Sopris Sun

Carbondale's community supported, weekly newspaper

< Back

The River: how to keep yourself and your family safe

By Tami Suby

Special to The Sopris Sun

Whenever my life feels out of balance my first instinct is to get on the river. Over the past 19 years I have floated over 15,000 miles of rivers — kayaking, raft-guiding and doing swiftwater rescue/CPR training. The river feels like home to me. However, I have seen and experienced some life-threatening moments in those years.

Recently, I watched a woman lose consciousness after two other boats with small children got surfed and almost flipped in the ledge-hole (on-river left) at the kayak park in Glenwood Springs. Incredibly, the woman was resuscitated by five kayakers that got her to shore. They began CPR and revived her before the paramedics arrived.

A few days after that, a small raft was wrapped on Tombstone rock and several commercial companies stopped to help the private boaters try to save the raft.

Last summer I pulled two guys without life jackets out of the Shoshone section on the Colorado River because their Walmart raft flipped in a sizable hole. The list goes on.

A little education can change a life. If you are planning on spending time rafting or tubing down a river, here are six essential rules:

1. Always wear a river life jacket, not a water-skiing life jacket.

Your river life jacket should fit snugly and not pull up above your shoulders. Water skiing vests float a person straight up and down, while river jackets have more flotation on the chest to keep the feet up and help you swim with your feet downstream. Wearing a river life jacket is the smartest thing you can do for yourself and for those that might end up trying to help you if you need it.

2. Know what you’re getting into.

If someone wants to take you down the river, ask questions. How many times have they run that section? What Class river is it? What kind of boat do they have? How many years have they been boating? If you’re uncertain as to whether the person has sufficient experience and knowledge, do a commercial trip instead.

3. Know where you are going and what class of river you’ll be floating.

Rivers are rated by difficulty. Class I is still water (for example, Ruedi Reservoir). Class II is moving water with small riffles. Class III has rapids with several options to paddle through that are safe if you know how to read water. Small holes (recirculating water), rocks, and other obstacles will be present. You need some experience and training to navigate a raft through Class III. Class IV has more extreme obstacles and much larger consequences. If you fall out of the raft you must know how to rescue yourself. Someone guiding Class IV should have plenty of training and experience. Class V may have waterfalls, large pour-overs (water recirculating over rocks) and other river features that require expert guiding.

4. Think twice before bringing kids.

If you have little experience on the river, or with a certain section, leave the kids at home. In the last year I have seen at least a dozen small children in rafts that were in very dangerous situations on the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. My son is 6 and I now take him on mellow Class II with our ducky and he sits with my husband or me.

5. Think three times before bringing alcohol on a river trip.

Bringing beer on the river when it is a flat stretch is one thing. Bringing alcohol when you need to be alert, smart and react quickly is something else. In general, mixing alcohol with river sports is a bad idea.

6. Choose a mellow stretch for inner tubing.

Make sure you follow all of the instructions above, and be aware that you must add one degree of difficulty to the classifications listed above if you are tubing. (In other words, a Class III in a raft is really a Class IV in a tube.)

Some of the most quiet and serene moments of my life have been on the river deep in the Grand Canyon; some of my most thrilling and exhilarating moments have been right here on the Slaughterhouse section of the Roaring Fork. I hope the river can become a haven for you, too.