Following a strong winter and wet spring, statewide snowpack levels on May 20 were approximately 200 percent above the season-to-date average, as reported by The National Resources Conservation Service website. That can entice and excite whitewater enthusiasts, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Jefferson County Open Space and the Poudre Fire Authority warn of the dangers that will be present this summer on Colorado’s rivers, streams and lakes.
It is not just the experienced whitewater kayaker who needs to be wary, the dangers of high water levels and swift-moving rapids extend to river rafters, tubers, anglers, swimmers as well as families who picnic by the water.
“You should always wear a life vest, paddle with a buddy, know your limitations and scout rapids prior to floating them,” said Grant Brown, boating safety program manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
River water exerts a very powerful and constant force against any fixed object. Just six inches of water can knock a person off their feet. Water flowing at seven miles per hour has the equivalent force per unit area as air blowing more than 200 miles per hour.
If you are swept off your feet or tossed out of your tube, kayak or raft, you could be traveling down river for a long time. Respect how cold that water will be. If you fall into that cold water, it doesn’t take long to get yourself into serious trouble.
Eric Krause, a ranger and visitor relations coordinator with Jefferson County Open Space, issues permits with river rafting companies along Clear Creek. Clear Creek is likely the most dangerous river in the Northeast section of the state. It sees heavy traffic due to its proximity to the metro area and is very narrow and filled with big rocks.
“It takes remarkably little water moving at a fast speed to sweep an adult or child off of their feet, and once in the water, it is extremely difficult to reach shore and regain control,” Krause said. “Anyone near moving water (particularly Clear Creek) should be wary, and only those with high levels of experience and competence in whitewater should enter the river.”
Krause said that if a boater loses equipment, call Jefferson County non-emergency dispatch at 303-277-0211 with a description of the equipment and last place seen to avoid unnecessary searches.
Clear Creek is not the only river along the Front Range that presents danger. The South Platte, Boulder Creek, Big Thompson and the Cache la Poudre River are all popular water playgrounds. On Friday, May 24, a metal dory got stuck in the rocks on the Poudre River. Thankfully, no one was injured.
“The flow of the river can be deceiving with the flow rate (cubic feet per second), temperature of the water, and river hazards such as strainers, dams and entrapment hazards always present,” said Poudre Fire Authority (PFA) Battalion Chief Brandon Garcia, who is responsible for technical rescues for PFA. “Historically, the low-head dams located throughout the Poudre River have proven deadly in recent years.”
Planning swift-water rescue training with PFA swimmers is an annual occurrence.
Specific to the low-head dams, Garcia said, “The dams look harmless as they are difficult to recognize from upstream when you are on the water. This is why it is important to scout the river that you plan on floating before entering the water.
“Once you have gone over a low-head dam, they are considered to be a ‘drowning machine’ due to the difficulty of exiting the hydraulics of the water at the base of the dam. Get out and walk around these dams.
“Additionally, ensure you have a communication plan and have proper personal protective equipment any time you recreate on the Poudre River. Once you enter Poudre River Canyon please know you may have limited cell service and plan accordingly.”