Cache La Poudre River safety, education

Rick Cookson

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In the past 18 years, the Cache La Poudre River has swept away the lives of 17 individuals within Larimer County.

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According to the Larimer County Coroner’s Office, within the past two months alone, rafting accidents have ended the lives of Ronald Palmer, a 76-year-old man from Chico, California, and Caela Ann DeCarr, a 29-year-old woman from Fort Collins.

Recreational activities on the Poudre River don’t always put one in the midst of danger, but danger is always lurking underneath the rapids.

“It’s not always dangerous, but danger isn’t ever far away,” said Mike Fink, director of Public Affairs at Larimer County Search and Rescue. “People don’t have a strong appreciation for how powerful the Poudre River is, how dangerous it can be.”

Generally, recreational activities on the Poudre River include rafting, kayaking, tubing, swimming or just hanging around the edges. Even though these activities have elements of hazard, there are areas where it’s safer than others. According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, whitewater ferocity is classified on a scale from one to six, and the areas of the Poudre River within Larimer County contain sections of each class:

Class I: Easy, flat water.

Class II: Small rapids with clear, wide channels.

Class III: Good-sized rapids with waves and boulders. Chances of maneuvers inside the rapids are great.

Class IV: Intense/powerful, requiring precise boat handling. Plan on maneuvers, hazards, big waves and tight boulders.

Class V: Intense and violent water. Unavoidable long rapids, drops, extremely tight channels and hazards.

Class VI: Virtually impassable. Do not attempt.

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“The Poudre River through Fort Collins does not have as many rapids compared to the river in the canyon, and is mostly classified as Class I to II whitewater through town, but hazards still exist, such as diversion dams and strainers, which are trees and other debris that allow water through, but can trap solid objects” wrote Justin Whitesell, emergency operations manager at the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, in an email to the Collegian.

According to Whitesell, the river’s depth is currently fluctuating between 3.5″ to 3.9″ deep — an average depth for this time of the year. Even within the areas labeled as Class I or II (the sections that pass directly through Fort Collins), unanticipated storms and other weather conditions can cause high flows and exacerbated dispersing of debris.

The Bureau of Reclamation controls the water flows for agricultural users and other uses, but not for recreation,” Whitesell wrote. “The river is natural, and there is very little that can be done to improve the conditions. Educating users when conditions exist that create a higher level of risk is the best option to increase safety.”

According to Chaitanya “Chico” Marvici, a member of the Larimer County Rescue Dive Team since 2009, a lack of river safety education and know-how is often the cause of many accidents on the Poudre River.

“These accidents often come from a lack of common sense because people are either inebriated or don’t know how powerful the water truly is,” Marvici said.

The Larimer County Rescue Dive Team is one of eight emergency services that respond to river emergencies within Larimer County. Working along the banks with the dive team during an emergency are the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Services, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Patrol, Larimer County Search and Rescue, Poudre Valley Hospital, Poudre Canyon Fire, Air Link and Poudre Fire Authority. According to Whitesell, emergency services and rescue resources are provided incident information and dispatched by either radio or pager. Once calls have been made, the multiple organizations come together and work in sync to save those in need of rescue along the river.

In general, the areas of the Poudre River around residential Fort Collins are the safest places to participate in recreational activity, but Whitesell said that even in those areas, as Fink mentioned too, no one is entirely safe.

“The lower the classification of reaches of the river, the less whitewater risk,” Whitesell wrote. “However, strong currents can occur along any reach during periods of high flow. There is always some level of risk anywhere on the Poudre River.”

As a safety precaution, and in an attempt to better educate the community, the Poudre Fire Authority issued a press release on river safety in the Poudre Fire Authority’s jurisdiction. The brief report advises “residents to exercise extreme caution when recreating near the river,” and includes a list of safety tips:

  • “Tell someone where you are going.”
  • “Wear life jackets around water.”
  • “Stay away from riverbanks during times of high-flowing water.”
  • “Never forget the power of the river.”
  • “Be aware of the limitations of yourself in the water.”
  • “Watch your surroundings, including the weather.”
  • “Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it.”
  • “If caught in a fast flowing river, rapids or storm water, try to float feet-first in a half-sit position.”
  • “Remember: Reach or throw, don’t go.”

The release also included a note urging people who wish to participate in recreational watercraft to use one of the many qualified companies for the safest and “best experience.”

From now until September, when recreational activity on the Poudre River is more popular, emergency services and rescue resources are urging for people to be very cautious and aware of one’s environment when doing any activities on the Poudre.

“For the students at (Colorado State University), if you’re going to do anything on the river, just use common sense,” Marvici said. “Do it in town where the river isn’t too crazy. You’re doing something that people have died doing, so use common sense and please be smart about it.”

Collegian Senior Reporter Rick Cookson can be reached at news@collegian.com and on Twitter @RickCookson1.