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Runoff high: Take care with river fun

The owner of a kayak found floating in the San Juan River Saturday afternoon remains unaccounted for, and a Pagosa Springs couple found more adventure than they desired on a Memorial Day raft trip on the same river — both evidence of high water in Pagosa Country.

The Memorial Day weekend serves as an unofficial start to the summer season, signaling a jump in the number of boaters taking to the waves in the San Juan River.

A rise in the number of boaters, coupled with a swollen river due to runoff from mountain snow, means the danger of the river is also on the upswing, as was evidenced last weekend with the two incidents.

The first of the incidents took place Saturday afternoon, when kayakers near the San Juan River Village noticed a kayak floating downstream upside down and reported the sighting.

A number of agencies responded to the call, with Sean Curtis of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office and Christina Marquart of the ACSO’s Department of Emergency Management initially trying to pull the kayak out of the water — an attempt that proved unsuccessful, Marquart reported.

After the kayak was successfully retrieved and found to be empty, emergency personnel contacted area hotels, motels and campgrounds for a guest matching the name written in the kayak — Jeff Windling — to no avail, said Marquart.

A Missouri phone number written on the inside of the kayak was also called, but a later return call from the number offered no clues, when the person on the other end said they had no ties to Pagosa, Marquart said.

Area search and rescue teams deployed to help look for the missing kayaker, checking campgrounds, restaurants, bars and more, while two raft guides from Pagosa Outside and two swift-water rescue volunteers searched downriver from where the kayak was recovered, Marquart explained.

The first possible lead of the afternoon came from a camper at the East Fork Campground who continued to ask if other campers had seen the missing kayaker and found campers who had seen a man walking in a wetsuit and wearing a helmet, but with no boat, Marquart said.

A later report included a similar description, noting that the person was walking along U.S. 160, Marquart said.

The kayaker, however, had not been found or contacted as of press time Wednesday and though officials suspended the search, the case remains open, according to Marquart.

No missing persons reports had been filed as of Tuesday afternoon.

Authorities are urging the kayaker to contact Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at (970) 264-2131 to report that he is OK.

The kayak is being kept at the ACSO’s Emergency Operations Center.

Incident Commander Jesse Morehouse offered a thank you to the Pagosa Outside volunteers.

“It should be noted that the assistance from Pagosa Outdoors (sic) was extremely helpful to the search both in terms of equipment and expertise,” Morehouse wrote.

A Monday incident on the river required no search and rescue operation, but was an unwanted adventure for two local rafters, nevertheless.

Dispatch received a report around noon on Monday of a raft flipped over and two people being swept downstream, unable to get out of the river, Marquart said.

The people, Pagosans Katherine and Tom Cruse, had put in the river near the Riverside Campground and were enjoying a trip down the river until reaching the wave in front of the Chamber of Commerce, Katherine said.

In negotiating the wave, the Cruse’s raft flipped, sending the couple into the air, with the raft landing over Tom’s head, said Katherine.

Despite being in “pushy,” cold water, the duo hoped to be able to guide the boat into an eddy and exit the river, but they were unable to escape the current.

As the pair was trying to exit the river, Katherine remembers a bystander on the footbridge near Centennial Park asking if they needed help, to which they were able to yell an affirmative response while heading downstream.

It wasn’t until the pair rounded the next curve and were in the river adjacent to Sixth Street that they were able to maneuver the raft to the edge of the river, where they held onto it until it began to pull them into the current again, Katherine said.

All the while, the pair were also dodging the oars attached to the raft.

At that point, with the twosome exhausted from the battle, Tom gave the command for them to both let go, but the raft pulled Tom out into the current before he was able to let go, and he continued his unwanted trip downstream.

Katherine clung to rocks, while Tom was able to get to the river’s edge and cling to brush about 30 feet downstream.

Katherine was able to climb up on the rock and wave at passing vehicles for help. While an occupant in one car offered a friendly wave and kept moving, Katherine said a second vehicle stopped and the driver asked if anyone else was in the water, at which point she pointed downstream towards Tom, though she couldn’t see him.

The unidentified bystander then went to help Tom out of the water before calling 911.

Firefighters arrived at the scene and rigged up a rope to pull Tom up the steep bank of the river to a waiting ambulance, where his and his wife’s vitals were checked and they were warmed up.

Katherine reported that she and Tom had short wetsuits on and, while they didn’t offer full protection from the frigid temperatures, she said she believes the suit may have kept Tom from hypothermia.

Following the first 911 call and before the help of the bystander, emergency crews staged at the Apache Street bridge near Town Hall to help the couple, said Marquart.

Pagosa Outside again aided emergency crews, with a guide heading downstream about six miles to recover the raft.

“We’re a little battered and sore today, but we’re OK, thanks to everyone who helped,” Katherine said Tuesday.

Katherine is unsure of how much actual time she and Tom spent in the water, but she knows what it felt like.

“It felt like forever once we were in the water,” she said, adding it was probably only 10 minutes. “It all seemed like a lot more, I tell you.”

After such an adventure, it would be logical to assume the couple would be hesitant to get in a raft again very soon, but that would be wrong.

Tom and Katherine took part in a guided paddle raft trip on the West Fork of the San Juan on Wednesday.

Katherine reported they may hold off on taking their own raft out on the river while the water is running so high, adding that she hoped to learn additional safety maneuvers, such as flipping large boats upright.

Katherine said that, while they have more to learn, the couple did learn a few things during the incident: In “big water,” go with friends in other boats in order to have help with you should trouble strike and, “Don’t think you can do a lot in big water like that.”

Indeed, the river is running at high levels due to the spring runoff, near 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) around the time of the Cruse’s incident Monday — about 500 cfs above the median daily value — and upwards of 1,400 cfs on Saturday when the empty kayak was found.

As of 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, the river was running at more than 1,500 cfs — about 20 cfs more than the historical median cfs for June 1.

“We have a little more respect for the water now than I suspect we did two days ago,” Katherine said Tuesday.

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