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Tragedies on waterways affect rafting industry

COLORADO SPRINGS– River guides in Glenwood Springs have safely escorted hundreds of rafters this year, delivering tragedy-free thrills on the Colorado River.

But try telling that to tourists turned skittish by reports of deaths elsewhere on Colorado’s swollen waterways.

“If you have bad news in one section of Colorado it’s sure to affect the rafting industry throughout,” said Whitewater Rafting LLC owner Erik Larsson, who says his business is down despite efforts to trumpet the river’s safety record.

After getting pinched by drought and tourism-repelling fires in 2012 and 2013, Colorado’s rafting industry may face a new hurdle in the form of high flows and plentiful whitewater: too much of a good thing. Rafting-related incidents on Colorado’s fast-moving rivers have resulted in at least four deaths since early June, roughly a quarter of the 13 drowning deaths reported statewide this year.

The tragedies come after consecutive years without rafting fatalities, according to the American Whitewater Affiliation, which tracks such incidents.

That’s a statistic industry representatives such as the Colorado River Outfitters Association are quick to point out.

“It tells you the industry is pretty darn good,” said the association spokesman David Costlow. “The ski industry can’t claim that. The golf industry can’t claim that.”

This year, commercial rafting companies can’t claim it, either.

According to published reports, at least two of the deaths involved commercially guided companies, including an incident last Saturday in which a Colorado Springs man was pitched from a commercial raft in the Royal Gorge.

While rafting entails inherent risks, Costlow said river outfitters are quick to recognize potential danger and routinely move trips to calmer stretches of river to ensure the safety of their clients. They also spend plenty of time talking down clients who want to flirt with danger, he said.

Costlow recommends that prospective rafters contact a reputable outfitter to discuss their concerns and decide on “the level of adventure they’re looking for.”

Two of this year’s rafting deaths occurred on the Arkansas River, where river outfitters and other tourism-related businesses were hammered last year by the Royal Gorge Fire, which burned 20 buildings near the Royal Gorge Bridge but leaving the city’s signature tourism draw intact. Drought in 2012 likewise made for a year of anemic returns.

Nevertheless, several outfitters reached by the Gazette say the deaths are having little appreciable effect on bookings.

“We had our best day of the year yesterday,” said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Cañon City, which this weekend hosts its annual Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival.

But Larsson said the deaths on the Arkansas and elsewhere have kept customers at bay in Glenwood Springs.

As part of the effort to lure them back, he has adjusted his marketing, emphasizing family outings on calmer stretches of the river, he said.

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