Taming the River Wild

Proposals to make rapids safer raise raft of questions

  • River engineers Mike Harvey (pointing) and Jason Carey study the Frog Rock sieve on the Arkansas River, where rafting guide Kimberley Appelson died in July, and where her body remains trapped.

    Jason Blevins/The Denver Post

Updated 10/19/10

There's a boulder in Staircase Rapid on the South Fork of Idaho's Payette River that can kill you.

If you spill from a raft upstream on the left side of the river, you might get channeled to the boulder's submerged undercut face, where the water could suck you into a dangerous sieve. River guide Dean Fairburn drowned here in 2007. Some 15 to 20 rafts wrap here every season, according to commercial outfitter Chad Long, who co-manages Cascade Raft and Kayak with his extended family.

But with the river low this fall because of work on an upstream dam, Chad's father, Tom Long, saw an opportunity. Could the boulder be moved to make the rapid safer? It's not exactly natural, anyway: The Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed the run after a mudslide here blocked the river in 2001. So Tom got a stream-alteration permit from the state -- and kicked off a heated discussion within the whitewater community.

Meanwhile, this past July, 23-year-old river guide Kimberly Appelson became the fourth person since 2000 to drown in a more notorious, natural sieve in Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado's Arkansas River. This fall, officials there also considered tweaking the rapid to make it safer -- rousing yet more debate.

Why the kerfuffle? Humans regularly rejigger rivers, using dams, diversions, riprap and concrete. But in rafting, like many outdoor sports, the risk is part of the thrill. "People die on Longs Peak every year, but we're not going to tear that down," says Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area senior ranger Stew Pappenfort. Then again, he adds, Frog Rock "is a real dangerous spot on an (otherwise) intermediate run." So how far should land managers and outfitters go to protect recreationists? And in doing so, are they encouraging an increasingly common public expectation of a casual, risk-free natural experience?

Such concerns aren't limited to rafting. In the mid-'90s, a man sued the state of California after a cougar attacked his son, because the signs at the state park where the family was hiking warned only of ticks and snakes. More recently, a woman sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks after a grizzly bear fatally mauled her husband.

Most such suits fail because various laws limit land manager and landowner liability for accidents arising from natural hazards. The particulars vary by state, but if an agency alters a hazard like a rapid, even with the intent to make it safer, it could potentially be held liable for future accidents there, experts say. Landowners assume some liability for artificial whitewater parks, for example, says Denver-based recreational lawyer and blogger James Moss, and the risks in those places are likely much less than those at a rapid like Frog Rock.

Still, the legal picture is uncertain: Proposals to alter natural riverbeds for boater safety are rare and seldom carried out. On the lower Youghiogheny River, in one famous case, the state of Pennsylvania undertook a five-year public review and an engineering study to determine whether Dimple Rock Rapid, the site of several deaths, ought to be changed. In 2006, it concluded that alterations could easily create new dangers without reducing the risk of flipping. The river guides who took matters into their own hands on Arizona's Salt River in 1993 -- dynamiting dangerous Quartzite Falls -- ended up facing a federal grand jury.

Though Idaho officials revoked the Staircase permit Sept. 30 in order to initiate a public review should Tom Long decide to continue, the proposal appears to be on track again. On Oct. 11, the Idaho Whitewater Association hosted a public meeting on the matter: About 80 percent of the 85 people present voted to turn the rock on its side to close off the sieve, says son Chad. Now that they're aware of the danger, he notes, "people are not comfortable with not doing anything." On the Arkansas, officials will build a small cofferdam upstream of Frog Rock this month in order to retrieve Appelson's body, which they believe is still trapped in the sieve. They want to get it done in time to avoid disturbing the local fishery during spawning season, so they've decided to forgo any permanent alterations to the rapid for now. In the meantime, Pappenfort says his agency will improve signage to make certain people are aware of the risk.

But with hundreds of thousands of people heading down the Arkansas each season, there will likely be a handful of deaths every year no matter what. "You really can't make a river safe," says American Whitewater board member and safety expert Charlie Walbridge. "It's a changing organism."

