This report is originally from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bill Vogrin, Southeast Region Public Information Officer.
BUENA VISTA, CO – It was nearly bedtime, after 10 p.m., when Jeff Hammond, a river ranger with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, received a call for help from the Chaffee County Sheriff’s office.
“They told me a boat with three people in it had flipped in Zoom Flume in Browns Canyon,” Hammond said. “They had made contact with one person and two were unaccounted for. All three were still in the canyon and needed to be rescued. So I quickly got back in uniform, grabbed my gear and jumped in my truck.”
Late-night rescues of boaters on the Arkansas River are not common. And it would not be easy searching in Browns Canyon, a 13-mile boulder-strewn gorge between Buena Vista and Salida carved over eons by the Arkansas.
But Hammond didn’t hesitate even knowing he’d be fighting exactly what makes Browns Canyon one of the most popular stretches of whitewater in Colorado: its series of Class 3 rapids that draw people from across the nation to experience.
On this July 6 night, Hammond headed a few miles south of Buena Vista to Nathrop to rendezvous with the Chaffee County Search and Rescue (SAR) North Team and begin the search. The plan was for two SAR members on all-terrain vehicles (ATV) to take Hammond down the abandoned railroad tracks that parallel the river through the canyon until they reached the Zoom Flume rapids.
“I was told an off-duty commercial raft guide had taken two people out on a private trip around 7:30 p.m.,” Hammond said. “That should have given them enough time to reach their take-out spot at Hecla Junction. But they never made it.”
Cellphone service in the canyon is unreliable but the guide was able to send a 9-1-1 text for help, alerting authorities of the incident.
It was approaching 11:30 p.m. when Hammond hopped on the back of an SAR ATV with his gear, kayak and paddle and off they rode into the darkness, bouncing down the railroad tracks as the river roared below them through the rapids of the canyon.
As the trio headed south down the tracks, another team from Chaffee County SAR South, headed northbound from Hecla Junction on electric bikes that they ferried on a raft across the river.
It took Hammond and the SAR team about 20 minutes to reach Zoom Flume where they began hearing shouts for help from the other side of the churning river.
“We found the two friends who had been tossed out of the raft,” Hammond said. “They were on the river bank on the west side. They couldn’t hike out because they were cliffed out by the canyon walls.”
So Hammond bushwhacked down through the brush from the tracks to the water’s edge. In the pitch black, he studied what he could see of the river using his headlamp.
“There was no moonlight in the canyon and the water was roaring through the rapids, just upstream,” Hammond said, describing the scene. “I scouted the river, plotted a course to the two victims and put my kayak in the water.”
Hammond said the water was calm where he entered, but it quickly turned into whitewater and it was unnerving even to someone like him – an expert kayaker who has logged many days on the Arkansas since he joined the AHRA in 2017.
“It’s still whitewater and you are trying to judge the rapids through the relatively small beam of light from your headlamp,” he said.
Hammond was aided by the two SAR members who used spotlights to help guide him to the victims as he paddled the 25 yards across to the two victims. After assessing their condition and determining they were uninjured and in no imminent danger, he left them with a promise to return. Then he paddled back across the river to resume the search to locate the guide.
A mile downstream he found her and the raft, also on the opposite river bank. Hammond repeated his process of bushwhacking, scouting the river and paddling across. The guide was also uninjured. So he loaded her and his kayak into her raft and they paddled back across the river to the waiting SAR members.
“We basically hopped from boulder to boulder, resting in the calm water below the boulders before resuming our paddling,” Hammond said.
Then they loaded the guide, the raft and the kayak onto the ATVs and went back upstream a mile to the two friends left on the riverbank.
Hammond made his third and final roundtrip crossing of the river that night on the raft with the guide. They reached the two friends who climbed aboard and the four paddled back across where the two ATVs were waiting.
The SAR members drove the two friends to Nathrop, then returned to get the guide, Hammond, and his kayak.
At 2:30 a.m., Hammond said he texted his fiance’ he was coming home for the night.
As wild an incident as it was, Hammond said it could have been much worse and ended tragically.
“First, they were all wearing life jackets,” Hammond said. “That’s the biggest thing. And they had a cellphone. Even though they couldn’t make a call, they could send a text for help.”
Best of all, they didn’t panic, Hammond said. When they realized they wouldn’t be able to hike out, they stayed put and planned to wait for daylight when commercial rafting trips would provide a means for rescue.
“If things go wrong, don’t compound the problems,” Hammond said. “Call for search and rescue. It’s free and safer than wandering off into the wilderness. We’d rather get a call early and start searching than get a late call and face a more complex rescue.”