Colorado River Can Turn Deadly For Self-Guided Adventurers

A group of paddlers prepare for their first rapid.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
April 14, 2014
Laurel Morales
Scott Davis and Rachel Schmidt run Ceiba Adventures, a company that outfits private trips with everything they need for a Grand Canyon river trip.

Last month a 31-year-old Oregon man died when his kayak capsized on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He was one of about 7,000 river runners who each year opt to go without a guide.

The last 10 river fatalities in the Grand Canyon were on self-supported trips. 

Many consider the Grand Canyon to be the premiere whitewater rafting experience on the planet. It offers remote wilderness and spectacular beauty. About 25,000 people mark it off their bucket list each year. Veteran boatman Scott Davis outfits many of the private trips with equipment and food. 

"You put 25,000-plus into a 300-mile corridor that is filled with rapids and great side canyons and waterfalls, you’re going to have some people injured," said Davis, owner of Ceiba Adventures

The National Park Service requires a self-guided group to have a working knowledge of whitewater safety, navigation and first aid. And one boater on the trip must have run the Colorado or similar river at least once before. So Davis says experience levels vary.

"Even if you have five out of 15 that are really experienced, that’s not saying that those five can always watch the other 10," Davis said.

Davis said more rules aren't going to prevent accidents from happening. Oftentimes someone has a heart condition, or substance abuse is involved, or sometimes it’s just a chain reaction of bad decisions.

"It’s just kinda what us humans do," he said.

Davis’ wife Rachel Schmidt, also a long-time boater, said she’s glad there aren’t too many regulations.

"Because it is one of the last places where you can have a true adventure," Schmidt said. "You are allowed to go down there and push your limits. And there aren’t guard rails everywhere. And there’s not someone telling you you can’t do it. You actually have to think and make conscious decisions about your actions."

Boatman and doctor Tom Myers co-wrote “Over The Edge: Death In Grand Canyon.” He said it’s not so much what private boaters lack, but what commercial guides possess.

"They know the subtleties and how the river changes based on flows, like where particular hazards may show up or a feature changes based on that flow and how best to avoid it," Myers said.

Laurel Morales
A passenger on the trip took the photo on the left in October 2005, the day after guide Adam Bringhurst rescued Dotty LaRue from the Colorado River. Right, LaRue and Bringhurst recreate the photo. The seat cushion they're holding was also crucial in the rescue.

That’s why about 17,000 people pay commercial outfitters to take them through the canyon each year. In 2005, Dotty LaRue and her family took a guided trip. After the night she fell into the river, she was glad she did.

LaRue and her rescuer, boatman Adam Bringhurst, recently reunited at her home in Cornville.

The 6-foot-3-inch Bringhurst towers over LaRue. At 87, she still hikes everyday. She and Bringhurst recalled what happened on the night when LaRue left her tent to go to the bathroom. 

"I was walking very carefully and putting my stick down in the water and all of a sudden my stick didn’t hit bottom and then I knew I was in trouble," LaRue said.

LaRue’s family heard her cry for help. They woke the whole camp including Bringhurst who grabbed his life jacket and headlamp and ran downstream. He saw LaRue’s light bobbing in the river and jumped in. 

"He yelled at me that he was coming," LaRue said. 

Bringhurst swam after LaRue for about a mile downstream.

"When you hit the eddy and spun around backwards I thought you had gone under and that’s when my heart sank. I stopped swimming," Bringhurst said. "It was awful. I felt horrible, and then your light came back on. I came swimming up to you and I said, ‘Dotty what are you doing in the river?’ And you said, ‘oh Adam, I’m so glad to see you.’ You were calm as can be."

"Everybody did the right thing, that crew was well trained and knew what they were doing and they took good care of me," LaRue said.

Bringhurst said it doesn’t always work out so smoothly. 

"I’ve worked with river guides who are knuckleheads in their own way," Bringhurst said. "I’m sure I’ve done stupid things as well. I’ve also seen private trips that are made up of boatmen who’ve been on the river for 30-plus years and probably doing it better than any of us." 

He said if he was less experienced, he probably wouldn’t have jumped in after LaRue.