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Guest commentary: Recovering our friend from Crystal River was something we had to do; he would have done the same for us

A group of friends and experts set up a rig across the Crystal River to recover the body of Chason Russell. The experienced crew tested the system before putting rescuers in it.
Courtesy photo

I’m writing these words in the aftermath of the death of our friend in an attempt to make some sense of the last few days, as well as to tell the details and truths as I know them of the events up to and after Chason Russell’s death on the Crystal River.

Chason was kayaking with his longtime adventure partner Stan Prichard of Carbondale on Thursday night, as well as another man. On the lower half of the Meatgrinder Rapid, Chason flipped over and missed the very narrow window of opportunity to “roll” his kayak upright again before he began dropping into the next rocky section of whitewater.

I assume during this section that he was upside down, Chason took a hard blow to the helmet and felt the need to eject himself from his kayak. Chason has been kayaking for over 25 years and has only “swam” out of his boat once or twice, an incredible fact and a testament to just how good a kayaker he was.

Upon “swimming” out of his boat, Stan was immediately with Chason and attempting to rescue his partner. Chason was never lost. Stan Prichard was by his side the entire time. Stan brought his boat to within Chason’s reach and made contact and began paddling him to shore.

The two went through another “hole” or large rapid, which caused Stan’s boat to flip. The two lost contact at the time and Stan “rolled” his boat back upright to see Chason get flushed over the next river feature and submerge completely. He saw Chason begin to rise and then stop just shy of the surface. We know now that Chason’s leg became stuck in an “entrapment,” or lodged between rocks that held him in place.

Stan whipped his kayak into the “eddy” or slack water just behind Chason and attempted to make contact again. The situation became quite dangerous for Stan, as during the ensuing efforts he lost his paddle while attempting to make contact with Chason and had to paddle to shore by hand. Once on shore he made every effort to get a rope to Chason but too much time had past and Chason remained stuck and had become unresponsive.

The effort that Stan put into saving his friend cannot be overstated. In the end, Chason was lost to kayaking. He had spent the entirety of his life pursuing the sport all over the world. Kayaking and skiing were his passions and nothing made him happier than being on the water in all its forms with his friends and loved ones. He was truly a river otter in human form.

As the news spread Friday morning, his friends from around the state began to travel toward Redstone. We arrived throughout the afternoon to be together and console each other in a time of hardship. Upon arrival it became clear that Chason would not be recovered by any formal entity, Sherrif’s Office, Search and Rescue, or otherwise. It was Stan Prichard’s firm opinion that Chason never became dislodged from his entrapment and was still in the same basic location. Efforts to identify him from drone footage were not positive and so no action was to be taken by local authorities.

Those of us who knew and loved Chason could not stand by without attempting to recover him from the river. So, the assembled group made some calls and rounded up all the necessary equipment to perform a body recovery on our own. The group was comprised of about 30 people: swift water rescue technicians and instructors, ski patrollers, mountain guides, world class kayakers, rock climbers, doctors, EMTs and loved ones. They ranged from Telluride, Silverton, Durango, Ouray, Aspen, Carbondale and Tahoe, and as a group had literally hundreds of years of experience to draw on. This was not a cavalier effort, but a calculated, well thought out and careful mission.

In a five-hour period on Saturday (June 19) the group built a ropes system across the river to guide a raft, controlled from shore, into the area where Chason Russell submerged. We conducted a “grid search” of the roughly 15-by-15 foot space in the lower half of Meatgrinder rapid. As a brief hailstorm rained down, we located his body.

Members of the group were able to get a rope around him — his body was approximately 3 feet below the surface. Again using our ropes system we were able to pull him free. He was still caught by the same entrapment that held his leg and was found within a few feet of his last sighted location. Ultimately, we were able to get our friend out of the river and bring some much needed closure to his family, wife and loved ones.

I would like to thank the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District for the gracious use of the Redstone firehouse, and to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department for understanding our need to attempt to bring Chason home.

