A 41-year-old man died on Friday, June 16, while inner-tubing in the Arkansas River near Whitewater Park in Buena Vista’s South Main neighborhood, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). His name has not yet been released.
Per CPW, at the time of the accident, it was the 11th water-related death in the state of Colorado in the year 2023. However, following the fatal commercial boating accident in Royal Gorge on Monday, June 19, the total of water-related deaths for the year is now up to 12.
According to Fire Chief Robert Bertram of Chaffee County Fire Rescue (CCFR), a distress call came in at 2:45 in the afternoon. In response, personnel from CCFR, Chaffee County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, and CPW’s Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) rangers mobilized to rescue the individual.
Wilderness Aware Rafting, a rafting guide corporation based in Johnson Village, was able to intercept the victim as he floated downriver, Wilderness Aware President Brian Ellis confirmed. By attaching a rope to a staff member who entered the river, Wilderness Aware employees successfully pulled the victim ashore at their river access point. All river guides at Wilderness Aware with two or more years of experience are Swiftwater Rescue certified, according to Ellis.
The victim became unresponsive to riverside spotters just upriver from a significant rapid known as Silver Bullet, which features a significant drop over a series of three steps, said Captain Ben Brack of CCFR. By the time he was intercepted at the Wilderness Aware put-in, the victim was floating face down.
“It’s a pretty impressive mutual aid effort,” said Brack, alluding to the coalition of organizations which banded together in their attempt to save the victim.
The victim was pronounced dead at the scene of the rescue after EMS personnel attempted resuscitation, according to AHRA park manager Tom Waters.
Eyewitnesses at Whitewater Park said that the victim was struggling to swim ashore after falling from his inner tube, where he was seen undergoing hydraulics and struggling to stay afloat, according to a press release from CPW. The victim was wearing a properly fitted personal flotation device and a wetsuit, according to the press release. Buena Vista Chief of Police Dean Morgan also confirmed the victim was not wearing a helmet at the time of his recovery.
“The water is very fast, very cold, especially when water is high,” said Ellis. At 2:30 p.m., just before the accident occurred, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measured the streamflow of the river near Nathrop, CO at 2,240 cubic feet per second, significantly higher than the median streamflow of 1,940 cubic feet per second. The USGS has been monitoring streamflow data at this point for 52 years.
‘The Arkansas River is a dangerous river,” warned Chief Bertram, echoing sentiments expressed by Ellis and Captain Brack.
“We’ll do our best,” Brack said, “but we urge visitors to take [the Arkansas River] seriously.”
Featured image: The Arkansas River is a water enthusiast’s dream, but those who boat, surf and swim in it need to take it seriously. AVV file photo.