Summer safety on the Poudre River

Colin Raunig

Video by Oliver Homan

As temperatures increase, so do the number of river-related incidents. There were two fatalities on the Poudre River over the summer.

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In order to prevent future fatalities, Poudre Fire Authority’s Captain Ryan Thomas spoke to the Collegian about safety guidelines Thomas wants the public to follow. Thomas also offered precautions specific to low-head dams.

Thomas said to be aware of your surroundings and life jackets are a must. Thomas recognizes some people think life jackets are not necessary for shallow water or when floating on inner tubes.

“That’s correct, (inner tubes) float,” Thomas said. “Until they don’t.”

The fire department wears life jackets when operating within ten feet of water.

The next rule Thomas has is to be aware of unseen hazards. Thomas explained there are a lot of objects beneath the surface of the water that can pop an inner tube or cause bodily harm, whether it be a branch, barb wire or debris. Thomas re-emphasized the importance of life jackets.

“If you lose your inner tube, and you don’t have your personal flotation device, you’re in a bad place,” Thomas said.

The final rule Thomas has is a continuation of the previous rule, specific to the unknown and unseen hazards of low-head dams.

At the location of a low-head dam, the river has a drop-off, not unlike a waterfall. This drop-off appears nothing like a dam that an average person would be used to, Thomas said.

The exact number of low-head dams, known also as diversion dams, on the Poudre River is unknown. They do populate most rivers throughout Colorado and are known as “drowning machines,” because they put river goers at risk.

“You can’t see (a low-head dam) early enough to be able to get out,” Thomas said. “(The dam) pulls you in and it holds you in.”

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Thomas advises that all river goers avoid low-head dams. Large rafts might be able to traverse them safely, but for people on inner tubes, or in kayaks, they can be fatal.

“The best way to survive is not to get in that situation,” Thomas said.

Currently, there are no publicly available maps of the locations of low-head dams and few to no warning signs are available upstream. Thomas said river-goers should scout out their river route ahead of time, walking from downstream to upstream, because of the lack of maps.

The low-head dam has a quick drop-off, which slows down water in order to divert it, for irrigation purposes. This quick drop-off creates water that eddies water back upstream, which holds objects, including humans, in place and under water.

Those that do survive liken the experience to being stuck inside a washing machine, Thomas said.

Thomas said that an advisable distance to get out of the river upstream is at least one hundred yards, but said also two hundred yards is not even that safe.

Downstream, river-goers are advised to enter the river fifty yards after a low-head dam.

For bystanders witnessing river-goers caught in a low-head dam, Thomas has clear advice – and it is not to try to throw a rope or reach a stick to someone in danger.

“Stay out of the river,” Thomas said. “The best thing to do is to get ahold of Poudre Fire Authority.”

Ultimately, the biggest piece of advice Thomas had for those near or on the Poudre was the simplest.

“Keep yourself safe,” Thomas said.

Collegian reporter Colin Raunig can be reached at news@collegian.com or at Twitter @colinraunig.