Public safety officials are advising river users to take extra precautions during high spring run-off after a local resident from Vail fell from a raft and drowned while boating on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon on Sunday, May 21.
Nicholas Courtens, 34, was rafting with four others in a private group with two boats.
The group was running the stretch of river between the Shoshone power plant and Grizzly Creek.
The run is known as “Shoshone,” and it can feature challenging whitewater when river levels are high.
According to Glenwood Springs Fire Department officials who helped respond to the incident, Courtens and another man fell off their raft about halfway through navigating the rapids.
Rafters in the second boat were eventually able to get them to the side of the river and begin resuscitation efforts, with the help of two bystanders, before responders arrived.
“When our paramedics arrived on-scene bystanders were doing CPR and an automated external defibrillator had already been attached,” said Glenwood Springs Deputy Fire Chief Douglas Gerrald. “We performed advanced life support for about another 20 minutes prior to making the decision with a medical consult to cease resuscitation efforts.”
The other rafter who fell into the river survived the incident, but Courtens was pronounced dead at the site. He was wearing a life jacket and a helmet.
Local rivers see above average spring run-off
According to the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), which last collected run-off data from the USGS stream gauges on Thursday, May 25, local river levels are flowing high due to above average snowpack and warming spring temperatures.
“Most of the rivers across the Roaring Fork watershed are flowing from 108 to 207% of average,” said RFC Director of Community Outreach Christina Medved.
While this level of spring run-off isn’t unprecedented, it’s certainly notable.
“As an example, the Crystal River at the hatchery is flowing double what it would normally flow this time of the year, which is pretty impressive,” Medved said.
On mid-day Sunday, the day of the fatal accident in the Shoshone section of the Colorado River, the flow there was about 6,700 cfs, or cubic feet per second.
According to several local rafting companies in the area, that’s about 700 cfs above the river level that most commercial operations will run the Shoshone section.
“We are running trips on the Colorado in Glenwood Canyon, but with current water levels we are putting in below the Shoshone section at Grizzly Creek,” said Gregory Cowan, the owner of Defiance Rafting Company in Glenwood Springs.
According to Cowan, many commercial operations in the area are more conservative in their decision-making than private groups or experienced individuals when it comes to running whitewater.
“Certainly speaking for Defiance and I think a lot of other local outfitters, it’s more of that multi-generational family, first-time rafter orientation,” he said. “We all tend to hedge a little bit more on wanting to make sure people are out there having a positive experience when they’re on the water.”
Public safety officials warn of danger on the river
In the wake of Sunday’s fatal accident, public safety officials are reminding river users that the high run-off this spring can be dangerous, even for experienced boaters.
In a press release sent out by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office on Monday, May 22, Garfield County Emergency Manager Chris Bornholdt addressed the accident and expressed his concerns over river safety.
“Water levels are predicted to come up even more in the next couple weeks and stay at a high level for over a month,” he said. “Navigating the river is tricky under normal conditions and when you add 3 to 4 times the amount of water and speed, things can happen really fast.”
Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie McDonald said her agency has also been working to get the word out to the public about the importance of river safety.
“We had a fabulous ski season last year and the flip side of that is there’s a lot of snow still up there that has yet to come down,” she said. “We hope for a long, slow and sustained runoff, but based on the numbers we’re seeing up there, we have to prepare for the worst.”
If someone does fall into the river, it’s up to local public safety officials like Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson and his team to try and rescue them.
“Each fire department in the valley has a swift-water rescue team or team members,” Thompson said. “We established these rescue teams in the 1990s, and unfortunately it was born because there was a need.”
Thompson was one of the original swift-water rescue technicians in the valley and has been involved in most of the swift-water rescues or incidents in the valley over the last 40 years.
“Most of the fatalities that we have are on the Roaring Fork or the Crystal River,” he said. “It seems like every year we experience one or two, and then some years are worse.”
Swift-water rescue veteran offers safety tips
One of the most common issues Thompson has witnessed over the decades is people not being prepared or exceeding their capabilities.
“You have to have a tremendous amount of training and knowledge to get into swiftwater,” he said. “I’m not talking about the flat water east of Aspen, you know, I’m talking about whitewater in the rapids — especially in areas you don’t know about.”
Another common pitfall Thompson has observed is people not scouting their route ahead of time — something he advises doing even for those who might be familiar with a particular stretch of river.
“They don’t find where the trees are down across the river or where we have fences coming in the river with high water,” he said. “There are trees that are dangling over the rivers right now, the roots are giving out, being washed out, and it’s certainly gonna get worse in the next two or three weeks.”
Rivers can also change form and shape, which can impact how a rapid behaves.
In the case of Shoshone where the recent fatality occurred, a large mudslide in 2021, upriver of Shoshone, appears to some boaters to have changed that section of the Colorado River, which could come as a surprise to an unsuspecting rafter.
According to Thompson, there are a lot of things that can go wrong when navigating fast-flowing rivers, even for the most experienced of boaters.
“We’ve had some kayakers that I knew personally that had vast years of experience and they made a mistake and unfortunately it was a fatal mistake,” he said. “It’s risky business being on whitewater.”
While swift-water rescue members like Thompson and other public safety officials do their best to help people who find themselves in a tricky or even life-threatening situation, individuals who head out on the water are ultimately doing so at their own risk.
“In rescue situations, before we get in the water, we always look at the risk versus benefit and what’s the least risky for us because certainly we don’t wanna get hurt or killed affecting a rescue,” Thompson said. “I don’t know that it’s possible to change that human behavior for somebody that wants to take that risk, that physical high of conquering a rapid.”