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Access to the Poudre River shoreline is closed between North Shields River Access and Salyer Natural Area on Wednesday June 9, 2021, after Poudre Fire Authority rescued 18 people this spring. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

While the Western Slope faces dangerous drought conditions, the urban stream and river corridors along the Front Range are flowing high and fast, so much so that officials are closing parts of the Poudre River and Clear Creek to limit people on the water. 

In Fort Collins, the Poudre Fire Authority has rescued more than a dozen people in the last month. Debris is piling up in the river, creating traps for tubers, rafters and kayakers. 

“Our first river rescues were on May 1 and we’ve had a (total) of 18 rescues since then, which is a pretty high number for an entire season let alone a month,” said Annie Bierbower, a spokeswoman for the Poudre Fire Authority. 

While melting snowpack from the mountains typically causes dangerously cold water to flow through the river at a higher rate, Bierbower said the majority of people rescued this season so far were unaware of the hazards or “not really prepared for the power of the river.”

“It really takes a lot of equipment and skill and knowledge to navigate a river that is this powerful, and this cold right now,” she said. 

As of Wednesday, the Poudre River was flowing at nearly 2,600 cubic feet per second, according to data from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. While already deemed “extreme” by the Poudre Fire Authority, state data shows the river typically peaks higher than its current rate during the spring runoff.

Most of those who needed rescuing so far this season were stuck at piles of debris, some of which came from the Cameron Peak fire burn scar, Bierbower said.

On Monday, three tubers were rescued after they became stranded on a debris pile. Slightly downstream, two rafters were also rescued. 

Earlier this week, officials restricted access to the Poudre River shoreline between North Shields River Access and Salyer Natural Area and closed the Legacy Park and North Shields River Access parking lots to reduce the number of people on the water.

River conditions could remain dangerous for the next several weeks as snow continues to melt from the mountains and run into the river, she said.

“We know it’s summertime, it’s hot, and people want to enjoy our beautiful natural resources, but it’s not safe to float or boat on this part of the Poudre River right now,” Kristy Volesky, assistant chief of Fort Collins police, said in a news release. “We’ll continue working with our local partners to inform the community, reduce unsafe activities, and prevent tragedy.” 

Golden police restricted access along Clear Creek, effective Tuesday, for those floating in inner tubes or single-chambered rafts, body surfers and swimmers. Kayaks, whitewater canoes and multi-chambered, professionally guided rafts, river boards and stand-up paddleboards are exempt but officials are encouraging extreme caution due to the swift-moving waters. 

Authorities decided to enact the restrictions, which extend from the U.S. 6 bridge over Clear Creek, up to and including Vanover Park, after two “scary scenarios” in which two children wading in the river were swept up in the current, Golden’s Deputy Police Chief Joe Harvey said. Neither child was injured, but one boy was pulled over a nearby dam which flowed into private property. 

The river restrictions also depend on the river’s flow —which is currently in the “high-risk range” between 800 and 1000 cubic feet per second— and the temperature, which is now in the 40s, he said. Similar restrictions are enacted most years in Golden, he added.

“If you’re in the water for too long, you know hypothermia can start setting in and your motor skills become less useful to you. If you do get sucked into the water and you’re trying to get yourself out, that water can really suck the air right out of you because it’s cold,” Harvey said. 

The Poudre River Whitewater Park lived up to its name on Wednesday June 9, 2021. The whitewater park is open, but access to the Poudre River shoreline is closed between North Shields River Access and Salyer Natural Area.(Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Branches below the water’s surface can also pull a person down and large rocks can slice open hands and feet, he said. 

Everyone is required to wear a Coast Guard-approved paddling life jacket and a water-use designed helmet, according to a news release from the police department. Those found recreating in the restricted area could face a $100 fine, police said. 

“I think it catches people off guard, really,” Harvey said of the speed of the water, which is expected to increase as the snowpack continues to melt in the coming days. “I don’t think people expect that the water could take them off their feet, and then just how quickly it can pull you down, not only in the water, but downstream.”

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.