Jeff Hammond spends day after day along the Arkansas River, in the cold and the heat and the wind, telling people to put on their life jackets, or making sure they have a permit to camp, or — sometimes — performing rescues like the one in which he pulled a mom, her daughter and their cataraft out of a whirlpool in Browns Canyon.
As a Colorado Parks and Wildlife river ranger in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, he got them back in the boat and off on their merry way using only his wits and his kayak.
Do enough of that and when bedtime rolls around, it’s pretty much hit the pillow and start snoring for any river ranger. That’s especially true in a summer like this one that’s seen plenty of action on the Arkansas River.
As of July 26, rangers working in the AHRA had responded to 24 total river “incidents,” the area’s operations manager Corrine Servis said. Of those, seven were hazard trees that rangers removed from the river to prevent injury to boaters, two involved boaters going over the Salida Low-Head Dam and needing rescue and four resulted in fatalities. Rangers also responded to 112 incidents deemed “rescues” by AHRA. They involved people who’d flipped or fallen out of their boats. A ranger standing on shore tossed them a throw bag to help them out of the water.
Hammond is right there with the other state employees who leap into action when a boater needs their help. He, too, tosses the specially designed throw bags. They have a length of rope stuffed loosely inside that play outs when a person grabs onto it. Other times, a rescue is more serious, like when a woman boating below the dam at Lake Pueblo State Park had her foot caught in her collapsible kayak as it folded around her.
CPW southeast region public information officer Bill Vogrin said Jacob Sims, a Lake Pueblo seasonal ranger, spotted the woman. She was able to yell that her foot was trapped and that she couldn’t move her leg. Another ranger who’d arrived in his truck, Daryl Seder, quickly pulled on his swiftwater rescue drysuit and swam out to her with safety ropes attached to his life jacket.
Seder said the water was about 3-feet deep and her foot was trapped when her kayak collapsed after hitting a log. She “certainly was in danger … especially if the log had shifted. Even wearing a life jacket, if she had gotten pulled into the current, facedown, it could have been bad,” he said.
She stayed upright and calm, and Seder was able to push the kayak deep into the Arkansas River current while pulling on her leg to free her foot.
The extreme danger of low head dams
Two other groups were rescued from low head dams, which Vogrin calls one of the most dangerous hazards on the river.
The National Weather Service deems them “drowning machines,” and here’s the reason.
“They’re manufactured structures, built in a river or stream channel, extending fully across the banks,” says the service’s website. They’re designed and built in such a way that water flows continuously over the crest from bank to bank. If water levels rise downstream, a submerged “hydraulic jump” can form, producing an upstream-directed current that traps any recreationist who goes into it, the service says.
In the 1950s, a low head dam was built on the Arkansas River to divert water into the Mount Shavano State Fish Hatchery. “Several fatalities have occurred over the years when boaters don’t move over to use the boat chute, on river left, and go over the dam,” Tom Waters, AHRA park ranger, told Chaffee County commissioners in June. The agency has plans to remove the dam sometime between this fall and fall of 2024 to make boating on the Arkansas safer.
O’dark-thirty river rescues – where boulders are braille and a headlamp is a floodlight
The rescue CPW’s Hammond was about to perform on the night of July 6 wouldn’t be as simple or straightforward as Seder’s was near Lake Pueblo.
He just happened to be awake when a call came in from the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office at 10:30 p.m.
Law enforcement told him a boat carrying an off-duty guide and two of their friends had flipped in Zume Floom, the biggest rapid in Browns Canyon. According to American Whitewater, it approaches Class IV on a one-to-six difficulty scale and features scary holes, boulders and whirlpools. The sheriff’s office said it had made contact with one boater; the other two were unaccounted for. And it believed all three were still on the river needing rescue.
Somewhere in the canyon, the victims were in trouble. A trio of searchers headed south on foot down the old railroad tracks by the river, and another search-and-rescue team rode electric bikes they’d ferried across the river north from Hecla Junction.
It took Hammond and the SAR team about 20 minutes to reach Zoom Flume. There, they heard shouts for help from the other side of the river. The guide’s friends were cliffed out on the west side. And they needed saving.
