Death on “River of Sorrows” opens Colorado’s long, dangerous whitewater season
This story was originally published in The Colorado Sun at 3:50 AM on May 23, 2023.
Richard Zehm was ready for the Dolores. The longtime resident of both Telluride and Norwood missed the River of Sorrows in 2019, the last time the river could float rafts, and the 72-year-old expert oarsman had his customized red raft rigged early, well before the river started churning to life last month. The yellow permit from a Middle Fork of the Salmon River descent almost 20 years ago flapped on the bow, a pennant to his passion for wild river canyons.
“He had a deep appreciation for the rivers and their power,” said Allie Gausman, a Telluride business owner and Zehm’s niece.
Zehm and a friend put on the river at Slick Rock below Disappointment Creek early May 10. Somewhere 20 to 30 miles downstream the raft flipped. He was last seen holding onto his boat in the swift, cold current.
Zehm helped build the Telluride ski area in the early 1970s. He built homes in the resort box canyon, and in Southern California, Alaska and Baja Mexico. He was a hang glider pilot and avid skier who dabbled in speed skiing, reaching a personal record of 110 mph in the early 1980s. He built an 80-acre tree farm outside Norwood with his wife of 44 years, Cynthia. They loved to ride Harleys. And they loved rafting the West’s river canyons.
He and Cynthia once rafted the Grand Canyon when the Colorado River was thumping with 56,000 cubic-feet-per-second of water.
“The most exciting moment of my life,” she said of their descent of the Grand’s Lava Falls. They had paddled the Dolores River more than 50 times over the years.
“He was so excited and happy about getting back on the Dolores,” Cynthia said. “He really did it all. He was just an incredible man.”
Zehm’s death in high water was the first of Colorado’s 2023 boating season, which will be memorable as snowpacks in all of the Western Slope’s river basins hover well above average. Colorado Parks and Wildlife on May 18 said there had been a second water-related death, and that the body of a third person was recovered from a lake in Pagosa Springs, but said the cause of death had not been released.
Colorado’s paddlers are ready for a rowdy season. So are rescue teams.
“This season has started earlier than usual with the snowpack and runoff and I imagine we are going to see more incidents all across the West,” said Charlie Walbridge, who has spent several decades documenting nearly 2,200 whitewater fatalities and close calls on U.S. rivers and streams for American Whitewater.
Walbridge has already added Zehm to his database, as well as 50-year-old David Bishop, a rafter who drowned in high water May 9 after an accident in the Racecourse section of the Rio Grande between Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico.
“Colorado and California are two of the busiest states for whitewater, and it’s going to be especially busy this year because of high water,” Walbridge said. “Water will be high, and it will be high for much longer than usual. If you look across the history of whitewater fatalities, the numbers are connected to high flows and high snowpacks out West.”
Last year Walbridge documented 76 deaths in U.S. whitewater, including 25 kayakers and 25 rafters. He counted 27 of those deaths involving people who were not wearing personal floatation devices, or PFDs.
There were six fatalities in Colorado last year, including four rafters. One of those rafters, a 75-year-old Texas man, was on a commercial trip on the Arkansas River.
The last time Colorado wrapped its winter with river basin snowpacks exceeding 100% of normal was 2019. That spring and summer, 12 people died in Colorado’s rivers and streams, including seven rafters, two stand-up paddleboarders and three tubers.
Five years earlier, in 2014, Colorado snowpacks were above normal heading into the warmer months and 15 paddlers died that summer in the state’s whitewater, including six kayakers and eight rafters.
Whitewater deaths are increasing across North America and Colorado, along with a growing number of participants. The average number of annual whitewater fatalities in the U.S. and Canada from 2003 through 2012 was 46.7. For the next decade through 2022, that number climbed to 55.9.
From 2003 to 2012, a total of 59 rafters, kayakers and tubers drowned in Colorado whitewater. The number of fatalities climbed to 68 from 2013 to 2022.
Walbridge’s data show 49 of the 127 whitewater fatalities in Colorado since 2003 — roughly 39% — were in rivers and streams where flows were higher than normal. And 45 of those 127 deaths involved paddlers on commercial river trips.
“Rafting companies outfit their people with wetsuits, good helmets and good PFDs. It’s the freelancers that can be challenging for us; the ones in inner tubes who don’t have any protection or life jackets who can get into real trouble,” said Feroldi, whose team responds to about four calls for help in Clear Creek a year, mostly involving unprepared floaters or riverside strollers and anglers who fall into the current.
Walbridge’s database counts 11 fatalities in Clear Creek since 1990, including four tubers, a kayaker and six commercial rafters.
A response to a call to help a person in the current typically involves about 20 to 30 people, with teams of searchers and local firefighters stationed in teams along the river, often miles below the spot the person was last seen. Specially trained swiftwater teams often put rescuers in the water to catch people struggling in the rapids.
Feroldi urged people in need of help in the river to call 911 early. The longer a person delays, the longer the response in situations where speedy assistance is critical, he said.
“The more notice we can get that there is a problem the better,” he said.
hree rafters from Telluride picked up Zehm’s passenger Wednesday and then found the 72-year-old man’s body downstream. The group heroically paddled through darkness to the takeout at Bedrock, stopping only briefly to check in on Zehm’s well-rigged raft that downstream paddlers had wrestled into a campsite eddy in Coyote Wash.
They were embroiled in a tragedy that was not theirs, but they were writing the final chapter.
Zehm was the type of guy who would have just as willingly participated in the rescue. Cynthia Zehm said her husband’s death “has really reverberated through this whole valley.”
“So many people have shared such sorrow and sadness,” she said. “There’s a beauty in that he gave his life to the river and that’s how his life here on Earth ended. In the River of Pain. The River of Sorrows.”