It was hugely cathartic to our group to come together and have a place to focus our grief and energy. Chason would have done the same for any one of us. I would also like to thank everyone who came to lend a hand. No one was asked to come for that purpose, we all just showed up, which in my opinion was the truest act of love.

Lastly, I want to thank Stan Prichard. I have never known a stronger person in all my years of outdoor adventures, as a kayaker, as a climber and as a dedicated friend. Stan led the team in our effort and was in the raft as we recovered our friend. He never gave up trying to bring Chason to shore and we are all very grateful for his efforts.

Like I said before, Chason Russell was never lost, he just moved into our hearts and our paddle strokes, our ski turns and our powders days, and he will remain with us for all river miles of our lives.

Josh Borof is the president of the Telluride Mountain Club and longtime friend of Chason Russell.

Editor’s note: For information on the Chason P Russell Memorial Fund, go to www.gofundme.com/f/chason-russell-memorial-fund.

Guest column: An appeal to Republicans and others reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine

I am a retired neurosurgeon. Like over 95% of physicians, I received a vaccine against COVID-19 as soon as I could. I had only a very brief reaction, feeling tired and a little sore for about 24 hours. Now I feel very safe and secure that, even if I still catch COVID-19, there’s almost no chance that I’ll die from it or need hospitalization. I feel good that I’m protecting myself, my family and everyone with whom I come into contact.

I understand that there are many reasons why around half of Republicans and many others are deciding not to get the vaccine. Let’s walk through some of those.

Perhaps you believed President Trump when he suggested that the virus wasn’t anything to worry about, that it wasn’t much worse than the seasonal flu. I hope you’ve come to understand that he was mistaken about that, now that we’re approaching 600,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 and with cases rising in many of our states. You probably also know that he, Vice President Pence and both of their wives received the vaccine. So did Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst, George W. Bush and most other Republican leaders. They all agree that the way to beat COVID-19 is by being vaccinated. Despite earlier misgivings by some, almost all Republican leaders across the country have received the vaccine and encourage others to.

Perhaps you’re concerned about side effects, particularly blood clots. Fifteen women who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed blood clots within two weeks of getting the vaccine. Nearly 8 million people received that same vaccine, making the odds of this complication, so far, under two in a million. That’s less than the normal incidence of similar blood clots in the overall population, suggesting that there may not even be a connection between these rare cases and the vaccine.

The odds of being struck by lightning are around two per million. We have had over 30 million COVID-19 cases among our 330 million U.S. residents. While the risk of getting infected depends heavily on individual circumstances, that suggests that the average risk of getting it here is close to one of out 10. With nearly 600,000 U.S. deaths, the risk of dying from it after getting it are about 20 in a million (600,000/30 million). Even getting the J&J vaccine, you would be 10 times safer than you would be not getting it. There have been no serious complications reported from over 200 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines given. Even if you’re young and healthy, the safety odds still extremely favor your getting any vaccine over taking a chance without it. Why take that gamble?

Perhaps you’re concerned that corners were cut in haste, and the vaccines were not developed with standard safety protocols, that these are still “experimental” and not proven to be safe. The only shortcuts taken in the process were bureaucratic, the cutting of some red tape, to allow more rapid review and approval of the finished vaccines. The scientific process for developing the vaccines followed standard safety procedures. By all appearances, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 100% safe and extremely effective. We may find that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe as well and that these blood clots are a coincidence. There is nothing to fear, except for catching the virus and dying without a vaccine, as my brother very nearly did.

The vaccine is now available to everyone over the age of 16, and it’s free, no matter where you get it. I hope you’ll reconsider your reasons for resisting it and sign up for your shots. You will safely protect yourself, your family and friends and, as a good patriot, the entire country. We’ll return to normal more quickly.

George Bohmfalk, M.D., is a retired neurosurgeon who splits his time between Carbondale and the Southeast.

Think Again: Are Americans silly or sage?

