It was one of the first rafts to come down during last weekend’s Animas River Days parade. The raft flipped at Santa Rita hole, sending Ted Holteen overboard minutes before his group planned to pull out.
“We had come through Smelter just fine, all happy, and you let your guard down for a second,” he said. “It only takes a few seconds, and BOOM, I was under water.”
Holteen, who is spokesman for La Plata County government, said he was under water for about 20 seconds, but it felt like hours.
The Animas River still has high water levels, cold temperatures and fast currents. River safety experts and river users stress the importance of practicing water safety during this season of high runoff.
“Wear your life jacket and pay attention; the river does not (mess) around,” Holteen said. “I’m a big strong person and I swim very well, and it threw me around like a rag doll.”
As far as river safety goes, life jackets seem to be the holy grail.
“The most important thing is a life jacket or a personal flotation device that is appropriate for the river and that fits properly and is in good repair,” said Thomas Streissert, a member of the La Plata County Swift Water Rescue Team.
PFDs also serve as an insulating layer, which is important during extended periods of time spent in the cold water.
River temperatures remain below 50 degrees, and Streissert urges river users to dress warmly.
“Cold water can drain your muscles and diminish their ability to function,” he said. “Dressing appropriately may mean (wearing) a wet suit or a dry suit. People should be prepared to swim and not assume they’re going to be dry and stay on their boat.”
Rafts and boats capsize frequently, discharging passengers into the river where they can collide with rocks or debris.
Makinley Kate Hargrove, a freestyle kayaker from Columbus, Georgia, said she never gets into her boat without a PFD, helmet and river shoes. If she flips out of her boat, her gear mitigates the risk of injury.
Hargrove was first drawn to Durango in 2021 by the Animas River Days competitions.
“(The river) is so much higher than it was two years ago,” she said. “It’s been going up and down for the past two days, so I’m really excited to see where its going to be on competition day.”
Last week, the Animas River was running at 4,800 cubic feet per second. Since then, Ron Corkish, La Plata County Search and Rescue mission coordinator, said it has dropped to 2,600 cfs.
“When the water (levels) change this much, you get a whole different river,” he said.
Pre-scouting float routes and rapids is another way to practice river safety, said Scott McClain, assistant parks director for Durango Parks and Recreation.
While Parks and Recreation does not have any jurisdiction over the Animas River, the organization works to educate the public about potentially dangerous river conditions and safety precautions.
“We pay attention to the river and give people a heads up that the river level is high and there could be concern,” he said. “That level of concern is going to be different for everyone, and people need to decide what they’re comfortable with.”
Comfort levels should be determined by personal experience on the river and an assessment of the water conditions. Streissert said is critical to plan recreational activities with the nature of the river in mind.
“The water is very high and powerful and very cold, and it’s not the time to be out in an inner tube in swim shorts,” he said. “It is the time for somebody who really knows what they’re doing or going with a professional guide. Later on in the summer it will be the time for playing with tubes.”
Streissert said if a person is uninformed or unsure about getting on the water, they can take a guided trip where someone else is providing the expertise or the equipment.
Local outfitters also offer river safety courses to people for recreational and commercial river use.
Through courses, experiences on the rivers and a shared love of the Animas River, commercial companies and recreational river users have formed a strong relationship.
“When individuals that are recreating find themselves in a less-than-desirable position, river guides and commercial companies in this area will render aid and assist people in need,” Corkish said. “There’s a pretty tight river community in this area.”
River safety is an individual goal fueled by a community effort to educate, listen and learn.
“If you’re new, don’t go without somebody there to help you,” said Leah Johnson, a Durango resident who has floated and surfed the Animas River for decades.
“It’s all about being friendly,” Johnson said. “The river is a place to get stoked and everybody needs to watch out for everybody.”