Six Dolores County youths reported missing on the Lower Dolores River were found Sunday morning by a Flight for Life helicopter, according to the Dove Creek Fire Department and Dolores County Search and Rescue.
The group had attempted to float the 18-mile Ponderosa Gorge section of the river on inner tubes. They had put in at the Bradfield Bridge about 2 p.m. Saturday and lashed their tubes together. Officials reported that some members of the party were not wearing life jackets.
The teenagers ran into trouble when they lost a few of their inner tubes in a rapid about 9 miles into the trip, said Capt. Keith Keesling of Dolores County Search and Rescue. Walking along shore, they came upon “a nice family” who gave them food and invited them to stay overnight at their camp.
There is no cell service in the canyon. When the group failed to arrive at their scheduled takeout that evening, a search was organized.
Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson called in a rescue helicopter, and the youths were found shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday. They were extracted by a Flight for Life helicopter that landed on the edge of the beach, its tail jutting out over the river. Three flights were required to bring out all six people.
“The helicopter crew did a great job,” Keesling said.
On Saturday, the section of river where the youths were tubing was running at a high flow of 3,400 cubic feet per second.
It was fortunate that there were other rafters on the river to assist the teenagers, said Grant Allen, assistant chief for the Dove Creek Fire Department.
“There are a lot of boaters on the river right now,” he said.
Search and Rescue access by foot into the steep and remote Ponderosa Gorge is limited, he said, which is why the helicopter was called in.
Family members and about 20 rescue personnel arrived at the Bradfield Bridge put-in and the Dove Creek Pump Station takeout, in part to conduct on-the-ground searches.
“At high water, rivers can be very dangerous for the inexperienced, and they are definitely not suitable for inner-tubing,” Allen said. “In this case, the teenagers didn’t realize how dangerous the conditions were. It’s a big relief that everyone is OK.”
After the incident, the sheriff and search and rescue crews met with the teenagers and their parents about river safety and the ill-advised tubing adventure.
“The kids were very glad to be back home. I think they learned from their mistakes,” he said. They were not charged for the rescue efforts.
The rescue effort included Dolores County Search and Rescue, Dove Creek Fire Department, Dove Creek Ambulance District, Flight for Life Colorado and the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office.
Waterways were running at near-peak levels this week after the San Juan Mountains received above-average snowfall this winter.
The high water can be alluring to river users, but it’s also dangerous for inexperienced or unprepared boaters, kayakers and tubers.
John Brennan, an engineer with the Durango Fire Protection District, said anyone going on the river should go with others and wear a life jacket, closed-toed shoes, a helmet, thermal protection and bring extra clothes in case they go for a swim.
When the water reaches discharge levels above 500 cfs, it is “highly frowned upon” to be out on inner tubes, he said.
“It is a really dangerous activity because you don’t have a lot of control over that craft,” Brennan said.
Officials also warned boaters of a river hazard below Snaggletooth Rapid. A large tree fell into the river from the right bank. Boaters need to go river left after the rapid to avoid the hazard.
The Durango Herald contributed to this article. firstname.lastname@example.org