Boy escapes from river current during Aspen day camp

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
The shallow, pool-like area of water at Heron Park connects to the Roaring Fork River. On Monday, a current swept an 8-year-old day camper who managed to self rescue.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times |

An Aspen boy was pulled out of a day camp because his parents say the counselors weren’t paying attention when he was nearly swept away by the Roaring Fork River on Monday.

The incident prompted the camp host, Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, to create a policy regarding river use.

The episode happened at Herron Park, a popular riverside playground by the start of the Rio Grande Trail. It was after 2 p.m. when most of the campers were playing in the shallow, calm part of the water — a pool-like section that connects to the Roaring Fork River — before two of them ventured into a deeper section.

One of them, an 8-year-old boy, was nearly swept away by a strong current into the Roaring Fork River, he and his mother said Friday. The two camp counselors, who were supervising 15 children, weren’t paying attention, said the mother, speaking on the condition that her family’s names wouldn’t be used.

The mother said campers shouldn’t have been allowed to play in the water that day. Aspen-area rivers have been running high and in some sections violently because of snow runoff.

Mark Cole, executive director of AVSC, said the episode has prompted the organization to allow its campers in water that “is entirely in a controlled setting,” such as at the Aspen Recreation Center.

“The incident should have not happened,” said Cole, who is leaving his post at the end of July. “It’s that simple. I have spoken to the (boy’s) father and I have apologized.”

To the mother, AVSC’s response isn’t satisfactory. She said camp counselors were unaware that her son was in danger. She added that one of the counselors played down the episode when confronted about it.

“I can’t believe they still have their jobs,” she said.

Cole declined to say if any disciplinary actions were taken against the counselors. An email to the mother from AVSC’s program director, Eric Knight, said the “incident has been recorded on both coaches’ records as not providing adequate supervision and following our camp safety plan and guidelines.”

“I have been criticized when I have fired people, and in this particular incident, for not terminating these coaches,” Cole said. “But in each situation, I need to do what I believe is right. I believe we have taken steps with these coaches that makes sense.”

In an email to Knight, the mother wrote that her son “should not have been in the (water) in the first place (Pitkin County has put out flood advisories), and the current was so strong that it swept him off his feet, carried him down, over the rocks and rapids towards the bridge (and just under).”

Somehow the boy self-rescued, however, planting his foot and pulling himself out of the water and onto a riverbank, the mother and the boy said.

“I was very scared,” he said, while pointing to the area of the river from which he escaped.

There were witnesses, as well, according to the mother, who learned of the incident after her son called her from his GizmoGadget, a smartwatch for children. Her son called at approximately 2:45 p.m. in a frantic state, reporting that he had been nearly swept down the river.

She said she wasn’t sure how valid his hysteria was, given his young age. But she went to the park and found him with his counselors, water-soaked, shivering and scared.

The woman counselor assured the mother that he was OK, but the boy wanted to go home. The mother wasn’t sure how potentially dangerous the situation was until a woman approached her as she and her son were getting in their car to go home.

“She then said that she witnessed the whole incident of (the boy) going down the river,” the mother’s letter said, adding the woman and her husband were on the nearby pedestrian bridge when they saw the boy struggling in the currents.

The mother said she doubted the counselors would have told her about the incident had it not been for her son’s phone call. That, she said, was almost as troubling as the incident itself.

Cole said the close call is being taken seriously by AVSC.

“We try to learn from every incident and near-miss,” he said, noting most of them occur during the winter on the ski mountains. “We have and I feel we owe that to our participants and to our parents that we serve.”

He added: “These coaches know that the incident never should have happened. We take risk management very seriously.”

Knight declined to comment. But his email response to the mother said, “I’ve taken great pride in the programs under my direction for almost 20 years with AVSC. The safety and well-being of children has always been and is my first and foremost concern. The incident yesterday has made me swallow my pride and focus on what we need to do to be better — to meet every parent’s basic expectation, that their child will have appropriate supervision with us.”

That Monday was the first day of the camp. The boy’s parents pulled him out and received a full refund from AVSC.

The AVSC summer day camps are typically attended by youth who participate in its winter-sports programs. Its offerings to the 7- to 12-year-olds include hiking, biking, Frisbee golf, field trips and other activities, including on-snow training on the superpipe at Buttermilk.