In a story we hate to report, whitewater deaths are mounting this year as winter record and near-record snowpack out West continues careening through western river canyons.
“It’s been a tremendous highwater year and, as a result, we’ve seen a higher number of fatalities than average,” says American Whitewater safety chair Charlie Walbridge, who chronicles whitewater accidents every year for AW as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. “It’s been everyone from experienced to inexperienced boaters. Certainly, fatalities and water levels are connected. There are more opportunities for people to paddle and those opportunities are more challenging.”
Joining the added dangers of high water, he adds, is the long-running drought, which has caused fires and standing dead, which can fall into rivers creating strainers, and even post a risk on land. “The drying out is certainly a factor as well,” he says, describing an incident just this week on Oregon’s Grand Ronde River where a tree fell on campers inside a tent, killing one and injuring two.
As for media reporting on these accidents, he says, information often gets disseminated faster than ever, with him sometimes getting news on an accident the same day it happened. But those reports can also often be wrong, he adds. “Sometimes newspapers don’t even get the boat right,” he says. “I have to be careful about what I put out.”
Kicking off the tragedies, he says, was the death of 50-year-old David Bishop, a rafter who drowned in high water May 9 after an accident in the Racecourse section of the Rio Grande between Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. That was followed by the drowning of longtime Telluride, Colo., rafter Richard Zehm on Colorado’s Dolores River in early May, when runoff was high and cold.
“Colorado and California are two of the busiest states for whitewater, and it’s going to be especially busy this year because of high water,” Walbridge said. “Water will be high for much longer than usual. If you look across the history of whitewater fatalities, the numbers are connected to high flows and high snowpacks out West.”
As reported in the Colorado Sun, last year Walbridge documented 76 deaths in U.S. whitewater, including 25 kayakers and 25 rafters. He counted 27 of those deaths involving people who were not wearing personal flotation devices, or PFDs. “I imagine we are going to see more incidents all across the West,” Walbridge says. “Anytime you have high water you have an increase in fatalities because of the added danger and added opportunity. And we’re certainly seeing that this year. It wasn’t unexpected.”
Spring ’23 Accident Snapshot
Casualty on the Kern
Pro kayaker William Hoxie died after getting pinned on a log on Wednesday, June 14, in an accident on the high water Kern River in Southern California, authorities said. The Swiftwater Rescue Ream responded around 5:30 p.m. to a report of five kayakers needing assistance on a section of the river near Ant River Canyon and Kernville. According to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, rescuers arrived to find four of the kayakers working to recover the body of the fifth, whom officials confirmed had died. The three men and two women had been kayaking near Gold Ledge Campground. “Those four individuals were trying to save their friend…it just was the situation that couldn’t be reversed, and it’s horribly tragic,” said Ashley Schwarm with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office in a report. “We hate to see anything like this ever happen. These guys knew what they were doing, they were not doing anything wrong, and unfortunately one of them got into a situation that he couldn’t get out of.” Matt Volpert of Kern River Outfitters adds the accident occurred in Ant Canyon at Bombay Rapid. Ant Canyon is a popular Class III-IV run and often a warm-up to the harder Class V Thunder Run just downstream. Class IV-IV+ Bombay rapid comes quickly into the run, filled with holes and boulders at the top of the rapid.
According reports on the accident fielded by AW’s Walbridge, Hoxie was “on a side channel and the log wasn’t visible…it was very unfortunate. Sometimes you can bounce over them and it’s no big deal and other times they can trap you.” An Instagram post by his brother Benjamin reported, ”My brother was not taking an unnecessary risk. He was on a run well inside his ability in a place where he felt in control. He was doing what made him feel right in the world. This was his path it made him feel complete. At some moment in his joy he became pinned to an unseen log… in a way that he, and the heroes, who he was with could not save him from being taken. The situation has been described as 1/100,000…”
Upper Animas Accident
A 24-year-old female river guide from Durango, Sara Rosecrans, drowned while rafting the Upper Animas River on Saturday afternoon, June 10, according to San Juan County officials. Just after 1 p.m. Saturday, Silverton Medical Rescue responded to an emergency alert on the Animas River, near Tenmile Creek. According to a Sheriff news release, the river guide was leading a raft of eight boaters along a stretch of the river from Silverton to Rockwood. Due to the remote location’s limited access, two rescuers, a paramedic and an EMT, entered the river via the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad with additional rescuers staged in Silverton as backup. The rafting group had attempted resuscitation efforts before the rescue team arrived. The rescue team and other rafters involved with the incident moved the 24-year-old onto the train and transported the body to Rockwood Train station, the release stated. Keri Metzler, San Juan County Coroner, said the manner of death is not suspicious and there is no ongoing investigation into the accident.
Royal Gorge Fatality
A day earlier, on Friday, June 9, a Kansas doctor saved his daughter when she became trapped by their overturned raft on Colorado’s Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River but was unable to save himself. Dustin Harker, 47, a neurologist from Hutchinson, Kan., was reportedly on a whitewater rafting trip with friends from church and four of his children when the accident happened in the Sunshine Falls area of the Royal Gorge near Canon City. The family had rafted the same river in previous years but the rapids were more turbulent than usual due to high water, Harker’s sister-in-law, Sharon Neu Young, said in an email to the Hutchinson News. “Everyone struggled to get above water,” Young wrote. “In the tumult, Dustin threw the capsized raft off his youngest daughter who was trapped underneath.” She did not disclose the girl’s age. Everyone made it to shore and Harker was even able to speak, but he “had already taken on too much water” and soon became unresponsive, Young wrote. He died despite CPR efforts.
Rafter Dies on River of Sorrows (Colo.’s Dolores)
Longtime Telluride, Colo., resident and experienced rafter Richard Zehm, 72, drowned on the Dolores River on May 10, according to accident reports. The longtime Southwest Colorado local and expert oarsman had rafted the Dolores, also known as The River of Sorrows, countless times, putting on the river with a friend at Slick Rock below Disappointment Creek early May 10. According to reports, somewhere 20 to 30 miles downstream the raft flipped, where he was last seen holding onto his boat in the swift, cold current.