Melanie Sturm

“You know who doesn’t care that there’s a stereotype of a Chinese man in a Dr. Suess book?” Bill Maher asked on “Real Time.”

“China,” he answered. “All 1.4 billion, … because they’re not a silly people,” unlike Americans. Maher was referring to Suess’ fall from grace for being racially insensitive.

Maher should think again about Americans, considering the sales bonanza enjoyed by shunned classics, including six books canceled by Dr. Suess Enterprises, epic film “Gone with The Wind” and Mr. Potato Head.

Though securing freedom of choice with our wallets, Americans must wage a fuller-throated defense of the American Idea, that a diverse people can forge a freer and fairer nation by hashing out differences civilly.

Even prominent French politicians and intellectuals fear America’s illiberal social theories, which prominent African American academic Glenn Loury called “a formula for tyranny and more racism” in his recent Congressional testimony.

It’s an apt description considering efforts to cancel Shakespeare and Beethoven for being white men. Same for the forced resignations of Alexi McCammond, Teen Vogue’s black editor-in-chief, over her teenage tweets, and 45-year New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. for repeating the N-word when asked about it.

Actor Ralph Fiennes recently denounced our “age of accusation” while defending J.K. Rowling, who’s accused of transphobia. It’s “disturbing,” the “hatred that people express about views that differ from theirs, and the violence of language towards others.”

Mere plebeians have no such defense, as detailed in a NYT story about Smith College, where service workers earning less than one year’s tuition were falsely accused of racially profiling a student.

Nevertheless, Smith launched obligatory and accusatory antibias training so unbearable, Jodi Shaw — a self-described liberal and Smith graduate — recently resigned her administrative post, refusing a settlement to “remain silent.”

Her resignation letter is an indictment of our dehumanizing, illiberal and neo-racist moment in which “people’s worth is determined by the color of their skin,” and “failing to swear fealty … is grounds for public humiliation and professional retaliation.”

Having chosen freedom over comfort and legal recourse, Shaw wrote, “My children’s future, and indeed, our collective future as a free nation, depends on people having the courage to stand up to this dangerous and divisive ideology.”

Shaw’s efforts reflect the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper, who coined Paradox of Tolerance in 1945: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance,” countering the intolerant “by rational argument and keep(ing) them in check by public opinion.”

Can we check intolerance amid the “new McCarthyism” and the self-censorship it induces? Yes, when silent majorities speak out, like falling dominoes, they’ll recover human dignity and civility. Just as our bodies and spirits crave liberation from quarantine, so do our minds and voices.

But “civility is more than good manners,” the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” Civility “is a recognition that listening respectfully to your opponents is a necessary part of the politics of a free society; and that liberal democracy, predicated … on the dignity of diversity, must keep the peace between contending groups by honoring us all equally, in both our diversity and our commonalities.”

Civility means speaking to the better angels of our nature, recognizing Soviet dissident Alexandre Solzhenitsyn’s insight that “the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart.” That’s why we should think of our life’s deeds as perfectly balanced, helping us strive to tip the scale toward the good, as rabbinic sage Maimonides taught.

So why not try loving your neighbor as yourself? If the best way to change the world is by changing the people in it, as Sacks argues, shouldn’t we endeavor to engage people, their ideas and values? Imagine listening with radical curiosity to someone with differing beliefs and having them reciprocate. Then try engaging in conversation where you express their views and they yours.

Might radical curiosity and respect stimulate mutual trust and understanding, illuminating unseen common ground? Might it become clearer that no one has a monopoly on virtue or vice, restoring the ethic “to err is human, to forgive is divine?”

Think again — wouldn’t we be a sage people with a more perfect union if we granted each other the right to an opinion on how to achieve it and the grace to be wrong?

Melanie Sturm, founder of Engage to Win, aims to change communication for good through her training and writing. Encouraging readers to Think Again, “you might change your mind.” She welcomes comments at melanie@engage2win.org.