Peak River Flows Mean A Great Rafting Season But Also More Danger

June 18, 2019
Photo: Whitewater Rafting Clear Creek Idaho Springs HV 5
Rafters on Clear Creek near Idaho Springs on Wednesday June 12, 2019.

After a cool start, rafting season is finally ramping up as the snowpack from Colorado’s wet winter continues to melt. It’s creating rapids rafters haven’t seen in years, but the better rafting comes with a heightened awareness of the possible danger.

On Sunday, two people were hospitalized with minor injuries after an accident overturned three of nine rafts on the Roaring Fork River. There was a separate incident earlier in the day, said Jason Hutter, battalion chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue. It was one of several agencies that responded to both rescues.

“I would say it will be a more dangerous rafting season,” he said. “The high waters are going to be here for a longer period of time, and we are just now starting to see the warmer temperatures, which are melting that snowpack that we have.”

Hutton said neither rescues involved commercial outfitters, but rafters need to be especially prepared this season. Two men have died this year in other rafting incidents on the Eagle and Arkansas rivers.

Depending on the river, peak flows are likely to hit this week and next, said David Costlow of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. He said the snowpack hasn’t caused more dangerous rafting conditions but has extended the season and made it more fun.

“I think people that haven’t rafted much or don’t have a lot of experience, anytime the water gets swift they need to be super cautious or delay their trips,” he said. “The Roaring Fork -- at the levels they’re coming down now -- it can be rambunctious.”

Private rafters who run rivers this year are going to experience something totally different compared to what they saw last year so they need to be cautious, Costlow said. It’s a little different for outfitters, who have seen these water levels before. They might move a trip up or down the river depending on the group’s skillset, he said.

“If you’ve signed up for a trip of a certain experience level, they’re going to move that trip around on the river to keep within that experience level,” he said.

Costlow said that’s true of any rafting season, regardless of the water levels.

“They should always be picking a trip that’s appropriate with their skill level,” he said.

Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, runs rafting tours on the Arkansas River. He said even though there will be “extraordinary flows,” guides adapt to the river so the trip will be compatible with families, one of the most popular groups that go on tours.

“Yes, there’s some great high water sections for those who are looking for really big and exciting white water, but there’s so many other sections that are still delivering what we call ‘family class rafting,’” he said. “We do have the best of both worlds right now.”  

He said Echo Canyon, like many other outfitters during any rafting season, screens guests to make sure the rafting experience is appropriate for each person. He recommends people do their research ahead of time, ask outfitters questions and make sure they’re getting good answers.

“Be very realistic about your physical conditioning, be very realistic about the youngest member in your party or the oldest member in your party,” he said. “Sometimes guests really want to think that they’re looking for that really big and exciting ride, but in fact, everything is big and exciting right now, so let’s make sure we’re putting people on the appropriate trip.”