High Water on the South Platte

The rain in Colorado continues, with measurable precipitation in 36 of the last 43 days.  And it’s not just small amounts of water; it has been toad soakers every day.  Monster thunderstorms with huge downpours and violent thunder and lightning on a regular basis.  It is mid-June and I haven’t even turned on my sprinkler system, yet I am mowing the lawn every four days.  The reservoirs and rivers are higher than I have seen them in 30 years.

Unfortunately there was a young boy who drowned in the Arkansas River after being thrown from a raft on a white water excursion, and another couple narrowly escaped death after their truck was washed a mile downstream on the South Platte River right in the Denver area.  This has been an unprecedented spring of rain; even the Colorado Parks & Wildlife organization is telling people not to fish the rivers and streams in the South Park area due to high water.  On a lighter note, a seven year old blonde Labrador that was washed away from its owner in a high stream in Boulder was miraculously found alive the next day, so it’s not all sad.

But the point is that in high water conditions we all have to be careful.  Today I was walking along the South Platte River near my home, and it was wild, fast, and very high.  As I reached the walking trail along the river I saw a group of young teenagers getting their inner tubes and coolers full of beer ready to take a trip down the river.  I told them to be careful, but why would they listen to an old man like me.  In fact one young girl said “Thanks Sir, but we have it under control.”  I hate it when people call me “Sir,” it’s just a confirmation that I look old to people.  I didn’t say anything more, but I did say a quick prayer that nothing bad would happen to them.  By the time I walked three miles downstream I saw the teenagers gathering on shore at their take-out point, so I felt some relief in that regard.  They had no idea what chance they had just taken with their lives.  Oh to be young and stupid again, I was like that at a time in my life.

As fishermen and outdoors people we have to be keenly aware of our surroundings in all situations, and when the waters get high, I encourage you to take extra precaution.  I can’t tell you how many times I have struggled in a swift moving river to keep my footing, and in my younger days I actually lost the battle more than once and got washed downstream when my hip waders filled up with water after falling into a fast-moving stream.

My most memorable incident was when I slipped and fell while fishing in a very fast-flowing Clear Creek and was washed over a waterfall, resulting in a large gash in my right arm after hitting the rocks below, and the loss of my fedora hat.  I remember being washed down the stream at a high rate of speed with my hip waders full of water, grasping at tree branches as I flew down the stream, and then being shot over the waterfall.   After I hit the rocks below the waterfall the first thing I thought about was that I lost my hat.  It was a very special felt fedora hat that reminded me of my Great Grandpa Earl, who was the one who got me into fishing at a very early stage in my life.

I got out of the stream, blood pouring down my arm and onto my leg.  My hat was gone, my spinning rod was gone, and I was freezing cold from being drenched in the cold mountain stream.  I walked two miles upstream to where I was camped with my friends and told them what happened.  As I sat on a log by the camp fire, telling my woes of the day, a bird flew by and shit on my shoulder, how could the day be any worse?!


Raging River

I put a bandage on my arm and went back downstream to find my hat.  I searched every possible place that it could be; every eddie, every snag of vegetation, every swirling pool of fast-moving water, but I found nothing.  My friends also helped me search, and a couple of hours later my friend Rob used a long pole to pull my hat out of the swirling eddie of the waterfall that I had gone over.  I had my hat again!  I put it on my head, even though it was soaking wet, and began to form its shape just like I did when it was new, thoughts of Grandpa Earl in my mind.

Luckily I am still here to talk about those times, but I have learned a lot in my years.  For one thing, I don’t use hip waders in fast moving streams; I use chest waders with a belt around my waste that keeps the waders from filling with water in case I fall in.  I also use a wading staff in fast-moving water;  just a strong limb that I find on the shore before I cross a stream, not something I have purchased and have to carry, but there are many wading staffs that you can purchase.  If I am fishing with a friend, we grasp each other’s arms to help each other wade through a fast current; this is easily the most efficient method to cross a high stream or river.

The point is to just be careful with high water, whether you are wading or in a raft or inner tube.  Fast-moving water is very powerful, and the rocky bottom of a river is often covered with moss-covered stones that can make footing precarious.  One slip of your foot and the current can wash you down pretty easily.  As the spring run-off has yet to come here in Colorado, the rivers will be high for at least another month, but the concepts apply to all river and stream fishermen across the country, just use extra caution in high water to avoid becoming a statistic.