Rafter death underscores dangers of private boating

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 6/28/19

Cisco Guevara, founder and president of Los Rios River Runners, says his guides are some of the best in the business, but when water levels in the Río Grande were gushing above 3,500 cubic …

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Rafter death underscores dangers of private boating

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Cisco Guevara, founder and president of Los Rios River Runners, says his guides are some of the best in the business, but when water levels in the Río Grande were gushing above 3,500 cubic feet per second last Friday (June 21), he said it’s unlikely one of them would have taken a 72-year-old customer down the river.

A private boater, who has not been identified by authorities, thought different, however, and took Cheryl Current, 72, of Albuquerque down the rapids near Pilar.

Current was wearing a life jacket when she fell from the boat in a rapid and drowned Friday afternoon, according to authorities.

Guides from Los Rios running the same section of river stopped on the riverbank about a mile south of Pilar and attempted to resuscitate Current, but were unsuccessful.

Taos County deputies, medics and fire personnel called to the scene staged along the guardrail on State Road 68. The river guides used ropes to help pull Current’s body up the bank to the roadway, where she was then transported by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.

Guevara wasn’t on the river that day, but said his guides were troubled by the experience.

“They were pretty shook up about this and we’ve had to give them a few days off,” he said. “Some of them are even going to therapy about it.”

Guevara, whose company has a zero-death record, sees the tragedy as an example of what can go wrong when private boaters head downstream without considering the risks, especially when water levels are so high.

“We’ve had some close calls, we’ve had some injuries, but I’ve never experienced a death,” he said. “A vast majority of the few people that have drowned in the racecourse, even on the Río Grande, are private boaters.”

He said he and other rafting professionals do what they can to look out for private boaters on the river. Some of them, he said, are highly trained, but many others are hobbyists who are prone to getting in over their heads.

“The main thing here is – and we believe that it might have been a factor in this drowning – I’m not sure and I can’t know – but if they were a solo boat, then the chances of getting that woman back into the boat in a timely manner were greatly reduced,” Guevara said.

He said professional guides always do their best to go down the river one after the other to provide a safeguard in case someone falls from a boat. If a person falls, he said, the chances of returning them to safety quickly is greatly increased if there are two boats in the water.

In general, he said they avoid taking senior citizens or children down the river when the water is high.

At the type of high-water levels seen so far this spring and summer – the result of heavy snowpack from this past winter – he said the odds of a boat flipping or a boater falling into the water are much higher.

“At these water levels, it’s common for people to fall out of the boat, it’s part of the fun actually,” he said. “People get blasted out by the big, giant hydraulic waves or the boat flips and that’s happening quite often.”

Usually, he said about 10% of their rafters fall and wind up in an “involuntary swim,” but his guides are always prepared for such scenarios and the many other dangerous situations that can catch a private rafter off-guard.

Guevara doesn’t want to scare people off the river. It’s where he’s made his livelihood for decades and where many people in Taos have spent some of their best outdoor experiences, but he said, “You have to take it seriously and really you’re better off hiring the professional people at these water levels especially.”

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