It’s the time of year when the snowpack is melting, the air is warm, and the rivers are full-throated and rowdy. For those who love being in the water, it’s a siren song. But a river running high and fast is challenging. The San Miguel is currently running at over 600 cubic feet per second — Class III —as measured near Placerville, and hazards await, potentially around every bend. Local swift water professionals know how to stay safe while having a blast on the water.
Jeremy Womack is a San Miguel County Search and Rescue member who teaches swiftwater rescue to both casual and professional boaters. His love for rivers is absolute, but that affection is couched in his respect for the power and unpredictability of moving water. He is a font of good advice for those keen to take a kayak, duckie, stand-up paddleboard or inner tube on a river adventure.
“Don’t go alone,” is Womack’s opening tip.
That is followed in quick succession with a punch list of proper attire.
“Wear secure footwear like tennis shoes or Chacos,” he said. “A PFD (personal flotation device) is an essential piece, and helmets are a really good plus. They’re strongly encouraged.”
Mountain rivers are notoriously cold and long periods immersed in frigid water can “drain the energy out of you,” pretty quickly, Womack said. That’s where your PFD can make a huge difference in a positive outcome.
“If you’ve taken in water and you’re coughing and getting your breath, that PFD will give you an inch or two distance between your mouth and the surface of the water,” he said. “That couple of inches goes far to reduce the stress and strain.”
Another wise move before navigating a stretch of river — even the leg of the San Miguel on the Valley Floor — is to scout ahead.
“Put eyes on the section of water you’re going down,” he advised. “There could be potentially lethal strainers.”
Strainers are any obstruction along a river that allows water to pass through, but little else. Fallen tree limbs, roots, tires or other junk, or even natural obstructions such as beaver dams, can all present problems downstream.
“Is the beaver dam passable,” Womack said. “There could be metal, sharp objects, even exposed rebar from an old mining operation.”
Womack urges extreme caution, particularly in regards where the San Miguel runs through town.
“The in-town section is not super friendly,” he said. “Entrapments are a serious risk on the town section.”
Entrapments (obstructions), he explained, are rife on that stretch of river, and are the number one cause of death on rivers.
“The most dangerous part of the strainer is not actually the obstruction itself, its the river current that is flowing through the strainer,” cautions the website Actively Outdoors. “Except, if you’re caught in the strainer, you won’t flow through but the water will instead pin you against whatever the strainer object is.”
If you do become separated from your craft, he said, start swimming. And don’t try to stand up until your momentum has ceased.
Scouting ahead not only reveals obstacles but also gives river runners a chance to gut check. In other words, trust your intuition.
“If it looks too scary and big, it probably is for you,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be death defying to be fun.”
Womack sees a lot of parents sending their kids to the hardware store to buy an inner tube and hit the river for an afternoon of fun.
“Please don’t send kids out there alone,” he said, echoing his first safety tip in this story — don’t go alone.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers boating recommendations based on stream flow. For flows of 550 to 1,200 cfs on the San Miguel, conditions are favorable for canoes, kayaks, inflatable kayaks, and rafts 14 feet or smaller for beginner to intermediate rafters. Conditions are deemed challenging for intermediate kayakers, according to the BLM.
For visitor and local alike eager to explore area rivers, Womack advised visiting outfitters like Jagged Edge or Telluride Outside, where professionals can not only get you the right gear, but are experienced boaters who understand rivers and can offer the best advice.
Jagged Edge’s Dave McMillan says that tubing along the in-town section and on the Valley Floor of the San Miguel is fairly mellow right now, but still, good gear is key.
“Be sure to dress appropriately,” he said. “You’re gonna get splashed and cold. It’s snowmelt, not a lazy river in the middle of August.”
And he is on the same page as Womack when it comes to scouting.
“We tell people ‘assess your situation,’” McMillan said.
For SUP enthusiasts, McMilllan said the Valley Floor is easier than running the in-town section, but weather can move in quickly. For tubers, Jagged Edge will only send them out “when it’s not that high.”
Womack knows his safety tips can sound a little “gloom and doom,” but safety precautions ensure the whole point of playing on the river, and that is to have fun.
“I’ve dedicated my life to having fun on the river,” Womack said. “Just be smart about it.”
He’s offering another swiftwater rescue course in August. Sign up by calling 828-329-3843, or message him on Instagram @coloradorescue.
For those who would feel more confident taking to the river with a guide, local shops run a variety of trips. Contact Telluride Outside at 970-728-3895 or tellurideoutside.com. Call Jagged Edge at 970-728-9307, or reach the shop online at jagged-edge-telluride.com.