Taming the River Wild

by Sarah Gilman

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."

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