Engineering the Danger Out of Whitewater

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Whitewater rafting is a risky sport: Those aren’t plastic Disneyland-style boulders in the middle of the rapids, and your life vest may or may not save you if you go overboard. But proposals to make two Western rivers a bit safer by moving gnarly rocks has kicked off a debate about how far humans should go in engineering nature for recreation’s sake.

High Country News reports on controversial proposals to alter two dangerous whitewater rafting spots: Staircase Rapid on Idaho’s Payette River and Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado’s Arkansas River. Fifteen to 20 rafts wrap around a particular boulder on Staircase Rapid every season, writes Sarah Gilman, and a river guide drowned there in 2007; Frog Rock Rapids has claimed four victims since 2000. In both places, proposals to mess with the river have raised objections:

Why the kerfuffle? Humans regularly rejigger rivers, using dams, diversions, riprap and concrete. But in rafting, like many outdoor sports, the risk is part of the thrill. “People die on Longs Peak every year, but we’re not going to tear that down,” says Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area senior ranger Stew Pappenfort. Then again, he adds, Frog Rock “is a real dangerous spot on an (otherwise) intermediate run.” So how far should land managers and outfitters go to protect recreationists? And in doing so, are they encouraging an increasingly common public expectation of a casual, risk-free natural experience?

The discussion echoes my 2001 Utne Reader article, “The Late, Great Outdoors,” which covered the debate over completely human-made whitewater courses and faux rock climbing walls in urban environments. “Some feel that something is lost when the rapids are always just right and the view at the top of the climb is the checkout line,” I wrote. Reconfiguring natural rivers seems to be just another variation on this unnatural approach.

In a sense, the law may be on the river’s side. Experts suggest to High Country News that river modifications could backfire, since “if an agency alters a hazard like a rapid, even with the intent to make it safer, it could potentially be held liable for future accidents there.”

Still, the legal picture is uncertain: Proposals to alter natural riverbeds for boater safety are rare and seldom carried out. On the lower Youghiogheny River, in one famous case, the state of Pennsylvania undertook a five-year public review and an engineering study to determine whether Dimple Rock Rapid, the site of several deaths, ought to be changed. In 2006, it concluded that alterations could easily create new dangers without reducing the risk of flipping. The river guides who took matters into their own hands on Arizona’s Salt River in 1993–dynamiting dangerous Quartzite Falls–ended up facing a federal grand jury.

Dynamiting the falls? Now that sounds more dangerous than whitewater rafting.

Source: High Country News

Image by Video4net, licensed under Creative Commons.

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