Rivers unforgiving during run-off; second death in 2 weeks on Western Slope

Julie Bielenberg
Aspen Times

A week after a rafter from Vail died in Glenwood Canyon, the body of longtime Aspen and Snowmass resident Tony Welgos, 73, was found Monday in the Roaring Fork River near Basalt’s Lazy Glen neighborhood.

“We got the 911 call of a person in the water with jeans and sweatshirt,” said Scott Thompson, chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue. “All we got from the beginning was there were sightings of him in the water, so we set up to do a contact rescue near the bridge on Highway 82 and Lazy Glen.”

The Roaring Fork Fire Rescue team was able to recover the body with the assistance of Aspen Fire, Aspen Ambulance, and Carbondale Fire. 

“We tried CPR for a considerable amount of time, especially in cold water scenarios, but we were unsuccessful.” Thompson added, “People need to be very careful this time of year. Rivers are full and moving swiftly. The river is unforgiving, and unless you are prepared to be in the swift water, you should not be out there. Do anything possible to not be on the water.” 

He suggested using a professional guide service with noted rafting experience.

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“No one should be there in river in a tube or a small inflatable raft that is not made for handling swift water. Right now is a dangerous time of the year. People need to make informed decisions.” 

Close call for a waterman

Paul Meyers knows well the dangers of spring runoff. He nearly died rafting through Shoshone Rapids on the Colorado River.

He has been rafting and fly-fishing in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1992. For over three decades, he has typically used a 12-foot raft, solo paddling, often with family and friends aboard. He’ll usually complete 25 to 30 raft trips a year on the Colorado, Green, and Roaring Fork rivers.

However, it was his first trip on the Colorado River in a raft in Class III rapids that nearly took his life in spring 2004.

“I was overconfident. I missed a paddle stroke on Shoshone Rapids and got flipped by a wave. I missed the stroke because I hit air and not water and didn’t get the boat turned into the wave and over,” said Meyers.

First, he swam for the boat. Then he changed his mind and swam for his wife, Joy, who was also in the water. She made it 100 yards down the river and was able to climb out. Meyers and his wife were luckily both in approved personal flotation devices, which aided in their survival, thus far. 

“Where I landed, there are pretty big rocks for erosion control, and it took me a few tries to get the correct rock to grab myself and get out of the water,” he said. “We gathered up what gear we could and had approximately a mile walk on the bike path back to Grizzly Creek park-and-ride.”

Before the he got to the parking lot, he started having chest pains. And then it got worse. 

“Somebody who saw the accident was also parked at Grizzly Creek and helped me to her pickup truck. She was trying to keep me calm and telling me to breathe.”

Another person near the accident saw the Meyer’s boat floating downriver upside down and had called 911, who dispatched an ambulance.

“Without that very quick response, I would not have made it,” said Meyers.

The rescue responders arrived, and he ended up going into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated in the ambulance — and a couple more times en route to the hospital. 

“Contributing to my survival was the fact that Valley View Hospital has just opened a cardiac catheterization lab with more high-tech instruments to diagnose patients,” he said. “They immediately started a stint.”

A year before the incident, Meyers had a mild heart attack and stent inserted. This stint would later fail because of a blood clot caused by the cold river water. 

Their raft was recovered in West Glenwood Springs, about six miles down the river.

Oh, he also broke his knee in the snowmelt-swelled rapids that spring day.

Today, he is much more vigilant and cautious about spring runoff. He’s been out five times thus far this year but only the Green River, as well and the Roaring Fork River between Carbondale and Glenwood — not through Glenwood Canyon, certainly not Shoshone Rapids.

“I’m not doing that rapid anymore. I’ve only done it once since the accident,” said Meyers.

How fast are the rivers moving?

River flow is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). That is how river enthusiasts determine the level of hazard and speed of the river.

“We haven’t hit peak flows in most rivers yet this summer,” said Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Company in Glenwood Springs.

He also owns Lakota Guides, a commercial whitewater rafting company based out of Vail and Colorado Rafting Adventures in Buena Vista. Murphy, although an Ireland native, has been on the rivers of Colorado since 1996 and has owned Glenwood Adventure Company for 13 years.

