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Boaters: Don’t ban us from Eagle River

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyLocal kayaker Steve Boyd stands at the edge of the Eagle River Tuesday where, 29 years ago, he was given a ticket for violating a river ban as he pulled his kayak out of the river.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Steve Boyd worked hard overturning an Eagle County sheriff’s boating ban on the river in the late 1970s.

So Boyd, a longtime Vail resident, bristled when he heard the Eagle County sheriff talking about banning boaters from the surging Eagle River.

“As far as law enforcement protecting us from ourselves basically I say, ‘No way,'” said Boyd, who has been kayaking in Eagle County since 1969. “We should be able to determine our own skill levels.”

The Eagle River is running fast and high and several boating accidents have been reported recently. Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy said he has considered banning boaters after an accident last week in which 19 rafters were dumped out of their boats in the Eagle River near the county fairgrounds.

The talks were only to “find out what my options are,” Hoy said.

But, “I do have the authority to put a restriction, or a partial-use restriction, on the river if I deem necessary,” Hoy said.

If Hoy were to enact a river ban, he would first only look at banning only a troublesome section, he said. Hoy said he’s mostly concerned about people floating the Eagle River in innertubes and cheap rafts. A potential ban would not target kayakers, whitewater canoers or commercial rafters, he said.

Authorities can close any waters to boats when there’s “a hazard to human life or safety,” but not to kayaks and canoes made to withstand whitewater, according to Colorado law. “

A hazard to human life” cannot be determined based only on its “flow rate,” Hoy said.

“I don’t care about the flow rate, I care about people being flipped over,” Hoy said.

Kayaks and whitewater canoes can be banned during a “state of disaster” and disaster relief efforts “that may include debris removal.” Authorities also can ban those boats from waters during an accident or other emergency in or near a body of water; during rescue efforts; and during construction or transportation projects.

Hoy said he must follow laws on when authorities can close waters.

Vail resident Tim Boyle kayaked from Dowd Junction to Edwards last week and didn’t see anyone except some commercial rafts when he first got in the water.

“You don’t see a lot of people out there in K-Mart rafts and tubes trying to kill themselves,” Boyle said.

Boyle has also seen the river a great deal higher than it is now, so he doesn’t see why the sheriff has talked about a ban. The talk offended him, he said.

“I don’t hear them saying, ‘We’re going to close the East Vail Chutes because people are dying in avalanches there,'” Boyle said.

In June 1979, Boyd paddled the Eagle River as a rescuer looking for two missing women without life jackets who had been floating down the river on a flimsy raft when the river was running high. The women drowned and their bodies were later found near Gypsum, Boyd said.

But the sheriff, who had subsequently banned all boaters from the river, refused to let people like Boyd kayak on the river for fun. Boyd had even put up signs warning of danger, installed gauges to measure the water level and talked to boaters about being safe, he said.

So Boyd and a friend, Rick Winkeller, launched their boats next to the home of the Minturn’s police chief, who lived on the Eagle River. The chief called a sheriff’s deputy, who ticketed the Boyd and Winkeller.

Boyd knew he could run the river at the time legally, according to Colorado law, and his case reached the Colorado Supreme Court. The court ruled that the river ban was unconstitutional and directed the Legislature to clarify the law, Boyd said.

Fred Butler, an attorney at the time who represented Boyd in the case, said people’s right to due process was violated by the ban because the sheriff could not adequately inform people to let them know about a ban in the first place.

Further, Colorado law stated kayaks and whitewater canoes were exempt from a ban.

Butler thinks Hoy has an “altruistic” reason for talking about a ban, but he doesn’t think one is necessary.

“The interstate is more dangerous than the Eagle River,” Butler said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 970-748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.