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Rafting deaths questioned

BUENA VISTA, Colo. – Five whitewater boaters have died this year in Colorado, all after spills on the Arkansas River between Leadville and Salida. Although whitewater deaths are not unusual, the total is high enough to draw the interest of The Denver Post, which raises the question of whether commercial rafters screen their customers sufficiently.

“I think a lot of these deaths are really preventable,” Kit Davidson, of Gunnison, a former guide, told the newspaper. “It’s a tough call on how to make the tourists understand the power of the river and respect it without insulting them by telling them they are not allowed to go.”

The suggestion is that some commercial passengers are physically unfit, and others do not seem to take the mental challenge seriously.

Colorado’s whitewater boating industry is relatively recent. Until the mid-1980s, it was unregulated. After a string of drownings in the rapidly growing industry, the Colorado River Outfitters persuaded the state Legislature to establish minimum training and other safety standards, to give the public more confidence.

However, at the same, time, rafting companies have been taking on more adventurous whitewater segments. Two of the commercial fatalities this year, for example, occurred in the Numbers, a section of the Arkansas River between Leadville and Buena Vista that even private risk-takers seldom boated 25 years ago.