Ark Headwaters employs river rangers who patrol whitewater and protect commercial and private rafters
SALIDA, Colo. – Most people are familiar with the rangers who patrol Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 42 state parks.
But did you know CPW also employs river rangers at the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) who risk their lives to protect people who take the challenge of navigating whitewater on the Arkansas River in rafts and kayaks?
A team of five seasonal and one full-time CPW river rangers routinely help people when they are in need of assistance, or simply fish them from the chilly water when they’ve been dumped by a churning rapid. These heroics are in addition to their other duties such as policing commercial rafting companies and providing valuable information to the boating public.
On June 18, first-year River Ranger Jeff Hammond made a particularly impressive rescue that had his fellow rangers applauding him at a staff meeting last week.
On that Sunday, Hammond and other members of the team were patrolling east of Salida near Pinnacle Rock as the river was flowing particularly high from peak snowmelt runoff.
Traffic on the river was heavy and the team was closely watching the famous “Three Rocks” rapid. On a normal day, a trio of huge boulders stand high and dry in the middle of the river. But on this day, frothing water poured over the top of the rocks creating a nasty foaming whirlpool on the other side that was causing problems for commercial and private rafts alike.
A small cataraft carrying a mother and daughter, both adults, came over the top in the center of the river and found itself trapped in a recirculating river feature know as a hole. The mother was on the oars while the daughter rode as a passenger.
“They made it part of the way out and got sucked back in,” Hammond said. “She was fighting to get out and broke an oar. They kept getting part of the way out only to get sucked back in.”
The action in the rapids became so violent the mother was bucked right out of the cataraft and was swept downstream, leaving the daughter stranded. Meanwhile, a commercial raft that came through the rapids moments earlier had flipped just downstream creating a chaotic scene on the river.
“Seeing what was going on, I jumped in my kayak and chased down the cataraft,” said Hammond, 24. “I reached the cat and the daughter on board said ‘I’m really glad you’re here.’ I then climbed aboard the cataraft, pulling my kayak on board with me.”
Hammond found a spare oar on the cataraft and replaced the broken oar. Then he proceeded to guide the small vessel downstream where the commercial raft was gathering its passengers, as well as the mother who had been thrown from the cataraft.
“We all continued downstream through the next rapid, Five Points, and caught up with each other at the next eddy,” Hammond said. “The mother got back aboard and they carried on with their day.”
A veteran ranger who witnessed the rescue told the staff: “I’d never seen anything like it.”
Hammond said the mother and daughter later left him a warm thank-you note on the windshield of his CPW truck.
“I’m keeping the note,” Hammond said with a smile.
Hammond is a Connecticut native who earned a biology degree in college. He fell in love with whitewater boating at age 12 and decided to seek a job with CPW after rafting the Grand Canyon in January.
“I was looking for a research position when I saw the river ranger posting,” Hammond said. “It sounded like more fun.”
And it is fun, he said, noting the squirt guns stored in a shed above the kayaks for days when school groups come on field trips.
But it’s also serious, as his adventure that Sunday proved. Luckily, everyone was wearing personal flotation devices and helmets and followed safety instructions that allowed them to be rescued without harm and even continue their whitewater trip.
It was just another day at the Arkansas Headwaters, which is recognized as one of the nation's most popular locations for whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Arkansas River – the most commercially rafted river in the U.S.