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Running rivers, weighing risks

Alan Braunholtz

Farmers are aware of the weather more than anyone else. Their whole lives change along with the seasons, and they depend on predictable rain and sun. Living in the mountains provides a similar concern with nature’s variations. The weather matters to our economy and perhaps more importantly, which toys we’ll pull out of the garage. This seasonal change in lifestyle is interesting and strangely comforting. We evolved linked to the seasons, and it still feels good to be immersed in nature’s tides.Looking at newspaper headlines excitedly reporting the rising rivers, I get a sense of the anticipation Indian farmers have waiting for the monsoon. OK, the monsoon is much more important to them, as many will starve without its timely arrival. Here we can’t ski, water our lawns or play in raging torrents without a good snowfall and runoff. It’s a study in contrasts. There people will die without it. Here we impatiently wait to try and die in it.Well, run-off is here and streams all across the West look mesmerizing, strong, fast and never-ending. There’s something hypnotizing about the constant swirling motion of passing water. You know how strong it is, but there’s this urge to touch, stand and swim just to see what’ll happen. Cliff edges, fires and whirling machinery have similar attractions.My dogs do not share this allure. One dog, normally a “Sir! Yes sir!” type, draws the line at obviously suicidal commands, ignoring any sticks thrown in swollen rivers. The other one has an agenda that avoids water at all costs. It’s not a danger issue, since black bears in the garbage beckon of a good time as she drags me toward them, straining at the leash. I even saw a beaver bobbing in a calm eddy looking to cross a swollen stream. Interestingly, the beaver shuffled over roots and swam carefully along the bank for a considerable distance before finding a safer spot. You know the run-off’s strong if a beaver’s having second thoughts.As people succumb to the allure of big water, we hear about accidents and a few drownings. Mother Nature provides a full selection of rides. It’s up to you to pick the one that fits your skill and comfort level. She’s very much a libertarian in these matters. You can do whatever you want, but choose poorly and you pay the costs. It’s a great attitude for all adventure activities, which are more about self-expression than rules and competition.In past years some sheriffs would close rivers to protect us from ourselves. I don’t know if it’s because of an increased awareness of how capable some people are at river running or just a more “it’s your life” attitude, but few rivers are closed these days, at least for reasons of public safety. A few private landowners keep trying to prevent common boaters from impinging on their privileged views for the 20 seconds it takes to float past. River access, debates on the “right to float” and lack of free-flowing water as continued growth sucks it up are bigger threats to river running than public safety closures.Education and lots of warnings are the preferred methods of public safety where nature’s thrill rides are concerned. “Don’t know what you’re doing? Then don’t do it.” If you want the manicured, all-hazards- removed ride, then go to Elitch’s or the Magic Kingdom. That’s a simple pay-and-play transaction.The real deal, play-it-as-it-lays challenges of the world demand a little more. Ultimately, you look out for your own safety. You get to make your own choices based on knowledge and experience. If you don’t have them, you end up depending on someone else’s experience and knowledge as you learn. This is your choice, too. Find someone whose risk tolerance you’re comfortable with. Whenever a small plane pitons into a mountain side somewhere, I cringe. Not only at the loss of life but at memories of exciting flights in small planes piloted by relative strangers of unknown ability.Life is unpredictable, and the legal system in the U.S. forces everyone from doctors to fly fishermen to openly communicate risks and hazards. As a raft guide, this is often one of the more charged talks you do, watching people start to understand the balance of fun, risk, challenge and fear. They’re all complementing flavors that help keep the recipe of life interesting. Smokers are always useful to keep risks in perspective. Life Insurance companies don’t care if you go rafting, but smoke cigarettes and you’ll pay a much higher rate for insurance. According to actuaries, smoking will kill you and river running won’t. There’s something to think about next time you drop in. Daily risks may vary, though, especially right now.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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