Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Veteran kayak instructor Barry Smith couldn't believe his eyes this weekend. Floating down the Yampa River toward him were two young men on watercraft that didn't come close to passing the "really right stuff" test.
To make matters worse, they were wearing cotton T-shirts and no life jackets.
"They were on little green discount store-type of rafts," Smith exclaimed. "It's so dumb. I don't know what they were thinking. It's not the Fourth of July."
If there is anything more sobering than a river approaching flood stage, it is a frigid river approaching flood stage. The two men Smith observed apparently were oblivious that death was stalking them.
The Yampa at the Fifth Street Bridge was flowing at 3,290 cubic feet per second at mid-afternoon Monday, well above the historic mean of 2,260 cfs for June 2. That alone made it dangerous. But the cold water compounded the danger for two guys without dry tops or wet suits.
"That water was snow two hours ago. If you go in the water, you lose function pretty quickly," Smith said. "Then you can't help your friend."
Smith was a Grand Canyon guide for 20 years and has given kayak lessons to hundreds of beginners in Steamboat at Mountain Sports Kayak School.
The cold heightens the danger for anyone foolish enough to attempt floating the river this time of year with anything less than whitewater training and equipment. Local fishing guides say from experience that the temperature in the Yampa this time of year is cycling between the high 30s and low 40s.
Most people can tell at a glance that the rivers of Northwest Colorado are dangerous right now. But every spring, I see somebody pushing his or her luck with a cheap air mattress. There were three drowning incidents in rivers across the state during the weekend.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported that a 19-year-old Littleton man drowned in the Little Dolores River in Southwest Colorado after helping save a female companion. An Aurora physician who was rafting on the Gunnison River drowned after his raft struck an island. A Santa Fe, N.M., woman drowned after falling into the Cache La Poudre River near Fort Collins. There were reports she was tubing or rafting.
I don't want to pass judgment on any of the unfortunate victims. I don't fully know the circumstances. But I can safely guess that low water temperatures were a factor in all three deaths.
The route of escape for swimmers in whitewater is to paddle into the nearest eddy, hopefully before their muscles stiffen. But right now, eddies in the town stretch of the Yampa are blown out by the high water, Smith said.
I have some firsthand experience with swimming out of rapids after being tossed out of two rafts that flipped in the Grand Canyon in March 2007.
I never feared for my safety - perhaps I was just too jacked on adrenaline for the realization to set in. However, it took me only half a moment to notice how cold the water was.
Even when the air temperature in the Grand Canyon is in the 90s or 100s, the water that pours out of the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam is old enough to make a wader's feet ache. The water temperature was 47 degrees when we launched at Lee's Ferry. The rule of thumb is that it warms one degree for every 10 miles traveled downstream.
I had a couple of things going for me when I hit the water - neoprene booties, fleece-lined neoprene pants and a whitewater life jacket. I was fortunate to be able to swim myself into an eddy without difficulty.
This is the best time of year for experienced kayakers on the Yampa River, but the time isn't right for casual floaters.
Steamboat's commercial tubing outfitters know better.
"We usually don't send clients out until July," Pete Dawson of One Stop Ski Shop said.
If you aren't well equipped and experienced, please stay out of the Yampa for another month.
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