Deadly rapids on Arkansas River drive debate over removing hazards
The Denver Post
BUENA VISTA – During a Sunday-afternoon float down a stretch of the Arkansas River in mid-July, Kimberly Appelson tumbled from a raft in the seemingly innocuous Frog Rock rapids.
Almost three months later, the 23-year-old’s body remains trapped in an underwater cave clogged with wood.
Reaching her body, a priority for Arkansas River guardians who want to provide closure to Appelson’s family, will require heavy equipment and major work in the riverbed.
As officials ponder a temporary dam, diverting the river and clearing a deeper channel away from the fatal cavelike feature as part of the retrieval, they are mulling an even thornier ethical dilemma: the impulse to permanently alter the natural rapids, which have claimed four lives since 1990.
“To make this spot less hazardous would certainly make my professional life more pleasant,” said Stew Pappenfort, the senior ranger at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area who has retrieved three bodies from the Frog Rock sieve since becoming a ranger in 1990.
“However, changing wild places and natural places does not run with my particular environmental philosophy. There are camps on both sides of this issue, and I feel like I’m in both camps,” he said.
In late September, Pappenfort and more than a dozen river officials gathered at the Frog Rock rapids, where a hollow- bottomed rock juts into the flow.
Beneath that massive, tank- sized rock, in a submerged chamber where water flows through tight crevices and a tangle of driftwood, Appelson’s body remains trapped. The first goal of the somber gathering was to study how to retrieve Appelson’s body.
The officials call her by name and rarely mention the word “body.” It’s just “reaching Kimberly” and “getting to Kimberly.”
In July 2000, 12-year-old Luca Angelescu fell from a raft and was trapped in the Frog Rock sieve, an underwater slot that allows water to pass but traps everything else. A year later in August, rafters Bernd Knorr, 39, and his wife, Jennifer, 36, drowned.
Today, a sign urges paddlers to walk around the rapids when flows do not allow passage through the left channel, away from the dangerous feature.
The river’s managers hope to erect a temporary dam – possibly using concrete highway barriers – to divert flow away from the sieve and give divers a chance to reach Appelson.
There’s plenty of red tape to go through before any work is done. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service would require some environmental analysis. The Army Corps of Engineers would need to approve the plan. Wildlife officials require protection for the river’s brown trout. If all goes well, work would be done sometime this month.
As the group ponders the complicated details of recovery – it could include using a military helicopter to bring in a a 47,000-pound earth mover – talk turns to changing the rapids so they do not claim another life.
“Is it ethical, and if so, can we be effective?” Pappenfort asked.
Mike Harvey, a river engineer who builds whitewater parks across the country, thinks the rapids could be altered to lessen the fatal risk.
“It’s going to take a significant amount of disturbance to go in there and recover Kimberly. Why would anyone put the rapid back together the way it is?” asked Harvey, who is helping sketch plans to retrieve Appelson’s body. “The impact is already there.”
The best potential alteration at Frog Rock seems to be deepening the left channel to allow easier navigation in low water, letting rafters avoid the deadly sieve.
Still, questions linger. If officials make changes, could they be responsible for incidents at Frog Rock?
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