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How to Survive (and Enjoy) Potentially Dangerous Rafting Season

After years of drought, the vast majority of Colorado suddenly has water aplenty thanks to a notably wet winter and spring that produced a snowpack estimated at 625 percent above the median in a recent report cited by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But too much water can create just as many problems as not enough, particularly when it comes to outdoor recreation activities such as rafting, kayaking, tubing, paddleboarding, wakeboarding or plain ol' swimming.

Fast and full rivers, creeks and streams, plus lakes and reservoirs at or near capacity, are attracting large numbers of people from within and outside the state even before the official start of summer. Unfortunately, these conditions are contributing to a significant number of accidents. Already this month, a Texas man on a Boy Scouts trip drowned in the Arkansas River and Russia's Nikolay Pezhemskiy lost his life when his raft flipped on the Eagle River, six Dolores River tubers had to be rescued, and Roberta Sophia Rodriguez, a woman from Colorado Springs, is still missing after falling into the Rio Grande River on June 15. In addition, CPW put out an alert about the use of personal flotation devices after rangers were barely able to save a man not wearing one who fell off his paddleboard at Ridgway State Park on June 13.

The early fatality and the escalating number of emergency calls trouble Jason Clay, public information officer for CPW's northeast region. "It is a concern," he concedes. "That's why we're trying to get out more messaging about safety, so we can inform people about how to make the right decisions, so they can can go about their recreational opportunities in a safe manner. The safer they are, the better everyone will be for it."

The high water is expected to last for weeks to come. "If we get a bunch of hot days chunked together, there's the potential for it to be quicker," Clay says. "But right now, we're probably looking at having a strong runoff all the way through July."

As a result, he continues, "there's going to be an enhanced excitement for those folks who like water sports and the adrenaline that comes with them. And we're not saying don't go out, don't give it a try or experience it. We're saying plan ahead and know what you could be getting into, because a lot of potential dangers could be present because of fast-moving waters."

At Westword's request, Clay assembled a list of ten tips to help folks who want to dip in more than a toe:

Number 1: Bring the right safety equipment

If you're rafting (or boarding), Clay says, a life jacket is a must "and a safety helmet is highly recommended." Upon hitting the rapids, "you could get tossed around and you could be ejected from your craft — and when that happens, you lose a lot of control."

He recommends that those suddenly tossed into rapidly flowing waters "point their feet downstream and ride it out until they can find a safe place to swim to shore."

Number 2: Wear the proper clothing

Warm temperatures tend to inspire rafters to shed their outfits, but Clay warns people not to go into a river "wearing just swim trunks. You need to have some coverage over your body, because the water is going to be very cold" — so chilly that it's capable of shocking systems.

Number 3: Bring a change of clothing

"When your adventure ends, you're going to want to get out of those wet clothes," he points out — and there's a way to do that without figuring out how to jam a waterproof container into a raft or kayak.

"If possible, it's a good idea to have a car at the starting point of your route and a car at the end point, where you can get out and go to your car and have a change of clothes. That's not always feasible, but you can usually find sections of the river where you can do that."

Number 4: Plan ahead

Mapping out an area for rafting is important for a variety of reasons beyond finding good places to leave vehicles, Clay says, including simple logistics — knowing how long it will take you to reach your destination, how long you're likely to be there and how long the drive back will be. There's also the weather: It's important to know if a storm is on the way and likely to strike when shelter is hard to find.

But Clay notes that planning shouldn't stop there.

Number 5: Check in with local authorities

"A lot of times," Clay stresses, officials in recreational hot spots "will know sections of the river that could be dangerous, and they'll be able to tell you which ones to avoid. They'll know where other people have gotten into trouble."

Number 6: Rafting companies can help, too

Even folks uninterested in a guided experienced can get something out of a conversation with commercial outfits. "They'll be able to talk to you about safety and what to look for," Clay recommends. "They're on the water all the time, so they can be a really good source about current conditions."

Just as important, both area officials and professional rafters should be able to ascertain whether the water along certain stretches is too treacherous for an amateur. It's a lot better to know about that in advance and be able to make alternative plans, Clay suggests, than "to realize you're in over your head" when it's too late to do anything about it.

Number 7: The buddy system

"You should always be paddling with someone else," Clay says. "Don't go alone. The thought is, if one person were to get into trouble, there's someone else there who can relay for assistance."

Number 8: Be prepared for your phone not to work

Part of advance planning, Clay says, "is knowing if you'll be going through canyons — because in a lot of them, you're not going to have any cell service. And you probably aren't going to want to have your cell on you anyway. So we recommend that you have your phone in the car at the end of the run, and that you know how to contact local authorities. You can always dial 911, but if it's not a great emergency, you need other options. Maybe you lost your kayak in the river. If you know who to contact wherever you're at, they may be able to help you get it out."

Number 9: Let people know where you'll be

Sharing your itinerary with people back home "gives you another safety buffer," Clay points out. "If they know where you're at and when you're supposed to be returning, they'll be there if something goes wrong. That's another part of planning in advance. Give them the number for local authorities. That will expedite things if you need help."

Number 10: Don't overestimate your ability

Neither Coloradans nor tourists should take the challenges of a river casually, especially this season. As Clay puts it, "The big thing is being comfortable and confident that you'll be able to handle the conditions that you could be seeing — and then don't overstep those boundaries. You're going after an adrenaline rush, a great adventure. But that can backfire on you quickly if your skill set isn't up to the vision that you have."

Under such circumstances, he suggests "going with one of the rafting companies that have pros who do it all the time. That way, they can help you get your thrill."

Many people "are excited about this summer, and that's a good thing," Clay adds. "Outdoor recreation is kind of the fabric of Colorado. But common sense needs to come into play, and common precautions to keep yourself safe."

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