River veteran: High water not for the inexperienced, ill-prepared
July 4, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A local veteran river runner is issuing a word of caution about recreating on the local waterways after he and his party of rafters witnessed an incident last weekend that could have easily ended in tragedy.
Jim Easton was leading one of three rafts on a staff outing Sunday afternoon for the Valley View Hospital Youth Recovery Center where he works, when he and his crew suddenly found themselves in the middle of a rescue operation on the lower Roaring Fork River.
As they were putting in just above the Westbank bridge, between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, shortly after 1 p.m., two private rafts, occupied by four adults and three young children between them, floated by. A few seconds later, one of the rafts washed up against a pier on the nearby bridge and flipped.
Its occupants, an adult and two young children no older than 7, later identified as a grandfather and his two grandchildren, fell into the river and were swept away in the rapid current.
“As they swung around the pier, the boat flipped and they were in the water like that,” Easton said. “The two children had life jackets, but they were really loose, which is not good. The grandfather did not have a life jacket at all.”
As best as they could tell, none of the occupants in the other raft had life jackets either, including a 2-year-old child, he said.
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“It took us about a minute or so to catch up with them,” said Easton, who paddled up beside the struggling victims in the water while the others in his raft were able to pull them in. One of the crew, Jim Wright, is a trained EMT and was able to assist the victims to make sure they were OK. Although quickly becoming hypothermic, they were unharmed, Easton said.
“The people in the other raft were unable to help, and if there hadn’t been anyone there to help they might have all drowned,” said Easton, who has been rafting for about 20 years.
Worried that the other raft might flip as well, just before cemetery rapids, they had one of the women pass the 2-year-old into one of the VVH parties rafts.
“Once the other boat flipped over, they were pretty scared,” Easton said.
Once they got to a safe point, they pulled to the side of the river and called the authorities to advise them of the runaway raft that was still floating down the river.
Part of the problem was that the rafts the family was using, which Easton described as “small, plastic life boat” type of crafts, were not appropriate for that stretch of river, he said.
“You really need to have the right kind of boat to be on these rivers, especially when the current is as strong as it is now,” he said, noting that the Roaring Fork in that stretch was running at about 6,000 cubic feet per second that day.
“And, you always need to wear life jackets,” he said. “The first thing that made this so critical was that we had a guy in the river without a life jacket.”
Dr. Paul Salmen, who was also part of Easton’s rafting party Sunday and witnessed the incident, seconded Easton’s warnings.
“It was a pretty dramatic situation where we had a family in big trouble, and really because they were woefully unprepared to be on the river,” he said. “I think it’s good to alert the community to the fact that the Roaring Fork River is not a water park, lazy river ride right now. It is a potentially dangerous situation, and people need to be far better prepared to be on the river.”
Colorado does not have an age restriction for children to be on rivers, although many private whitewater guide services do have age limits and offer age-appropriate trips for families with younger children.