Eagle County rivers are running fast, which has paddling experts preaching safety
Dec 23, 2023
News News | Jun 8, 2023
As snow melts on the mountaintops, rivers are flowing in Eagle County. The pull of the river is strong; the broad, steady-looking expanses are enticing to those looking to relax on the water, while rushing sections of rapids call out to thrill seekers. But the pull of the river is strong in another way, as well: Underneath the beauty of the rushing water can lie danger for the unprepared.
There have been at least four swiftwater-related deaths in Colorado recently, including a minor wearing a personal flotation device on the Upper Colorado River and a Vail local in Glenwood Canyon.
So, are rivers running higher than usual for this time of year?
They are not, said Karl Borski, co-owner of Lakota Guides, a guiding agency based in Edwards that operates trips on the Upper Colorado, Eagle, and Arkansas rivers. Water levels right now are "very typical for average years." Monthly-average streamflow is normal for the month of May 2023, and the Eagle River has not yet reached higher levels this year than in previous years, according to the United States Geological Survey.
"You don't plan on this perfection. You go, what happens if that storm there rolls in and we pin the raft, and we all swim, and I swim down this river for 10 minutes? Are you wearing stuff that is going to help you survive that?" — Ken Hoeve
However, due to the drier conditions of the last two years, many visiting or living in the valley are unaccustomed to the proper safety precautions that must be taken when navigating local rivers, which, due to slow snowpack melt, are due to continue throughout the next month.
Ken Hoeve, who worked as a safety kayaker for Timberline Tours for 15 years, assisting its Class V rafting trips, warns of the dangers of rafting without proper equipment or experience. According to Hoeve, essential gear for rafting includes protective footwear, a wetsuit or something similar for in-water warmth, a helmet, and a tightly-fitting personal flotation device.
Hoeve knows the Eagle River well. He frequently navigates its Class II and III rapids on a stand-up paddleboard. Even for those with his knowledge, he warns, anything can go wrong. Conditions are constantly changing on the river, from obstacles to external conditions. Fallen trees can create strainers that threaten to catch boats and people alike, rocks can produce unexpected drops, and the weather can become cold and rainy without warning.
"You don't plan on this perfection," Hoeve said during a recent trip down the Eagle River, pointing to the blue sky. "You go, what happens if that storm there rolls in and we pin the raft, and we all swim, and I swim down this river for 10 minutes? Are you wearing stuff that is going to help you survive that?"
If a person does fall in, they should assume whitewater float position. Hoeve describes the position as "like you’re sitting in a La-Z-Boy." A swimmer should lie on their back with their legs downstream of their head and their arms outstretched, keeping their nose above the surface.
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"Your legs and your feet make way better shock absorbers than your head going downstream," Hoeve said. "If there's a rock in front of you, it's OK to hit it and push off."
Avoid standing up, however, which can lead to rocks or other debris along the bottom of the water entrapping the swimmer's foot, enabling the water to pull them under and making it difficult to free them.
To have the safest possible rafting experience, Hoeve emphasizes: "When in doubt, go with a commercial guide service."
According to Borski, Lakota's guides all undergo "constant training." Additionally, "all Lakota staff are required to go through a Swiftwater Rescue Technician Course," a field-based class that trains rescuers to extricate a person from the water under swiftwater conditions.
If done with adequate gear and knowledge, rafting can be a fun and rewarding way to experience the beauty of Colorado's nature, and even find some excitement along the way. Borski encourages those with an interest in rafting to try it out, in particular with trained guides. "We have all different sorts of sections that we can run, and get really any age and ability out there, which is fantastic."
Hoeve also encourages people to get out on the water — it is hard to find terrain as untouched by people as one can see while rafting, as well as find thrills, he said. But it is important to do so safely.
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Jun 5, 2023 A four-person rafting trip heads down the Eagle River, piloted by Ken Hoeve.