“The high water changes the character of the river”
A family of five lost their father Saturday, May 31 after their boat overturned on the Gunnison River, near Blue Mesa Reservoir, and he lost his fight to stay afloat after apparently pushing his children out from the rigging to safety. The man’s body was found a mile and a half downstream.
The man was identified as Dr. Michael Dennington, 57, an ear, nose and throat specialist from the Aurora/Parker area who owned a vacation home near Almont.
Dennington’s wife, Dr. Cynthia Oberholtzer, told Gunnison County sheriff’s investigators that the incident occurred east of Cooper’s Ranch where the river divides into two channels. After initially choosing to navigate the western channel, Dennington changed his mind and began moving toward the eastern channel when the current forced the 14-foot inflatable pontoon boat into the island.
“He probably misjudged the current,” says Gunnison Sheriff’s Office investigator Bill Folowell, “and it’s very easy to misjudge if you haven’t been on the river when it’s this full. The river current took them into the log jam [at the head of the island] and flipped the raft.”
At the time of the accident, the Gunnison River near the city of Gunnison was flowing at a rate of around 3,800 cubic feet per second, or “bank-full,” according to data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey, with water temperatures near 40 degrees.
“Hypothermia would come on pretty quickly in those conditions, and they were really cold when we found them,” says Folowell.
According to Folowell, the raft was a 14-foot inflatable pontoon boat, typically used for river fishing, with heavy metal rigging that provided the oarsman’s seat and seating for the other four passengers as well as other equipment and a cooler, the weight of which contributed to trapping the family underwater.
“We heard from them that the children believed that someone was pushing them out from under the raft and we believe that that was their father,” says Folowell.
The three children were wearing life-vests, while neither Dennington nor his wife did, says Folowell.
After making their way to the river’s edge, Oberholtzer and three children, ages 8, 10 and 11, stopped a passing car and called 911 at around 2:30 p.m. They were treated for possible hypothermia and minor abrasions, which Folowell said were consistent with injuries that could have been sustained while escaping the logjam or walking to the road through heavy brush.
“The [National] Park Service and the swift water rescue team was a real help in this, and they had help from Scenic River Tours, which helped in the operation,” says Folowell. “The [National] Park Service had set up on the Lake City bridge and had the first sight of [Dennington’s] body and then made the recovery.”
The autopsy has been completed, says Gunnison County coroner Frank Vader, and confirmed suspicions of an apparent drowning, although Vader stressed that the conclusion of drowning came “because there wasn’t anything else going on and so that’s as close as we can get right now.”
This was the first fatality of the season on the Gunnison River.
With the variability in the weather, the rivers throughout the valley are running very high and very fast, but below flood stage, which gives people a false sense of security, says county emergency manager Scott Morrill.
“One of the things that is going to happen with runoff this year, if the weather does what it has been doing, is it is being extended instead of peaking high and fast. It is possible that we could see river levels as high as they are now through the end of June,” says Morrill.
“[Tuesday] the Gunnison River at Gunnison is running about 4,670 cfs and it looked like it peaked [Monday] night at around 4,900 cfs and flood stage is 7,200 cfs, so technically we’re still quite a ways from that,” he says.
The Department of Emergency Management has placed signs at many of the river put-ins in the area warning novice river runners that they should not be in the water.
“With the exception of the Taylor River, the high water changes the character of the river and you’ve got to be extra careful, with hazards being submerged or different than they would be in low water—the eddies that you thought were there are gone,” says Morrill.
“I heard a very experienced person say that it might look like class two or three water, but because of the conditions everything is going to be more intense, and so that class two or three might really be class three or four—and then throw in the heavy current and it can be a very dangerous situation,” says Morrill.