid cotton-based clothing that retains water. Sturdy shoes or well-secured sandals are also advisable. Hood also recommends against tethers for paddleboarders unless they come with a quick release.
The right equipment goes only so far without good judgment. Hood advised against diving headfirst and encouraged boaters to limit alcohol consumption and have a designated driver. You can also help avoid general confusion by labeling the things you take with you in case you lose them in the river.
In the end, there’s no substitute for experience.
“Go with someone who knows what they’re doing and learn the ropes from them,” Hood advised. “You gain experience by going with knowledgeable people.”
Regardless of your skills, it’s important to know your limits. The best way to stay safe, Hood said, is not to get into a situation you can’t get out of yourself. He estimated that it takes around 10 minutes for a swift water rescue team to arrive on scene after a call. That’s more than enough time for a disaster to unfold even in an area with cell reception and bystanders.
If you do go into a rapid with a life jacket, Hood recommends the whitewater swim position: knees to chest, feet downstream and arms out to steer. In flat water, try to swim to the boat or the shore. Regardless, he said, you never want to try to stand up in fast-moving water.
Hood also encouraged learning a few basic hand signals. River runners use a positive point, toward the safe path instead of toward danger. A tap on the head asks “are you OK?” with a returned tap as confirmation.
A little communication can prevent the situation from escalating as rescue attempts endanger more lives.
“We don’t want you to be another victim,” Hood said.