High, swift water spur warning from Pitkin County
The Pitkin County Public Safety Council issued a warning Wednesday urging people to avoid fishing and swimming in rivers and streams and to be acutely aware of swift water conditions before rafting.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said the council doesn’t want to harm the business of rafting outfitters, but he urged people to consider if they should avoid the water until the runoff eases.
“I’m sure this will bum out some of the rafting guides,” he said.
The Public Safety Council members were particularly concerned about visitors not being aware of the swift-water conditions.
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“Clearly we have high, fast running water,” said DiSalvo, who was speaking for the council. “We’ve had a tragedy here in the last few weeks. We want to avoid another one.”
Will Graham of Aspen was reported missing in the Devil’s Punchbowl area about 10 miles east of Aspen on June 4. His possessions were found on the ledges above the Roaring Fork River. It is presumed he drowned. His body hasn’t been located or recovered. Graham, 31, was an Aspen native who was intimately familiar with the Punchbowl. A lifelong friend estimated they had jumped in the water there hundreds of times.
The Punchbowl and the nearby Cascade area at the Grottos are popular destinations for Roaring Fork Valley residents and visitors. A visitor to the Cascades on Wednesday said the footing was treacherous on the granite ledges along the river because water was constantly spraying the rock. The areas are located in the White River National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t draw attention to the areas on its maps or website, but it doesn’t post any signs alerting people of the dangers. If signs were erected, the agency would have to make sure they were maintained so it didn’t face any liability, said Martha Moran, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
There is an inherent risk in visiting numerous locations in the national forest, Moran said.
“We don’t want to draw attention to that site,” Moran said of the Devil’s Punchbowl. “That one is not even recognized in our system.”
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said the agency isn’t considering any restrictions to access to the Punchbowl. “I don’t think it’s something we could really enforce,” she said.
The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department sent members to the Grottos Day Use Area last weekend to inform people about the dangers of the area because of the high water. It was a cooperative effort with the Sheriff’s Office, DiSalvo said. Members of the department’s Swift Water Rescue squad were there “just in case,” he said. The goal is to staff the area with volunteers again this weekend.
Water at this level and speed is “flat-out dangerous,” DiSalvo said. People tend to underestimate the power of the current.
“Clearly no one should be trying to jump in,” DiSalvo said. The council has recommended that people stay 25 feet away from rivers and streams.
“If I sound like Chicken Little, I apologize,” he said.
Basalt Fire Chief and Public Safety Council member Scott Thompson said the group wants to err on the side of caution.
“We lost one person, and we’re all going to feel bad if we didn’t say anything and lost another,” Thompson said. “Everybody needs to be careful. Boulder just lost a fisherman. Why would you get in the water right now?”
The public safety council also issued a cautionary message on river running. DiSalvo urged people to avoid private rafting trips and to make sure they were aware of conditions when talking to commercial outfitters.
David Swersky, a kayaker for 35 years who lives along the Roaring Fork River, said the commercial rafting companies that serve the area are “extremely competent.” Just to get hired as a guide requires a lot of skills, he said.
Nevertheless, accidents happen. Four customers and a guide were spilled Monday from an outfitter’s raft on the Roaring Fork River in the Old Snowmass area. They made it ashore and were uninjured, but two adults from Florida were taken to a hospital for treatment of hypothermia.
“When the water is this high there are a lot of problems that can happen,” Swersky said. He was a longtime swift-water rescue trainer for Mountain Rescue Aspen.
When people end up outside a raft, they can have difficulty making it to shore because the usually calm water eddies are washed out. It often requires trying to exit in fast water and in areas of cottonwood and willow trees.
The water is probably running around 7 or 8 mph compared to a usual speed of 4 to 5 mph. That makes swift-water rescues difficult. If I was running operations, Swersky said, nobody would get in the water.
“We’d be doing bank searches,” Swersky said. “You don’t create new victims.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen is no longer the immediate responder to swift-water rescues. The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department has a team. Mountain Rescue provides support.
People who end up in the water can fall prey to hypothermia quickly. It can occur within five or 10 minutes when the water temperature is 50 degrees, Swersky said. The current temperatures are probably in the high 40s, he said.
The chilling effect of hypothermia is compounded by loss of judgment, Swersky said.
Tim McMahon, who handles the office and marketing for Blazing Adventures, a top rafting outfitter, said, “safety is always at the forefront” of the firm and the other commercial outfitters serving the area. The companies communicate about hazards in the water. Blazing Adventures also goes over safety procedures with its customers prior to trips.
The water flows actually aren’t outside of the range of a high water year, McMahon said. “It’s delayed and maybe going a little longer,” he said.
The flows have made for fun rafting conditions and nearly every outfitter in the area in running trips daily, McMahon said. They expect to get busier as the tourist season picks up.
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