Deadly summer on the Arkansas
Aspen, CO Colorado
LEADVILLE ” An unusually high number of rafters have died on the Arkansas River this summer, with five deaths attributed to river activity between Leadville and Canon City.
It’s a grim reminder that the river is “a natural thing, it is not Disneyland. It is difficult to control,” said Stew Pappenfort, a safety ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which oversees the rafting industry on the nation’s most-rafted river.
The Arkansas is located east of Aspen, on the far side of Independence Pass and across the Continental Divide. Its whitewater is a destination for Roaring Fork Valley-based outfitters, as well as rafting companies on the other side of the divide.
Deaths attributed to commercial rafting outfitters are normally few in number. In 2000, there were three; in 2001, there were two; from 2002-04, there were none; and 2005 and 2006, both had just one rafting death.
“Our one advantage is that the river is predictable,” Pappenfort said. “We can read the water, but we cannot predict how people will act when they are in the water.”
Since the recreation area was formed in 1989 under the cooperative oversight of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Colorado State Parks, rafting has been regulated, although the huge seasonal draw to this area of Southern Colorado is not without risk.
“The nature of the sport is to try harder rapids and, as with any sport, there is a risk. With rafting there is the risk of an unplanned swim,” Pappenfort explained.
“The river is powerful, relentless and swimming in the river is difficult for anybody,” he said.
When rafting outfitters gear up to take visitors on the river, they ask each one to fill out a release of liability form. On the form, visitors are asked to disclose medical conditions and give details about their experience on the river.
Based on each person’s response, the outfitters recommend a section of the river that is the best match for the visitor. For example, an older person with a medical concern would not be advised to try a more difficult section of the river.
“People need to be honest with themselves about how strenuous of an activity they can endure,” Pappenfort said.
For those who sit at a desk all day and don’t get a lot of physical activity, a milder section of the river is a better fit.
“You don’t have to go on the biggest roller coaster the first time. Work up to it,” Pappenfort said.
That means saving the Royal Gorge or The Numbers sections of the river for last, and starting out in the milder area such as Big Horn Sheep Canyon.
Pappenfort and his crew of river rangers work as diligently as they can to ensure the rafting companies are abiding by state safety regulations. Mostly, each rafting company trains its own guides, and guides are required to have a minimum of 50 hours of safety training plus first aid and CPR training.
To ensure this is happening, river rangers make unannounced office inspections to check records of guide certification and look at basic training records. River rangers also make safety inspections on the river, most often on the weekends.
“We do the inspections a couple of times on each outfitter each summer to make sure they have all the safety equipment, do statistical checks and verify use,” Pappenfort said.
Inspections have happened less frequently over the past two summers due to state budget cuts, Pappenfort said.
River rangers also patrol the river and work to clear river hazards (from cars to branches) plus conduct investigations into every accident that happens on the river.
“When we investigate an accident we want to ensure no violation of Colorado law occurred. We don’t try to analyze what could have or should have happened, we just document what did happen, then lastly analyze what we learned and what we can do in the future to avoid similar accidents,” Pappenfort explained.
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