The Dangers and Excitement of Whitewater Rafting

The Dangers and Excitement of Whitewater Rafting

My RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series features the sport of whitewater rafting. The sleuth, Mandy Tanner, is a whitewater river ranger on the upper Arkansas River of Colorado, the most commercially rafted river in the United States. The huge volume of commercial and private boaters keep Mandy and her fellow river rangers busy performing rescues, checking licenses and safety procedures, clearing dangerous debris, etc. Mandy knows the rapids in the river like the back of her hand because, like most of the seasonal river rangers who work for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), she used to be a rafting guide, taking tourists down various sections of the Arkansas on guided trips.

And I’m one of those tourists who love to rides the waves of Colorado’s whitewater rivers! Many people think the experience must be a terrifying one. But, the risks can be managed so the danger is minimized and the fun is maximized. First, to go whitewater rafting, you must:

  1. 1.Be in good health (heart attacks are the most common cause of rafting deaths).

  2. 2.Know how to swim.

Additionally, you MUST share your medical conditions (such as diabetes or asthma) with your rafting guide and bring along any essential medications or equipment (such as an inhaler or epi-pen). One rafting guide I interviewed said his first customer death on the river was a man who suffered from emphysema, didn’t divulge that condition on his paperwork, then left his medications in his car. The man fell in the cold water, was pulled back into the raft, but couldn’t catch his breath. That guide is still haunted by the man’s death, even though he could do nothing to help him and it wasn’t his fault!

Second, you should know your limits, based on physical condition and experience level. If you’re a first-time rafter, you should raft a river section that doesn’t have any rapids classified higher than Class III, Difficult. And if you do tackle Class III rapids, you should have a professional guide in your raft.

The International Scale of River Difficulty rates individual rapids and river sections on a six class scale. They range from Class I, Easy, with small waves with no obstacles, through Class II, Medium, up to Class V, Extremely Difficult, with long, violent rapids. The highest is Class VI, formerly classified as Unrunnable or Danger to Life or Limb, which are only attempted by expert kayakers after hours of scouting and with safety lines and rescuers standing by.

Family “float trips” usually stay in the Class I – III range and the roller-coaster adventure trips that I and other whitewater adventurers take are usually in the Class III-V range. I, however, have set my own upper limit at Class IV. You should always be prepared to swim any rapid your boat goes through, because the raft may flip or you may be tossed into the water. And I’ve decided that I don’t want to swim any rapid higher than IV, even though I’m a strong swimmer for my age.

The photos below were taken during a summer trip with my husband, my son and one of his friends, and our guide on the Blue River of Colorado, which was a Class II-III run and lots of fun.

Notice that everyone in the raft is wearing a helmet and a PFD (lifejacket). Even if you’re on an easy float trip, you should wear a helmet in case you end up in the water, to protect your head from hitting a rock or floating debris. If you take a commercial rafting trip, the guides will educate you on how to swim a rapid if you wind up in the water. You lie on your back with your feet pointed downstream, so you can use them to push yourself away from rocks. And, most importantly, you hold onto your paddle, for the same purpose, and so when someone pulls you back into the raft, you can still perform your paddling job.

Never, never, never stand up in whitewater higher than ankle deep! Why? Because the force of moving water is very powerful. If your foot gets trapped between a couple of rocks and you fall down, the moving water will flatten your body. You won’t be able to hold your head up or reach back and free your foot. People have drowned in a foot of whitewater this way. Instead, if you fall out of a raft, either try to stay with the raft and get back in, or swim to the side of the river into a quiet eddy where the current is still and stand up and climb back up to the river bank.

Commercial guides also train you in how to anchor yourself in a raft, how to pull yourself into a raft if you get thrown out, and how to pull a raft-mate back into the raft. This instruction came in handy for me when I took a trip down the Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River. I was seated in the back next to the guide and behind my daughter with my feet wedged under the tubes of the raft, as directed. We hit a huge wave that bounced me up into the air and off my seat. I wound up with my upper body in the river, but my foot was still wedged in the raft. I reached up (while still holding onto my paddle), and my daughter and the guide were able to easily pull me back in.

Below are some photos from that Class III-IV trip. Notice that most of us were wearing wetsuits on this trip. This is because the water is mostly snowmelt and is very cold, so the suits would protect us from hypothermia if we had to swim any length of time in the river. Also, notice the smiles and war whoops on people’s faces. This trip was an absolute blast—better than any rollercoaster ride I’ve been on!

If you’re safety-conscious, whitewater rafting can be a fun, exciting adventure. The safest way to try this adrenaline-pumping sport is by taking a commercial trip, so that you have a trained guide in the raft with you. If you follow your guide’s directions, the only deaths on the river you should experience are those that you’ll read about in Deadly Currents and future books in the RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series.