“Mother Nature is going to dictate when we hit peak, and we haven’t had the warm evenings combined with the warm days to really send the flows into higher numbers,” he said.

The Roaring Fork River and Crystal River aren’t controlled as much as many other rivers. The Roaring Fork upstream of Aspen does have the Lincoln Creek Connection Canal southeast that diverts water from Lost Man Tunnel No. 2 to Grizzly Reservoir. The Crystal River is largely free flowing and the subject of possible wild and scenic river designation.

“Vegetation is now an obstacle, the banks are more unstable, the river can take items from the banks and push them into the river and downstream. Every day can be different as the water rises and falls during this time of the year,” Murphy said.

He recommended that if private boaters have questions or concerns on river conditions, they should call commercial outfitters and ask about the conditions, as the pros are out there daily.

“Some of these commercial outfitters have guides with years of experience on certain stretches of the river with plenty of history and knowledge they can pass on,” he said.

He said the water’s been higher than it is now.

“I’ve seen higher flows in lower snow years due to a quick warmup with warm evenings. It’s all how it melts, and what’s released. If we have plenty of sun with warm nights, it can come down faster.”

Murphy recalled years when Shoshone Rapids in Glenwood Canyon was running at 16,000 to 17,000 cfs in lesser snowpack years. On Tuesday, Shoshone Rapids was at 6,700 cfs. 

“We don’t run certain areas when it gets over a certain cfs, and we always factor in the guests’ age, weight, and physical ability when deciding on the best adventure that suits their group’s wide range of abilities. Outfitters have staff on hand to help you choose the best trip for your group. When one area may get too high, there are always other options here, and that’s what makes this area such a popular rafting destination both privately and commercially,” he said.

Hypothermia can easily consume river enthusiasts, as Meyers can attest. River water is snowmelt — and so cold, very cold.

“You need to be wearing the proper attire for the conditions and an approved personal flotation device,” Murphy said.

The rise in private boats on the river

River traffic has surged over the past decade with private boat ownership, and many new owners who hadn’t experienced high run-off like this.

“We now have many more private craft on the water, and many of these water recreationists haven’t seen flows this high before. Things are moving so much faster, and you have to make decisions much faster. The set-up needs to be earlier as you prepare for the obstacle ahead much earlier than in years past,” said Murphy.

“There’s absolutely a rise in private boats,” Meyers said. “It’s crazy. The parking at the boat ramps is tight, and they are in terrible shape.”

Parking lots and boat launches along the Roaring Fork can feel a bit like frat parties on the weekends throughout summer with pressure to get loaded and unloaded quickly with boat congestion.

“Fortunately, everyone cooperates and helps each other, preventing it from being chaos,” he said. 

“It’s a bigger water year. It’s a great year, and those who love the water and are experienced are going to have a blast. I’m afraid there are some people that shouldn’t be on the water,” Chief Thompson said.

Aspen City Councilman Sam Rose last week noted the danger upstream from the city: “Devil’s Punchbowl is a swimming hole up by Independence Pass, and it feels like every year someone dies from going in it while the water level is too high,” he said. “I mentioned it because it is a high-water year, and someone just died in Glenwood Canyon rafting; so I believe vigilance is important as we get excited about summer.”

Vail resident Nick Courtens, 34, died Sunday, May 21, in a paddling accident in Glenwood Canyon. Garfield County authorities said he was wearing a personal flotation device and a helmet while rafting with a group of five people, in two rafts. Between the Shoshone power plant and Grizzly Creek, two people went into the river from one of the rafts while navigating a rapid. Other members of the group were able to get both of them to shore and begin CPR; unfortunately, only one of the men responded.

Colleen Pennington, Glenwood Canyon manager for the White River National Forest, said: “Hazards can change day-by-day, including debris and tree snags that can trap people underwater and puncture rafts, dangerous currents, and cold-water temperatures that can create dangerous situations for even strong swimmers.”

Garfield County Emergency Manager Chris Bornholdt said: “Water levels are predicted to come up even more in the next couple weeks and stay at a high level for over a month. River safety should be our biggest concern right now. Navigating the river is tricky under normal conditions, and when you add three-four times the amount of water and speed, things can happen really fast.”

Hours later, rescuers had a happier outcome with a rescue downstream at Willits near the Basalt Business Center.

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