Hammond bushwhacked through the brush from the tracks to the water’s edge. In the dark, he studied what he could see of the river using his headlamp. And then he did what he does: He scouted the river, plotted a course to the two victims and put his kayak in the water, sometime after 11:30 p.m.
It was calm where he entered but quickly frothed into whitewater, which unnerved the expert kayaker. He read the rapids through the small beam of light from his headlamp and spotlights two members of the SAR team aimed at the water. He paddled 25 yards across the river to the victims, and, after determining they were uninjured and in no imminent danger, left with a promise to return. Then he paddled back across the river to resume the search for the guide.
Earlier, reports had circulated that the boaters had somehow gone back to Buena Vista. “But In these situations, I have found out, it’s chaos,” Vogrin said. “You don’t know anything for sure. Hammond said we’re not taking anyone’s word. We’re going to lay eyes on them — thank goodness he didn’t listen.”
A mile downstream of where he’d found the friends in Browns Canyon, Hammond located the guide and raft. He kayaked out and got in the raft with the guide and the two “basically hopped from boulder to boulder, resting in the calm water below the boulders before resuming our paddling,” he said.
Hammond made his third and final round-trip river crossing that night on the raft. He and the guide paddled to the friends, who hobbled aboard, their feet bottoms injured from walking on shore without shoes. Then they ferried back to two waiting ATVs.
At 2:30 a.m., Hammond texted his fiancé that he was coming home. It had been a crazy night but it could have ended tragically. “First, they were all wearing life jackets. And they had a cellphone,” he said. “Even though they couldn’t make a call, they could send a text for help.”
Most importantly, they didn’t panic. When they realized they wouldn’t be able to hike out, they stayed put and planned to wait for daylight when commercial raft companies would run the river, Vogrin said.
Luck follows some, not all, on Colorado waters
The Sun created a map of 2023 river-related deaths in Colorado to date, and the results are sobering. It shows nine deaths have occurred so far on the Colorado River, four on the Arkansas, three on Boulder Creek and one each on West Creek, Red Sandstone Creek, the Upper Animas, the Roaring Fork, the La Plata and the Dolores.
These numbers differ from “the very informal” record-keeping Vogrin said CPW does, with the agency including rivers, canals and lakes in its count, some outside of its jurisdiction.
Not all fatalities were a result of drowning: “There’ve been cardiac arrests and head injuries,” Vogrin added. Nor were all of them tied to rafting. A man fell into a creek while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, and a woman fell into Boulder Creek near her campsite. Details of one death haven’t been released and at least one other remains under investigation.
The American Whitewater Association has just 20 recent “accident reports” for all of the U.S. on its website, 14 of which were fatalities, with 10 occurring on private trips and four on commercials.
Vogrin said per CPW’s count, last year’s Colorado water-related death toll was 42, with the next highest count, 32, occurring in 2020. He said so far this year, CPW has counted 26 confirmed and four unconfirmed deaths, “so if by our count we are at 30 right now, we’re closing in on the 2020 death toll, but still short of the record of 42 in 2022.”
Vogrin added a number of fatalities on CPW’s list involve people not wearing life jackets.
A man drowned in a Denver city park on July Fourth. A while later, Lake Pueblo rangers rescued two people on a sinking boat. A third guy, instead of putting on a personal flotation device, tried to swim to shore and drowned with his jeans and shoes on. “That’s why we’ve launched an aggressive education campaign to urge people to wear life jackets on or near the water,” Vogrin said.
And while prefacing that he wasn’t offering expert analysis on why there’s been an increase in water-related deaths of late, he said, “It started in the pandemic, when we saw a spike in visitation. Then the population in rural places grew like crazy as people left cities and started working remotely. There’s been huge pressure in all facets of recreation. I think you can speculate somewhat intelligently that these were part of the reason.”
But this year is weird, too, he added, “because we’re seeing most of our deaths on rivers, while last year there was a spike in lake deaths. There’s just been so much huge water on rivers this year, and that seems to have added to the problem.”