BUENA VISTA — “Dude, that guy has been surfing all day long,” said Jon Donaldson as we kayaked through the Buena Vista whitewater park late Saturday afternoon. “I bet he’s tired.”
The music was blaring from the town park. A beer fest was in full swing. And this guy was still shredding the wave at the park’s Staircase rapid. We had surfed with him several hours earlier. As the afternoon waned, he was among only a few paddlers left in the park after a long, busy day on the river.
The man had spent the day cheering everyone on the wave. He was riding a locally designed Badfish river surf board, with a bamboo paddle made by Grass Sticks in Steamboat Springs. He was well-equipped, with a personal flotation device, helmet and wetsuit.
I remember he had a beard. I never asked him his name. He would hoot and holler whenever someone found their feet after struggling in the surging rapid. At one point, an empty kayak floated through the park and he joined another surfer to retrieve the boat and drag it to shore.
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We had seen Michael James, 40, surfing around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. A few minutes later police started fielding 911 calls from people around the river park about a man swept downstream. A news release from the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday said rescuers pulled James’ body onto a beach several miles downstream just above the put-in for Browns Canyon.
River managers and search-and-rescue personnel spent Saturday night trying to piece together the events that led to James’ death after surfing in a whitewater park.
“Apparently folks heard him yelling for help,” said Rob White, park manager of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. “People were running along shore with a throw bag but they were unable to catch up with him. The vegetation on shore prevented them from throwing the throw bag his way.”
The Buena Vista whitewater park offers several manmade features that draw dozens of kayakers and surfers every weekend.
On Saturday, a steady stream of surfers took turns on the Staircase wave while the kayakers spun in the competition hole rapid just below the Surf Hotel. Downstream of the comp hole is a stretch of difficult whitewater. The river was high on Saturday, running close to 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second just below Buena Vista.
Downstream of the rapids below the Surf Hotel, a paddler in an inflatable kayak was waiting for a shuttle at the Wilderness Aware raft launch just upstream of the U.S. Highway 285 bridge over the Arkansas River. He saw James and his board float by, White said.
“He was not responsive at all,” White said.
The man in the inflatable kayak paddled to catch up with James and struggled to pull him to shore in the swift river. A private landowner upstream of the Browns Canyon put-in called police to report a body hung up in wood on the river right side, White said.
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A few minutes later James’ body washed out of the strainer and rescue personnel were able to pull him to shore at the River Runners rafting compound. The Chaffee County Sheriff’s statement said he was pronounced dead at 5:50 p.m.
The sheriff’s office said James was from Boulder. White said he had taken a lesson from RMOC two weeks earlier, but White was not sure if it was a beginner or intermediate lesson. He was a solid surfer, from what I saw on Saturday, able to get on the wave using both a paddle or paddling with his hands.
With so many paddlers in the water, it’s easy to think of whitewater parks as maybe a bit safer than the natural river, with lots of people ready to help a struggling swimmer. It’s unclear how no one was able to chase the man after he missed two critical eddies to escape the current before swimming through the rapids below the park.
“It’s just a very, very bad deal,” White said. “He was probably tired and missed an eddy and maybe ingested some water. Who knows. It’s just so sad.”
The man’s death marks at least the eighth drowning in Colorado rivers and lakes this high-flowing season and the second fatality of a stand-up paddler on a river.