Even in low water, Clear Creek can be deadly

Officials urge caution following swimming death last week

Posted 6/5/18

Playing in the river on a hot day is fun, but there will always be dangers associated with it. “This is the time of year that the river rises,” said Golden Fire Chief John Bales, adding, “we'll …

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Even in low water, Clear Creek can be deadly

Officials urge caution following swimming death last week

Posted

Playing in the river on a hot day is fun, but there will always be dangers associated with it.

“This is the time of year that the river rises,” said Golden Fire Chief John Bales, adding, “we'll get our share of river calls.”

But a river call is not always a drowning situation, Bales said. It can be anything from a missing person who was later found safe, someone stuck on the far side of the shore who can't get back or even a kayak or tube that floated down the river after the person fell off.

But on May 26, it was an emergency — a 45-year-old man died while swimming in Clear Creek.

At about 2 p.m. that day, he and his family were swimming in the river near Tunnel 1 off Highway 6 in unincorporated Jefferson County. His family lost sight of him while he was free swimming. About 30 minutes later, an off-duty paramedic pulled him out of the river near the Kayak Park in Golden and began CPR. Golden Police arrived on scene shortly after, and an AMR ambulance transported him to the hospital. CPR was ongoing, but the man was pronounced dead later at the hospital.

Described as “extremely deceiving” by Bales in a former interview, Clear Creek is a swift-moving river with undercurrents. Hidden dangers include getting snagged by tree branches or other types of floating debris, getting caught up in rocks and even hypothermia because of its cold temperatures.

People die in rivers every year, all over the world, said Justin Fox, president of Dive Rescue International, a Fort Collins based organization that provides aquatic incident training and equipment for public safety professionals and first responders worldwide.

And it’s not limited to river recreationalists, Fox said, adding law enforcement officers and firefighters also lose their lives rescuing people.

“We found that Clear Creek is a really great training environment, so we come here to show them (first responders) the power of moving water,” Fox said. “Our goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate first responder deaths in moving water.”

Safety closures still possible

This year, because of the lack of snow, Colorado's mountains are below average for snowpack, which melts and creates runoff into the rivers. A large amount of runoff is what creates a faster-flowing river.

River flow is measured in cubic feet per second (CFS), which indicates how much water is moving past a given point. The higher the CFS, the higher the flow. Generally, higher flows mean a more exciting and challenging rafting or kayak trip but makes a river more dangerous for swimming and tubing.

Although the creek is not close to approaching those flow levels yet this year — it was measured at 511 CFS on May 26 at about the time of the accident, it doesn't mean that river safety restrictions couldn't happen, Bales said. All sorts of things can attribute to high flow, such as a heavy rainstorm.

The restrictions are implemented for an undetermined amount of time and remain in place until water flow decreases to safer levels, usually for a few weeks or up to a month. Bales recalled once the restrictions were in place until the Fourth of July, although that is not common.

Businesses like Golden River Sports — where people can rent tubes for use on Clear Creek — keep a close eye on the river flow year-round. Golden River Sports will not start renting tubes until the water is below 700 CFS, said Bart Pinkham, the store's owner who is an experienced whitewater kayaker. In addition, anyone under 18 must have an accompanying parent to rent, and Golden River Sports will not rent to anyone under 18 — regardless of whether a parent is there — if the river is not at or below 500 CFS. The shop also does not recommend that anyone 10 or younger rent a tube if the water is above 200 CFS.

Clear Creek is a wild, swift-moving river with some man-made attractions built for kayaking, and depending on water level, the attractions can create Class 2 and 3 rapids. It not a lazy river for an extended, mellow float. Nor is it a water park staffed with on-duty life guards. The creek's safety personnel only includes the fire department, park rangers and good-Samaritan kayakers. Kayakers often serve as allies in responding to emergencies on the river, Bales said, because of their experience with whitewater and they tend to have river safety equipment on them.

People with experience and those who do water sports professionally are aware of the dangers associated with the river, Bales said in a former interview. However, everyone needs to be informed of the potential dangers and what safety measures need to be taken before enjoying any activity in the river.

Recommended safety equipment for Clear Creek includes a floatation device such as a life jacket and a helmet, and proper footwear to protect against the river’s sharp rocks.

Fox also encourages people not to go alone.

"But the most important," Fox said, "is absolutely that life jacket."

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