Dangers of Río Grande surface after rough week on water

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Following heavy rains and late-season snowmelt, the Río Grande surged at a ferocious 3,300 cubic feet per second last week. On Thursday (May 11), the unusually rough waters claimed the life of a 67-year-old Tijeras man, who drowned when he fell from a raft in a section near Pilar. Just a day later, two Albuquerque men also nearly lost their lives when their kayak capsized 1 mile north of the John Dunn Bridge.

Though seasoned rafters and kayakers continue to warn of the unpredictable rapids that thread the narrows of the Río Grande Gorge - a volcanic rift carved by mighty drainage waters from the San Juan Mountains millions of years ago - there are still those who underestimate the power of the river each year.

After 26 years of guiding in Taos, Billy Miller, owner of Big River Raft Trips, says that he's been on more rescue and recovery missions than he can count. "It's in the hundreds," he estimated during an interview this week.

"People come up here at low water, when the Río Grande is just a creek," he said. "Then they come back a year later - or in the spring - and the thing is a raging torrent."

Miller, 52, knows all the ins and outs of a successful run down the river. He said he and his guides always carry extra safety equipment. He said that his company maintains a "perfect safety record."

But people still get knocked out of the boat on difficult sections of river every day - even on guided trips.

When you go over, Miller said, survival depends on a number of factors. Training is one. You have to know to point your feet downstream and keep your head above the swells. You also have to watch out for obstacles. Boulders can knock you unconscious as you hurdle through the water, which, at high flows like last week, can reach speeds upward of 30 miles per hour.

"Above 3,000 cfs, the river starts really changing and starts becoming a formidable force," Miller said, adding that the number of eddies, or "safe zones" that typically form behind rocks and near the shoreline, begin to diminish.

The first option is getting back in the boat, he said. Then you look for a rock to cling to. And the final option is to make your way to shore - a feat, Miller explained, that is incredibly difficult to accomplish when caught in a Class III rapid or higher.

"You're being ripped down the river at a high rate of speed," Miller said, describing the experience. "You're getting waves in your face and you gotta breathe. And if you close your eyes and take a breath at the wrong moment, then you're choking. You just get beat up. And if it's a long enough stretch of rapid, you might not make it."

For David Domingos, 46, an Albuquerque man who, along with his friend, Marwan Saidi, 30, plunged into the water around 4 p.m. Friday afternoon (May 12) when their inflatable kayak flipped on a rough section of river south of Arsenic Springs, the experience felt like drowning, Domingos said.

As the icy water pulled at them, they clung to the underside of the boat, which they had rented from a rafting company based out of Santa Fe. "'You might want to do it on a section of the river that has more people on it,'" Domingos said, recalling the renter's meager warning.

As the current whirled them through the water and dragged their heads under its surface, both Domingos and Saidi realized they would have to let go of the vessel if they were going to make it. "We ditched the boat because we thought we were going to drown," Domingos said.

After releasing the boat, they made their way to opposite sides of the river - Domingos swimming to the east bank and Saidi to the west.

They hiked south for some distance through the rocks and brush that line the narrow canyon. The walls of the chasm crested 450 feet above them.

As night fell, the men, equipped only with flashlights and a kayak paddle, dried themselves off and settled in to wait for a rescue they didn't know would ever arrive. Though they had notified friends of their intended route, there was no sign that anyone knew they had gone over.

But an unidentified passerby near the John Dunn Bridge soon did. When they saw the empty kayak and a single paddle bobbing along the water past the span, the individual phoned emergency services.

By 6 p.m., the light was going out in the canyon and the temperature began to drop below 50 degrees as cold mountain air swept in from the north. The kayakers waited.

Meanwhile, a helicopter was dispatched to search the area - a Taos County sheriff's deputy in the passenger seat glassing the canyon for any sign of the kayakers. At that time, it was unknown whether the mission would be a recovery or a rescue, with dispatchers discussing a search for a "body" at one point in the evening.

But after a number of passovers above the canyon, the sheriff's deputy spotted a paddle being frantically waved in the air on the east bank of the river. It was Domingos. Another passover and Saidi was spotted on the opposite bank.

From there, emergency teams, led by the Taos County Sheriff's Office, moved quickly.

"The critical component here is not waiting," Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe was overheard saying to his deputies via police channels. "[They] are cold and could become hypothermic."

Initially, rescue personnel thought they would have to attempt a "high-angle rescue," using ropes and pulleys to reach the kayakers down in the steep, rocky gorge. To provide the equipment, the sheriff's office called on the Los Alamos Search and Rescue team.

At one point late in the night, law enforcement officials also requested a Black Hawk helicopter in case rescue by other means proved unsuccessful, but this and other precautionary efforts were called off as a water approach was expected to be the most successful - and safest - means of rescuing the two men.

Among the three options called on, a custom airboat, piloted by Miller and his two companions, Joe Hochman, 26, and Riley Switzer, 33, arrived first around 11:30 p.m.

After preparing the vessel for launch, suiting up in safety gear and securing medical supplies, the three men boarded and droned off into the darkness upriver around 12:30 a.m.

As the boat shuttled through the inky water, Miller shut off the search light and navigated by moonlight. Two other lights soon appeared on opposite sides of the shoreline as Domingos and Saidi signaled the crew. After plucking them off the shoreline, the crew handed the men sheets and Snickers bars.

Within 10 minutes, the volunteer crew returned with the two men, who stepped onto the shore to meet with a medical team that had been waiting on standby for several hours.

"These guys are all heroes," said Sheriff Hogrefe as the team returned to shore with the patients safely aboard.

The rescued men said they were chilled and in some degree of shock, but were otherwise unharmed during the ordeal - one that serves as a reminder of the dangers of the Río Grande.

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