How to avoid whitewater injuries this season

Colorado is well known for its outdoor recreation activities, and one of the most popular this season is whitewater rafting. Each year whitewater rafting is enjoyed by nearly half a million people in our state, contributing an economic impact of more than $160 million. But with this excitement often comes danger, and rafting injuries and deaths have been on the rise in Colorado. Last year, authorities reported 17 deaths in Colorado, well above the state average of 10 each year. This has forced some whitewater rafting companies to move to calmer rapids and keep extra safety gear on hand. “Wiley Ledwith, part-owner of Independent Whitewater in Salida, said a lot of rafting companies are busing people to sections of the popular Arkansas River in central Colorado that are more manageable.” His company also stocks extra rescue gear such as emergency blankets, dry clothes and gloves in case someone falls into the frigid water. They even sometimes send a second raft to drift alongside the one carrying their customers in case a problem arises. But, even with the best safety precautions, accidents still happen.

“Whitewater rafting is not a definite thing. It’s not an amusement park,” says Ledwith. “You got to know what you’re getting into, and if you don’t, that’s when you go to a professional.”

Kris Wahlers, boating safety manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says that “it’s hard to explain why there have been more deaths in whitewater rafting, a sport that poses a variety of risks and in which flirting with danger is part of the attraction.” Industry experts believe it’s possible that more unprepared people have become attracted to the dramatic rapids in recent years.

“If it was entirely predictable, we probably wouldn’t have that much business. Part of the thrill of it is it’s unpredictable,” says David Costlow, director of the Colorado Outfitters Association, which represents the whitewater rafting industry. 

American Whitewater, the non-profit association for whitewater enthusiasts and preservationists, says many whitewater accidents are preventable, and offers some simple things you can do to stay safe:

  1. Wear your life jacket regardless of boat type or difficulty of water. A third of all whitewater accidents could have been prevented if the victim was wearing a life vest. In fact, many deaths occur in very easy rapids.
  2. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol dulls reflexes and survival responses and is often linked to fatalities. Celebrate responsibly at your campsite or home.
  3. Know the river to prevent unpleasant surprises. Find out what lies downstream. Check the American Whitewater website, guidebooks, Google Earth, or get advice from paddlers who have been there before.
  4. Avoid both weather and water extremes: Very high flows and cold temperatures pose special challenges. If you don’t have the specialized gear and skills needed, wait until conditions improve.
  5. Avoid dams: Small low-head dams are responsible for over 8 percent of river fatalities. Know the location of dams before launching on a river, and avoid getting too close to the upstream or downstream sides of them.

If you or a loved one were injured in an accident, contact a knowledgeable Colorado personal injury lawyer who can evaluate your case and help get you the recovery you deserve.