Rafting death a reminder of need for caution

Brett Milam and Kelli Rollin
Grizzly Creek was turbulent Monday just above its confluence with the Colorado River.
Brett Milam / Post Independent |

safe rafting

1. Wear a lifejacket. Contact the Glenwood Springs fire department at (970) 384-6480 if you need to borrow one.

2. Wear a helmet.

3. Research the water levels and current.

4. Plan your trip for the most inexperienced member of your group.

5. If thrown out of the raft on a rapid, try to sit leaning back with your arms spread out. Never lie on your front; rocks could injure you.

6. Make sure everyone is accounted for at all times.

7. Mentally and physically prepare for self-rescue situations.

8. Don’t fully rely on other people to rescue you if thrown out of the raft. Try to swim to the raft or shore.

9. Inform everyone about safety precautions and plans before starting the trip.

10. Consult a local rafting company if unsure what to do in certain situations.

GRIZZLY CREEK — The roiling Colorado River was no deterrent Monday for Tyler Smith and his girlfriend, who were poised to take their raft out from Grizzly Creek.

Smith said he didn’t know that this was the same spot where emergency workers were unable Saturday to revive an Illinois man who fell in the river while rafting, but he was undaunted.

“It’s an inherent risk of the sport. We do everything we can to mitigate it,” said Smith, who lives in Avon.

In 2014, 17 people died in Colorado boating accidents, 14 of which were on rivers and 12 in private excursions with no guides. Kris Wahlers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife boating safety program manager, said 2014 was an above-average year for boating accidents, which encompass rafting, canoeing and power boating. The average for the last five years is about 10 boating deaths, though the number has fluctuated from two to 17.

Smith said he has worked his way up from kayaking to bigger boats, like the raft he prepared for Monday’s excursion, and has learned precautions along the way. He gave safety tips to other boaters nearby as they prepared to launch Monday.

Boaters often look out for each other in that fashion, said Gary Tillotson, Glenwood Springs’ fire chief.

Glenwood rescue crews were called to the scene of Saturday’s accident. Tillotson said the raft flipped upstream from Grizzly Creek and one of its occupants fell into the water, according to the incident report.

Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire said Monday the victim was 56-year-old Dennis W. Janes of Warsaw, Illinois, who drowned. Two of Janes’ friends were in the raft with him on the private excursion.

“What my crew thought is that they all flew out of the raft,” Tillotson said.

He said a bystander who wasn’t in the raft called 911.

According to a news release from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, that call came in at 12:38 p.m. Janes’ friends pulled him back into the raft and began performing CPR. They got the raft to shore at the Grizzly Creek rest area a few minutes later, just before responders arrived at 12:46 p.m., but were unable to revive him.

Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Co., said different precautions must be taken as streamflows fluctuate at different spots on the Colorado.

Murphy said his company tries to “bubble wrap” the experience to ensure safety, but guides are still working against Mother Nature.

“We try to educate people,” Murphy said.

Glenwood Adventure, which offers five levels of difficulty for rafting excursions, provides guests with a safety orientation before each trip. Murphy said if someone is thrown out of the raft, he or she should know elements of “self-rescue,” because the guides are responsible for the entire rafting group.

The Colorado River at Dotsero, upstream from the accident, was flowing Saturday at 11,000 cubic feet per second, at the high end of historic flows. It remained at 10,900 cfs on Monday. The 75th percentile for that spot in the river is 8,510 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The highest recorded was 16,000 cfs in 2011.

The stretch is rated as a Class III rapids based on lower summertime flows.

Murphy said his company and other commercial companies in the area don’t take groups on the river in areas with a flow greater than 6,000 cfs. He said that’s a decision the company makes for general customer safety.

However, Murphy said some areas of the river might be safe at over 6,000 cfs. He said multiple factors such as the ages of rafters and river narrowness, landscape and flow determine the overall safety of an area.

Even what is standing water one week could “become a bit more exciting” the next week when water levels are high, Murphy said.

Janes was wearing a helmet and life jacket, which Murphy and Tillotson emphasized as essential for safety.

The fire department collaborates with local outfitters and residents to provide free life jackets to those venturing onto the rivers. Murphy and Tillotson said the life jacket giveaway program encourages river safety.

People can borrow life jackets from the fire department if they don’t own one or forget theirs.

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