Death on the river

As summer rafting season begins, safe passage to all river runners.

 

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College, [email protected].


As spring returns to the Rockies, I think about a day last summer when we packed for a rafting trip, never thinking to pack for death. We took clothes, cameras, river gear, sleeping bags and tents. We never dreamed there might be a tragedy, a whitewater death by drowning. And yet that accident happened, and our lives were forever changed the instant the raft flipped.

It took hours for a helicopter to come by, low and slow, searching for the kind of shadow that reveals where a body might be hidden underwater, pinned by boulders.

Four other rafts were well ahead of us when our raft slammed into a submerged tree and the commercial river guide yelled, “High side! High side!” That meant we had to move fast to the upside of our raft to prevent water from getting into the low side and flipping us. But in a tight canyon with the river roaring at 9,000 cubic feet per second, everything happened simultaneously. The raft tossed all six of us into 45 degree water. I blew out the back end and swam to a log near an island. I looked around for my companions. I saw no one.

A capsized raft floats through whitewater.
Gunter Marx/Alamy Stock Photo

It was the first day and the first rapid on a four-day rafting trip. In those seconds after the accident, as I tried to understand what had happened, I heard only the rushing water. Then I saw the upside-down raft bobbing furiously in the river, caught in the kind of submerged tree that river-runners call a strainer.

I stayed on the log, debating whether to try to get to the island, when our guide appeared out of the thick willows. He saw me and patted his head. I patted mine in turn to signal that I was OK. We couldn’t hear each other over the sound of the river. He turned around and melted back into the brush, and I stayed a few more minutes on the log, my impromptu sanctuary. 

In 20 years of river running, I’ve experienced plenty of flips, but this one felt different. I reached the island, removed my lifejacket and helmet and tried to dry off as the sun climbed the cliff. Then one of the couples who had been in the front of our raft appeared, both of them barefoot because the river had ripped their sandals off. We hugged. 

We explored the island. On both channels the river roared by too swiftly for us to make a safe exit. Then we saw two guides signaling to each other across the river about how many of us had been rescued. And that is when we knew: One of us was lost.

River running, both in private boats and commercially, has become firmly established in the Rocky Mountain West. Families want a taste of adventure, cold water splashed on hot skin, yells and shouts of excitement, a reason to hang on to the “chicken line” as the rafts tumble through rapids. We crave excitement. 

Our group had planned this trip months in advance without knowing that a record snowpack would force the dam above us to release huge amounts of cold water, not only to save the dam but also for downstream irrigation. These pulse floods are healthy for the environment, re-establishing habitat for endangered fish and bird species. But with high flows, there is little margin for human error. Now, as the bright sunshine ebbed towards late afternoon shade, we survivors were grateful simply to be alive.

The next hours blend together. I recall deep wails and sobs of grief from the man whose partner was missing. He kept saying, “Why her, God? Why not me? Take me, I’m older.” The inevitable questions arose about the random nature of death, who dies, and why. 

Weeks later, I thought about the hidden complexities of the situation. Here we were, trapped in a canyon, and yet also caught between some of the West’s other competing activities, things like farming and irrigation, activities far removed from river running. The Bureau of Reclamation, I had learned, would not slow a scheduled release from one of their big dams — not even to retrieve a body. 

There were 28 passengers on the trip, and among them were grandparents who’d brought their grandchildren. I hoped those children did not blame the river. We had chosen to be in the wilderness, and that choice had irrevocable consequences.

Snow is melting now in the backcountry. Rivers will rise in June from snowmelt, and rafters will launch with a sense of nervous expectation. To every river runner and every excited passenger: I wish you safe passage.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -