Locals often refer to the San Miguel River as “the mighty San Miguel.” Save for typical seasonal runoffs, winter ice floes and occasional flooding (1911 was a notable year for the river rising above its banks), the river that courses 72 miles from above Telluride to its confluence with the Dolores River near Uravan, is rarely considered a rager. This year it is.
An above average snowpack, cooler temperatures and a wet spring have served to keep flows high. According to information on the Snoflo.org website, over the past 10 days, the seasonal average has been sticking close to 1,600 cubic feet per second (cfs). As of press time Tuesday, that represents 142 percent above the seasonal average of 549 cfs. Data monitored on Tuesday showed the river was running at 1,140 cfs, an increase of 30 percent over the previous day.
What that means to boaters is challenging rapids and a longer season on the water. Generally, that’s good news and lots of fun. But, according to the boating guide the Bureau of Land Management shares on its website, the high streamflows are better suited for experienced recreationists. For flow measurements between 1,200-2,000 cfs, for canoes, kayaks, inflatable kayaks, rafts 14 feet or smaller, expect “solid Class III with some IV possible. River becomes pushy and fast as flows approach 3,000 cfs. Many rapids will wash out while others will form. Beware of overhanging trees and strainers,” the guidelines read in part. Those conditions, the BLM advises, are best left to the experts.
But even for experienced boaters, the river is strong and unpredictable. Over the last couple of weeks, personnel from the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office’s Search and Rescue teams executed two rescues.
One, on July 3, involved experienced rafters who were all wearing helmets and personal flotation devices (PFD). The three boaters were in a raft that flipped about a mile upstream from Sawpit. One of the boaters was stranded on the riverbank and because the current was so swift, he was rescued by jumping to safety into a moving raft piloted by SAR members.
Susan Lilly, the sheriff’s department spokesperson, likened expert skiers to expert boaters. In spite of being educated, fit, appropriately outfitted and with the ability to ski safely and defensively, the expert skier can still be, she said, injured or killed.
“They can have the right gear, the techniques and the skill level and still be hurt,” she said. “River rafting is not unlike that. And expert boater can go down a raging river and be vulnerable to injury or death.”
Relative to the number of expert skiers in the Telluride region, the number of expert boaters is low, Lilly said. She said it is important to have a plan before embarking on a river run.
“It’s important to be aware of the risks,” she said. “There obstacles in the water, both seen and unseen. What do you do if you flip your raft or kayak? What is your plan?”
And, she said, rescuers must assess the situation before attempting rescue, just as they do in the case of wintertime backcountry incidents.
“SAR always determines first it it’s safe to insert our people,” she explained. “There may be cases where you’re out there for an undetermined amount of time.”
On June 26, also on the San Miguel River, another incident occurred, which involved a group of nine who put in the river in duckies just outside of Placerville. Some were solo, others in pairs. At least one duckie flipped, sending its occupant, a 63-year-old Ridgway woman, into the river. She first held on to another duckie and was swept downstream when she was unable to climb aboard. Fortunately, she managed to get herself out of the river and walked downstream a bit before being located. Her companions were alarmed as she had been carried out of sight.
Sheriff’s personnel reported that more than 30 people were involved in the search, including numerous law enforcement agencies and guides with Mild to Wild Rafting Tours. The woman’s odyssey lasted three hours from the time her duckie flipped until when she was reached by SAR members at 7 p.m.
Like the expert rafters who flipped on July 3, she was wearing a helmet and a PFD. Lilly said that while the woman was not an expert, she was not inexperienced.
The river is not only fast and high, but extremely cold. Lilly said that particularly in regards to smaller people (like children) with less body fat, hypothermia can set in rapidly. She cautioned parents against letting unsupervised children go tubing in the river while it is running so strongly.
“The river’s temperature is not kind to anyone, especially small children,” she said.