Rafter drowns in flooding Glenwood Canyon after falling out

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
During the last really big spring runoff season, the city of Glenwood was warning people of the dangerous conditions on the Roaring Fork River as it passes through town.
Post Independent file photo

A rafter died after falling from his watercraft into the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon on Sunday.

Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire confirmed on Tuesday morning that Nicholas Courtens, 34, of Vail, was pronounced dead at the scene between Shoshone and Grizzly Creek in Glenwood Canyon after he fell from a raft and drowned. 

The White River National Forest and other river recreation officials are urging caution when recreating on the currently runoff-swollen area rivers.

Glassmire said the Glenwood Springs Fire Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene at 12:29 p.m. on Sunday.

“Investigators learned the rafter was part of a private group of five people using two rafts,” he said in a news release. “The decedent went into the water while the group was navigating a rapid and eddy. Upon exiting the rapid and eddy, the decedent was unable to be initially rescued.”

The group was able to pull Courtens to the riverbank, where his rafting party and two additional bystanders provided CPR and first aid but were unable to resuscitate him, Glassmire said. Courtens was wearing a personal flotation device and a helmet at the time of the incident, he said. 

An autopsy was performed on Monday by the Coroner’s Office contract forensic pathologist, and the death is being investigated as a drowning, he said. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service officials advised that while the high river flows this spring are being lauded by rafters and kayakers, the high water creates additional challenges and hazards that can be dangerous even for highly-experienced rafters and kayakers.

“Don’t underestimate the river during high flows or overestimate your abilities,” Colleen Pennington, Glenwood Canyon manager for the White River National Forest, said.

Those hazards can change day by day with the rapid river flow, including debris and tree snags that can trap people underwater and puncture rafts, dangerous currents, and cold water temperatures that can create dangerous situations for even strong swimmers, she said.

“Know your limits,” Pennington said. “The river is unforgiving with high flows. Always wear a life jacket, and use proper boats designed for white water — no inner tubes.”

As of Tuesday morning, the Colorado River below the confluence with the Roaring Fork River near Two Rivers Park was flowing at just under 12,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) with a depth of a little over 7.8 feet. That’s well above the historical median of 7,500 cfs and a river depth on this date last year of 5.8 feet, according to the US Geological Survey’s Streamflow data website.

By the numbers

Colorado River Streamflow Data at Two Rivers Park

Current flow as of Tuesday morning: 11,900 cubic feet per second (cfs); 7.81 feet gauge height

Flow on May 23, 2022: 5,230 cfs; 5.82 feet

2022 Peak Flow: 9,550 cfs; 7.29 feet (June 12, 2022)

56-year Historic Peak Flow: 31,500 cfs; 12.49 feet (May 25, 1984)

10-year Peak: 24,900 cfs; 10.58 feet (June 2, 2014)

Source: US Geological Survey

“High flows can be dangerous for all forest users, not just those choosing to float the rivers,” the release states. “Normally small creeks are running high, and conditions can change rapidly. Swift streams are dangerous for all, but pay particularly close attention to pets and small children, and avoid getting too close to culverts.”

The Forest Service also advises that visitors may find more roads and trails damaged from the high flows than in a typical year. “Never attempt to drive through flood waters because the currents can be much swifter and the water much deeper than it appears.”