Anonymous says:
Oct 19, 2010 03:44 PM
The "left" side of the river going which way?
Anonymous says:
Oct 19, 2010 04:13 PM
River left is the left side of the river as you are facing downstream.
Anonymous says:
Oct 19, 2010 09:40 PM
Never thought about this "problem" before. I guess with my background (land management), I think more about user experience than liability. If an otherwise intermediate river is thrown into oblivion for one rapid, then it might be worthwhile to modify the section. Let's face it, more people are getting out on rivers, just like more people are hitting the trails...all with different skill levels and thrill tolerances.... But doing it just for safety seems pointless (look how many other hazards are out there)...but pair it with demand for smoother water, then you might have something.
Anonymous says:
Oct 19, 2010 11:54 PM
Let's allow natural risk to exist in the world. Let's keep the wild alive in our rivers and allow the rapids to remain dangerous. When someone dies rafting down these western rivers it is a sad and tragic event, but it is not the rivers fault. It is not a problem rock. The world was not made for us. We were made for it.
Anonymous says:
Oct 22, 2010 08:11 AM
Ryan, I have to respectfully disagree with you conclusion that "demand for smoother water" should have an impact on this analysis. Whitewater, even in an engineered park, is not a theme park ride nor should it be. There are real dangers on even the smoothest of water and it is up to the paddler to assess that risk. If one concludes that a rapid like Staircase is too dangerous, then there is a really simple solution don't run it. Idaho is chock full of smoother water; an excellent beginner stretch lies just downstream of Staircase. It is the height of hubris to think that we can -let alone should- make a whitewater river safe.
Anonymous says:
Dec 14, 2010 09:35 AM
As rafting and kayaking increase in popularity, so will outfitters increase in number. If an outfitter doesn't want the risk of dealing with liability suits on a Class V river, let them move their operation to a tamer section. If recreational paddlers will not accept the potential consequences of the risk they pose to themselves and others, let them go find Class II water. Otherwise, prepare to hand over a variance to anyone, anywhere.
Anonymous says:
Oct 19, 2010 11:08 PM
meet the wilderness on its own terms and accept the consequences, both tragic and transcendent. north america is way, way, way too concerned with making everything safe, and afraid of death. life isn't safe. that's part of the beauty of it.
Anonymous says:
Oct 20, 2010 07:00 AM
No! You want to risk your life to go rafting in a wild river, then leave it wild. When will we stop trying to control nature? People seem to be stupid and crazy...let them perish in their quest for thrills! I am tired of all these young, spoiled rich kids exploiting our western states! Old rich people too for that matter. Get real and enjoy nature on her terms!
Anonymous says:
Oct 20, 2010 11:20 AM
Sarah Gilman's article describes a complex and, of course, debatable subject. Many sides can weigh in with sound perspectives. Mine is that, because the Army Corp of Eng altered the site for "improvement" as a result of a natural problem, this boulder can be removed. When hard working and not doubt underpaid river guides are in danger, I think, move the damn thing-there's a whole wonderful river of adventure out there for all to explore. Thank you.
Anonymous says:
Oct 23, 2010 09:13 AM
We wouldn't want to engineer every river, but rivers are transient, anyway. Making one rapid consistent with the rest of the run makes sense. As a climber, I'm a little tired of the argument that placing enough bolts on a route to avoid someone dying is "dumbing it down." I've seen people die outdoors, and the experience will only make you wish it could have been avoided.
--Michael Lanza, Backpacker Magazine Northwest Editor, creator of TheBigOutside.com
Anonymous says:
Oct 24, 2010 11:24 PM
Hell, life is transient. People assume that risk when they engage in dangerous activities. In the case of the Payette, it's a nasty (thrilling) whitewater river. People don't raft it because it's safe. It isn't an amusement park ride, it's a real river with a steep gradient.

You aren't the only person who has known/seen people die engaging in dangerous activities. My cousin drowned in a strainer. While it was sad, at least he died doing something he loved. Better than most of us get.

When I worked in EMS, I saw plenty of people who were hurt/killed as a result of the choices they made. I never felt sorry for them. I learned from their mistakes and moved on.
Anonymous says:
Oct 24, 2010 11:36 PM
"To the east of Banks, the South Fork's Canyon, west of Lowman, is a challenging Class IV run for rafting. Along this trip is a 40 foot (13 m) Class VI waterfall (Big Falls), which is portaged."

Go around.
Anonymous says:
Nov 07, 2010 07:16 PM
They played with this idea regarding left Crack in Section IV of the Chattooga River in SC/GA years ago. The thing is, it's a fruitless endeavor: You can modify a streambed, but that doesn't make it safe, and one nice flood could change things back to where they were before (or worse). Will you continue to keep up with modifying a river?

Give it up. Just say 'no'.
Anonymous says:
Nov 17, 2010 08:46 AM
I was at that Oct. 11 meeting and sorry, but I don't believe anywhere near 80 percent of those present "voted" to turn the rock. Nor was it any kind of binding vote. Many didn't raise their hand one way or the other. It's not a popularity contest anyway. One guy in the audience asked for a show of hands at the end of the meeting to (not his exact words, but something to the effect) help guide him in his making his mind up on where he stood — it struck me that he simply wanted to find out where most stood on the issue so he could go along with the crowd. There are some who also believe the show of hands was somewhat orchestrated so proponents of turning the rock could say that a majority of those attending the meeting were in favor. Remember, the initial application was for removal of the rock from the river.