A 78 year old woman dies while on a river rafting tour on the Guadalupe River in New Braunsfels, Texas. The river was running unusually high and she fell out of the raft while the tour group was navigating Dogleg Rapids and had a heart attack.
A family from Kentucky rents a raft and gets a private permit from the BLM to take a self guided trip down the swollen Colorado River in Utah. Before the day is over, one man is dead from drowning.
Just a day later in Alaska, two woman drown while on a commercial rafting tour on the Nenana River outside of Denali National Park. The raft they were on flipped over into the subfreezing fast moving water. Despite efforts to save them, both women got sucked down a whirlpool in front of 18 horrified tourists.
One year to the day of the drowning deaths in Alaska a 43 year old Massachusetts woman got sucked down into a whirlpool while navigating a river in an inflatable kayak with a commercial tour group. It was her fifth time she had been thrown from her rig that day. Despite four previous close calls her luck ran out and she could not be revived.
A man on a commercial rafting tour on the Arkansas River in Colorado was thrown from his raft when it was tipped in a hydraulic which held him under water. Despite the fact the river was running very low due to severe drought conditions the man died from drowning after being recovered by a guide.
Commercial river rafting tours have been a staple of summer vacations for decades. With the boom in outdoor tourism the number of people hitting the whitewater continues to increase and with that so does the risks. With the advent of extreme sports people are seeking wilder challenges. River rafting companies are in savage competition for tourist dollars and who can offer the most intense ride.
Overall river rafting tours are very safe. If your summer challenge was climbing Mount Rainier in Washington, you have about a one in 10,000 chance of not coming off of the mountain alive. People going on climbs have been known to execute their wills before starting off. When people go on a river rafting tour, making sure affairs are in order are not usually on their minds.
If you plan to go on a river rafting tour you should understand the risks you are taking. Brochures of smiling faces around campfires and rafts launching into the air are exciting, but they don't show the potential dark side of a rafting adventure.
Many tour operators use the International Scale of River Difficulty in their advertising to tell you about their tours. The scale was created so paddlers could understand the level of expertise that is required to safely navigate a river. The scale isn't perfect because the evaluation is based on human opinion. You simple can't apply some mathematical formula or come up with some universal scorecard for difficulty. Current, surrounding terrain, depth and many other issues affect the difficulty level.
The other thing that affects difficult is the water flow. When rivers are running high or in some cases low new obstacles are created that would not be present during normal periods. A river that might be easy to navigate in August during a dry spell could be a wild ride in May while snow is melting off.
The International Scale of River Difficulty basically breaks rivers down into six different tiers or Classes ranging from Class I the easiest to Class VI the most difficult. Many tour operators advertise adventure on Rivers that are Class IV, V (also referred to as 5.0) and even recently Class VI. When you look at the definition of a Class V river, the sobering fact is the stakes are very high:
"...Class 5: Expert. Extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids...with complex and demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances...demanding a high level of fitness. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous and rescue is often difficult even for experts...proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential..."
The Class VI definition is even more hair raising including this sentence, "the consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible."
So how do you assure your safety? One of the things to remember as we stated earlier the number of injuries and accidents while river rafting are very low. You should ask some common sense questions before making your reservations with a tour operator. When the proper precautions are taken it truly is a fun adventure.
Understand the Class of the river you will be going on. If the river rafting tour is on a Class III river or below, the risks to you are pretty low. If you are not in good health or you are not a strong swimmer you should strongly consider your options when going on a tour that will be in Class IV water or above. Rafting tours that go on Class VI water should be avoided unless you are fully willing to accept the risks. If your river tour will be on a Class IV river or above ask if helmets are provided and required. If helmets aren't required you might want to consider looking at a different tour operator.
Understand the golden rule of air and water temperature. One of the biggest risks of river rafting is hypothermia. Icy cold rivers fed by snowmelt can cause severe hypothermia in a matter of moments even on a warm summer day. Ask your tour operator what the river temperature normally is. If the water temperature plus the air temperature is less than 120, wet or dry suits are recommended. If the combined temperatures are below 100 degrees, wet or dry suits should be required. If your tour operator doesn't provide or recommend these for cold water and cool air temperature situations, it is time to look at a different tour provider.
Ask how long the tour operator has been in business and how many years experience their guides have. Check with the Better Business Bureau for any customer complaints. Check with the area newspaper to see if there have been any recent accidents. When you are getting ready to depart find out how many years experience your river guide has on the river you are getting ready to run. You should also ask if they are trained in swift water rescue, and if they are an EMT or even better a paramedic.
Find out what kind of equipment is being used by the tour operator. Will extra paddles be available on the raft? Is there a first aid kit? In remote areas will the raft have a satellite phone or two-way radio? Are there throw bags (which are used in water rescue) and will people on the boat be briefed on how to use them?
Check river conditions before heading out. If an area is experiencing a particularly wet period or recovering from a snowy winter, stream flow may be very high. The higher the water the faster it will be moving and the bigger the challenge. If you are not comfortable or if local officials do not recommend going on the river, follow your gut. Your life isn't worth a security deposit.
Don't go outside of your ability. Renting a raft and going down a river yourself can be very tempting but it's not for everyone. Even flat water can kill someone and moving water is very complex. If you aren't skilled in identifying routes or technique things can go bad in hurry. Major disasters almost never happen due to one catastrophic event but through a series of small errors. If you want to take the adventure but don't have the skill, strongly consider going with a professional guide.
Most tour operators will be very happy to answer your questions and provide you with almost any information you request. Ultimately they are in the business to serve you and offer up an experience of a lifetime. When dealing with a river rafting outfitter think of your tour operator as a hospital where you plan to have major surgery and your guide as the surgeon. Understand the risks that you are taking and if your river rafting tour includes going on a Class V or Class VI river realize that you are putting your life into the hands of your guide.
The most important thing is to trust your own instincts. If things just don't feel right or if conditions look too dangerous don't get on the boat. Don't discount the power of moving water. It carves out canyons, moves mountains, destroys and creates land, and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can kill.