Are rafters in over their heads?
Aspen, CO Colorado
Every time Linda Lebid tried to breathe, she breathed water.
“I kept getting more water in my lungs,” she said.
It was 2001, and she had fallen out of a raft in the Numbers, a roiling, rock-strewn stretch of the Arkansas River near Buena Vista.
Lebid, an Edwards resident, was on a trip with a local rafting company. Her raft had pancaked on top of another boat that was stuck on a rock. Lebid and another man fell into the water, and she ended up swimming the remainder of the Numbers.
“I didn’t know how out of control it would truly feel,” she said. “It was a big scare. I really felt like, ‘Wow, I could have drowned.'”
The rafting company’s safety talk left Lebid ” an experienced skier, rock climber and horse rider but on only her second raft trip ” unprepared for the ferocity of the water, she said.
Two recent deaths in that same section of river redoubled Lebid’s belief that outfitters can do more to prepare and screen customers for the inherent dangers of the sport.
Two women, one from New York and one from Texas, died earlier this month after they fell into the river while on a Numbers trip with Nova Guides, based out of Camp Hale. There have been five deaths on the Arkansas River this year between Leadville and Canon City.
Lebid said she doesn’t want to discourage rafting, but she said she thinks more training or testing could make it safer.
“I think the system in general needs to change,” Lebid said.
Perhaps participants should be shown a video about the dangers of rafting, Lebid said. Or rafters should have to get some sort of certification to be able to go on a Class V trip or prove you’ve done a Class III trip before you can do a Class IV or V trip, she said.
Higher classes denote more dangerous water. Class IV water has long rapids, big drops and lots of obstacles. Class V has longer rapids, bigger drops and even more obstacles. Class VI is considered unrunnable.
People who sign waivers and take these high-level trips may not know what they are getting into, Lebid said.
But people from the rafting industry say the sport is, by and large, safe, and this year’s fatalities represent a minuscule percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who raft Colorado’s rivers each year.
In 2006, rafters took to the water 510,304 times, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association. The number of rafting fatalities in Colorado in 2006 was not available. There was one commercial rafting death on the Arkansas River in 2006, according to the Associated Press. A man on a noncommercial raft died on the Eagle River in 2006.
According to a study published in 2003 in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, rafting has a fatality rate of 4.5 to 8.7 per million “participant days.” The journal compared that to driving, with a fatality rate of 152 per million days, assuming a day of driving is 100 miles.
While there have been five deaths this year on the Arkansas, there were seven total from 2000-06, according to the AP.
“General speaking, the rafting industry as a whole takes great pains making sure they run as safe a trip as they can,” said Lisa Reeder, a longtime raft guide with local outfitter Timberline Tours. “That’s our job.”
Timberline, based out of Eagle, screens customers for physical fitness, rafting experience and general familiarity with the water, Reeder said.
Rafters also get a safety talk from their guide, plus mandatory helmets, floatation devices and wetsuits.
The guides have to pass certification tests, she said.
For some Class IV sections and all Class V sections, Timberline brings along a kayaker to help rescue rafters if they fall into the water, Reeder said.
And rafters doing the Class V Gore Canyon trip must do a swim test, Reeder said.
Ted Hinricks, river ranger for the White River National Forest, knows firsthand the dangers of rafting.
“It’s just like skiing,” he said. “There are fatalities every year.”
Hinricks has seen rafting deaths on the stretch of the Colorado River that he monitors, at the Shoshone Rapids near Glenwood Springs.
It’s a body of water that moving at up to 6,200 cubic feet per second. There are rapids that can throw you out of a boat, and there are hidden debris under the water that can hurt you, he said.
But the forest service ” which issues permits to outfitters who run the Shoshone rapids ” makes sure the outfitters train their guides and use first-aid kits, throw bags, extra paddles and personal floatation devices.
“Rafting can be a very enjoyable sport,” he said. “It’s just like bicycle riding. It’s like skiing. It’s dangerous. There are hazards associated with rafting and the public needs to be aware of that.”
“Or don’t do it,” he said.
The number of deaths on the Arkansas this year has spiked, but so has rafting participation in general, said Julia Schneider, spokeswoman for the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
There have been no concerns with the safety procedures with any of the outfitters this year, she said. She said she doesn’t think outfitters’ safety procedures will change as a result of this year’s deaths.
The river can simply be unpredictable, she said.
“People who go rafting really need to be prepared for those changing conditions,” she said.
Outfitters are forced to rely on customers’ being forthcoming about their physical abilities and health, Schneider said.
And, at times, people are a bit too ambitious about their own abilities, she said.
“I think that happens all the time,” she said. “It happens when people go to do any outdoor activity. There’s that challenge piece of it.”
Other times, levels of ability vary within one group, and less able people get pulled along with the group.
Rafting is a great sport for “adrenaline junkies,” Schneider said. At the same time, she said, she wouldn’t call it dangerous.
“Absolutely, unequivocably not,” she said.
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