A word on commercial rafting

(Duke Bradford is the owner of Breckenridge Whitewater Rafting and Chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association)

from The Mountain Mail 7/13/09
River rafting offers awards and risks

Duke Bradford

Recent rafting tragedies on the Arkansas River underscore the daunting power of Colorado rivers and the importance of taking safety precautions when venturing to enjoy all Mother Nature’s awesome gifts.

As an organization representing about 50 commercial rafting businesses, the Colorado River Outfitters Association is keenly aware of risks and rewards characterizing every river rafting experience. On the reward side, rafting is an outstanding way to enjoy the outdoors of Colorado and enjoy its incredible scenery from the water.

Rafting brings families, friends and strangers together in a collective experience. It gets kids away from video games and couch potatoes away from the television for a few hours or a few days of fun and adventure.

On commercial trips, river guides often double as interpreters and naturalists, educating and informing guests about state wildlife, geology, heritage and human history.

Colorado offers great rafting diversity. The association tracks flow and commercial use on nearly 30 stretches of water in eight major river basins. That smorgasbord of opportunities means rafting enthusiasts, depending upon their appetites and experience levels, can find everything from adrenaline-pumping rapids to mellower water at almost any time during a season that can run as long as six months.

Diversity makes rafting a cost-effective and accessible recreation option. With outstanding rafting available near Fort Collins, Durango and many places between, virtually everyone who lives in Colorado is within a few hour drive of a navigable stretch of river.

On the risk side of the equation, professional river outfitters must be continuously aware of any and all threats to the health and safety of their guests and employees.

From training guides, assessing river conditions and conducting pre-launch safety sessions to testing straps on life jackets, promoting use of sunscreen and maintaining vehicles transporting customers to the river – diligence is critical in all aspects of the operation.

Commercial outfitters in take these precautions because it’s smart business and the right thing to do, and because the industry is subject to a significant amount of regulation and management. Our businesses undergo stringent licensing and permitting requirements and work collaboratively with federal, state and local land managing and law enforcement agencies to ensure river recreation is as safe as possible.

Not everybody chooses to raft with a commercial outfitter, and that’s OK. The association is in favor of people enjoying Colorado rivers no matter how they get on the water, and the majority of private boaters in the state are smart, responsible and appropriately experienced for activities they pursue.

Despite the lack of regulatory oversight, the most conscientious private boaters follow many of the same precautions professionals follow. They check equipment condition, plan for emergencies and – perhaps most important – make an honest assessment of river conditions and their own abilities and limitations.

Checking river conditions can be as simple as checking snow conditions before heading to a ski resort. All navigable stretches of river in Colorado fall under oversight of one governing agency or another – in most cases it’s Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.

Although rivers are rarely, if ever, closed as are roads or specified runs at ski areas, governing agencies place specific stretches of water under advisement when conditions are unsafe. Although those stretches are not technically off limits, professional outfitters take the warnings seriously and will usually avoid those sections and find alternative adventures.

Private boaters should certainly do the same.

It’s worth emphasizing we’re talking here about individual stretches of river. With a waterway as long as the Arkansas River, it would be a mistake to assume conditions are consistent throughout the entire 150-mile length of the river – different stretches can have radically different personalities and features.

Using the skiing analogy again, it would be a similar misstep to assume snow conditions on back bowls at Vail are identical to conditions on kiddy slopes at the base of the mountain.

A private boater planning a trip should contact an appropriate governing agency to gauge conditions on the desired stretch of river.

If it’s unclear which agency to approach, people may always call a local rafting business and ask – we professional outfitters are happy to help prospective river runners – even those who choose to boat on their own. Safety on the river is top priority for all who enjoy waters of Colorado.

Duke Bradford is chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association.