Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 19, 2011
It began as a lark when our friends decided to try river rafting last week. They signed up with a local paddling company, got dressed up in wetsuits and helmets, and were schooled on how to handle the slim possibility of a water landing, for which they were told there was a 20 percent chance.
Armed with paddles and a sense of adventure, they launched into the rapids below Slaughterhouse Bridge. In doing so, they transformed from human beings into mere corks caught in the flow of high runoff. What transpired was anything but the fun they had envisioned.
They were in the raft for about three minutes before the shit hit the fan. The raft slid into a deep hole, flipped, and catapulted them into the churning waves, where they received the full Maytag treatment as the whitewater dragged them through a maelstrom of boulders. Four boats out of five in their group had flipped. People were bobbing everywhere. Guides were running along the riverbank, shouting.
“Our daughter screamed and said she couldn’t breathe,” recounted the concerned mother. “I grabbed her when we fell out,” said the father, “but then lost her again. It was all we could do to breathe, to keep our heads above water and our feet pointed downstream.”
When they finally dragged themselves to shore and kissed terra firma, they were bruised and gashed. Some were in shock. These were the physical injuries. The psychic wounds will take longer to heal.
“We’ve checked river rafting off our list,” they told me. “We won’t do that again – not for all the money in the world!”
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The rivers are raging like angry serpents thrashing in the confines of their channels, struggling to break loose and wreck havoc on the land. The day after my friends’ dunking, a man’s dead body was dragged out of the Roaring Fork River near Basalt. He had apparently fallen into the river and drowned.
I have other friends who have a different relationship with the river. They live right on its riverbank and have been carefully monitoring its rise and fall. With only a few feet of leeway before the river courses into their home, they’ve been filling sandbags and chanting prayers to the river god. They are one big thunderstorm away from having their living room sluiced.
Standing atop a cornice at the top of Mt. Sopris last weekend, preparing to ski corn snow, I glanced over the Elk Range and saw nothing but white peaks. The runoff from the high mountains has just begun. This promises to be a summer of high water. Stream crossings that are normally manageable by July will be tricky this year through August. Backpackers and day hikers crossing streams should take caution and use hand lines.
Kenny (“Be Brave Comrade”) Moore recently sent me an article from Life Magazine, dated June 1956, describing his ill-fated run through Shoshone rapids in Glenwood Canyon 55 years ago. What began as a manly challenge against a particularly turbulent section of the Colorado River proved fatal to one man whose body was recovered several days later at a bridge near Rifle.
If you’ve never seen Shoshone at full runoff, it’s worth a trip just to witness how big the water can get. The air vibrates with the roar of pounding rapids that froth up a cloud of spray. The tremendous force of that river produces a visceral impact of fear and respect.
Moore launched into Shoshone with Bob Mann and Hans Zurfluh on a 25-foot pontoon-style war surplus raft they had borrowed from a friend. A photo sequence shot by Miggs Durrance shows the raft entering an impossible torrent, tipping precariously over a falls, and flipping. The three men were thrown into the rapids and the raft was pushed onto huge boulders. Moore and Zurfluh miraculously escaped. Mann, 27, was not so lucky.
Life said it all in a headline: “Foolhardy men on raft meet tragedy in the rapids of the Colorado.” Moore dislocated his shoulder. Zurfluh was “shaken but unhurt.” Mann “bobbed up briefly, then disappeared.”
My friends who witnessed the power of the Roaring Fork at Slaughterhouse last week have a new respect for whitewater. After their dunking, as they staggered bruised and battered along the Rio Grande trail back to the launch site, there were several unsuspecting new groups preparing to put in. Like my friends, they had all signed releases. Welcome to spring runoff!