Waterways are running at near-peak levels this week after the San Juan Mountains received above-average snowfall this winter. The high water can be an allure to river users, but also a danger for inexperienced or unprepared boaters, kayakers and tubers.
The Durango Fire Protection District has already responded to a number of calls this year involving river users who get tossed and appear to be in distress or in need of rescue.
When trouble happens on the river, the swiftwater rescue team is called into action.
The team is divided into different shifts with three to four technicians on each shift, said Hal Doughty, chief of the fire district. That allows the DFPD to respond at any time of the day.
Calls involving the swiftwater rescue team come in all shapes and sizes. The team has come to the aid of tubers stuck on rocks, fugitives from the law finding themselves in the frigid river and drivers of cars that land upside down in irrigation ditches, among others.
John Brennan, an engineer with the fire district, said sometimes people’s dogs have fallen into the river and perished and had to be pulled out.
This year, dispatch has been inundated with calls about empty rafts floating down the river, their passengers presumably tossed somewhere upstream, Brennan said.
There are a number of other incidents every day to which the team is not called because those involved are able to take care of themselves.
Some of the dangers associated with being on the river include unseen obstructions, freezing temperatures and the sports people do on the river.
The Animas River is littered with dangerous obstructions, such as old cars, concrete blocks and rebar sticking out from concrete blocks. This time of year, there is also a fair amount of debris, such as tree limbs, that gets washed downstream.
The river was flowing at 6,560 cubic feet per second and was a cool 43 degrees Tuesday. By comparison, the river usually peaks at about 4,700 cfs.
Brennan said anyone going on the river should go with others and wear a life jacket, closed-toed shoes, a helmet, thermal protection and bring extra clothes in case they go for a swim.
When the water reaches discharge levels above 500 cfs, it is “highly frowned upon” to be out on inner tubes, Brennan said.
“Inner-tubing is dangerous. It is a really dangerous activity because you don’t have a lot of control over that craft,” Brennan said.
Just like other calls DFPD receives, swiftwater rescue members are ready to leave the station at a moment’s notice. When a call goes out, they start sending people as lookouts up and down the river, sometimes using bicycles to more easily see from the Animas River Trail.
During a rescue, swiftwater technicians have a number of techniques they can use. Those include sending a tethered swimmer out to the victim, attaching a technician to a high-line across the water and requesting assistance from commercial raft companies.
If someone is stuck on a rock in the middle of the river, a raft can make its way to the victim and bring him or her to shore.
“It makes our life a lot easier; and that’s the wonderful thing about the Animas River. ... They have so many commercial boats going down the river and all those guides are highly trained, and they’re exceptionally good,” Brennan said.
Brennan said a lot of team members get into swiftwater rescue because they have a passion for being on the water.
“Why not go out and spend every day on it if you can,” he said.
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story gave an incorrect discharge amount for when tubers should no longer float the Animas River. The error was made in editing.