River concerns are misdirected | VailDaily.com

River concerns are misdirected

Alan Braunholtz
Vail CO, Colorado

When Sheriff Joy Hoy threatened to close the local rivers it provoked a brief outcry from whitewater enthusiasts and businesses. This died down after he received a quick history lesson on Colorado river laws, which pretty much prevent the banning of whitewater kayaks and canoes from our rivers. Many thanks to the old-school boaters who forced this issue years back when previous sheriffs tried to protect us from ourselves.

I’m guessing it was always less of a real thought-through threat and more of an exasperated public warning ” which has worked well. It created a lot of attention statewide and many of the commercial guests I meet rafting seem a touch more curious and cautious about the level of the trip and the water level. This is good; over the past few years as “extreme” moved into mainstream vocabulary, people have signed up for tougher and tougher stuff without thinking too much. It hasn’t been unusual in past years to overhear someone reassuring their friends with a “don’t worry, they wouldn’t let us do it if it wasn’t safe” while signing the liability/assumption of risk/you may get hurt, etc. form. I’ve never worked out who the “they” is in this sentence is though.

The rivers, while higher than average, never reached the epic levels the record snowpack hinted at. Still, in practical terms, there’s not much difference between a river that’ll really kill you and one that’ll only just kill you. Only those who choose to spend a lot of time in moving water grasp how powerful and dangerous (and fun) even a small stream can be. Most won’t go near it without a large amount of equipment, either. A surprisingly small depth of fast water can knock you over and away.

There’s a difference between warnings and bans, though. Warnings help the ignorant or unaware from being taken by surprise.

Blanket bans only serve to remove the responsible boaters who have the equipment and knowledge to at least know they’re banned. These actually are the people you want on a river because they’re in the best position to rescue, warn and educate each other and less informed river users.

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Bans on inner tubes, Wal-Mart pool rafts, inflatable alligators and other foolhardy craft manned by someone perhaps wearing a water skiing life jacket are effectively a ban on deliberate idiots. The problem with bans on idiots is they rarely work because ” well they’re idiots. They don’t know or care and it might even attract them.

Those committed to reckless stupidity are going to find an outlet for it somewhere or another and at least on a river they only endanger themselves. I’d prefer we spent our law enforcement budget on activities where we endanger others. Driving comes to mind here. I’m not sure if a sheriff can unilaterally initiate a hand-held cellphone ban whilst driving but it’d save more lives than patrolling the rivers for nonconforming inflatables.

Interestingly, the two places on the lower Eagle most likely to flip unsuspecting boats are recent man-made alterations. Avon has, at great cost, created a river-wide hydraulic. It’s a frowning hole, too, where the edges curl upstream so the current pushes you into the center. Fortunately, you get flushed out underwater because the current is still moving downstream on the bottom of the river, if not the top. Without this escape, it’d probably have drowned a few people.

In Eagle, the reengineering of the drop above the fairgrounds parking lot changed a rapid with a runnable line into one that at high flows looks much more difficult ” at least in a raft. This new and improved rapid is the one responsible for most of the publicized carnage.

River runners are responsible for themselves and should scout or at least get a heads-up before running a river, but imagine coming here to boat the same pleasant river every spring then finding these additions appearing out of the blue. Considering banning people from rivers because we don’t trust their ability to make a safe decision should work both ways and open the door for protecting river users from others unsafe actions too.

Whatever the intentions of the river redesign at Avon and Eagle may have been, they’ve created a hazard across what is, under federal law, a navigable right of way. I’m hoping these are works in progress and will get better over time, but statewide there are always a few incidents of fences and other dangerous barriers being erected over navigable streams.

While I appreciate the concern when authorities try to protect us from ourselves, it’d be really cool if this concern also extended to dangers like fences, lowhead dams, rebar, dumped cars, railroad ties, telegraph poles and all the other stuff that we do to our rivers without really thinking how it might effect those who play in them.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a regular column for the Daily. E-mail comments to letters@vaildaily.com.

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