Your Watershed column: Nine tips for an exciting and safe season of river sports |

Your Watershed column: Nine tips for an exciting and safe season of river sports

Bailey Leppek

So far, 2019 has been a welcome relief after last year’s historic drought. The rivers are bumping, and the snowpack is still deep, promising a long season of river sports yet to come.

But with great flows come great responsibilities. Peak flows in early July of this year were just shy of flood stage, so it is crucial to keep safety in mind as we get out and enjoy the river.

Here are nine safety tips to keep our river adventures safe all summer.

1) Always wear a well-fitting life jacket — aka portable flotation device (PFD). But just wearing the life jacket is not enough. It must be worn correctly. All buckles must be clipped, and the jacket should fit snugly to your body. You should be able to breathe, but the jacket should not slip up over your head. A good, snug life jacket also makes it easier to pull you back aboard if you fall out.

2) Use your head — Protect your head. Helmets reduce the risk of injury. You wear a helmet when bicycling, right?

3) Check the flow in the river — Be prepared for how high the river will be by checking the nearest gage. Google “USGS gage” and “Roaring Fork River” or “Colorado River” etc. and select the gage nearest you.

4) Be prepared for the elements — Depending on the weather, a dry suit, wet suit, splash jacket, or at least quick dry clothing can make the trip much more comfortable. Even in the summer, the weather can become unexpectedly chilly. It is better to be prepared than to be uncomfortable (or hypothermic). Consider packing a dry change of clothes and/or warm jacket in a dry bag. Bring sunscreen and sunglasses with UV protection. Remember sunburns can happen fast at higher elevation and can be severe. Wear proper river shoes. Water shoes or sturdy sandals (rather than flip flops) will protect your toes and reduce your chance of slipping.

5) Hydrate, and bring snacks — It’s easy to forget about drinking water when water is all around you, but hydration is one of the most important elements to river safety. Always bring snacks. Otherwise you might get hangry. And hangry rafting is no fun.

6) Stay in the boat — Pay attention, look ahead for rocks, strainers and bumps that can launch someone into the river. When you see something coming up, alert your boat and speak up. The river is loud and noisy.

If you fall out of the boat:

7) Don’t panic — Find your boat. Assume safe swimming position: on your back, nose and toes to the sky, with your head up so you can see where you are going. Your feet are pointed downstream with your knees slightly bent so if you come in contact with a rock you can use your feet and legs to absorb the shock and push off the rock. Arms should be out to your side to help keep yourself in control. Keep your butt up and your legs together — a misplaced rock could make it painful to sit down for a week. If someone falls off your boat, have them next to the boat facing away from the boat and pull them back in by the shoulder straps of their life vest, not by their arms. The life vest gives you better grip and leverage, plus pulling by the arm can dislocate a shoulder. Practice throwing the throw bag and properly maintaining and stuffing the throw bag. If you fall out and someone throws you the throw bag, grab the rope, not the whole bag (there’s 60 more feet of rope in there).

8) Hold the paddle properly — Holding the paddle properly can be a huge safety concern. One hand should be at the base of the paddle on the shaft. The other hand should be on the end of the shaft over the “T” grip. The “T” grip is made of hard plastic and can blacken eyes and knock out teeth. Keeping your hand over the “T” grip will keep control of the paddle and cushion the blow if it should happen.

When in doubt, it is always safer to go with a licensed and professional rafting outfitter.

Bailey Leppek is contributor to this monthly column for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the health of the middle Colorado River watershed through the cooperative effort of watershed stakeholders: anyone standing in the watershed. To learn more about the MCWC, visit You can also find the Council on Facebook at

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