For a long time, the people who launched themselves down whitewater rapids were stupid or crazy or courageous.
Without a clue as to what might lie around the next bend, men like the bearded, one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell would ride wooden dories, full-speed-ahead-and-damn-the-waterfalls, down rivers such as the Colorado. That people would die was a given--the price of purposeful adventure.
After World War II, a handful of recreational thrill seekers decided that the adrenaline high of rodeo rapids was worth the clear threat to life and limb. As equipment improved, though, the danger in whitewater rafting dropped dramatically, and in the last 15 or 20 years hundreds of commercial outfitters have opened shop, catering to people who wouldn't be caught dead risking their lives.
Last year, however, turned out to be the best and worst of times for the booming sport. More people than ever tried it. And more than anyone can remember got killed. Now the issue of acceptable risk is again roiling in the minds of some river enthusiasts.
The biggest shock came last summer, when, within six weeks, 11 people, including five of the top executives in American advertising, died in highly publicized accidents on rivers in British Columbia. At least another four people died that summer on other commercial trips across the United States.
This year's death count began in California last April, when a boat on a Wild Water West trip slammed into a rock and "reverse wrapped" on the challenging North Fork of the popular American River.
In that incident, the guide and passengers were momentarily pinned between the boulder and their raft. Wedging himself between the boat and the stone obstacle, the guide enabled most of the rafters either to scramble onto the protruding boulder or flush free of the raft, which was pinned vertically by the current. Other guides on shore and in boats rescued those passengers as they tumbled down Staircase rapid.
But, according to a spokesperson for the company and a report filed with the Placer County Coroner's office, one man remained trapped between the raft's inflated rubber tubes and an undercut in the rock.
32-Year-Old Man Drowns
Rescuers apparently did everything by the book, slashing the inflated tubes with knives and quickly hauling the boat off the rock with lines. But when they extricated 32-year-old Ali Unutkan of Newark, Calif., seven or eight minutes later, he had drowned.
He was the third rafter to die on that stretch of river in just over a year--the second to be killed on that exact rock.
There are a lot of reasons why people die on rivers, the most important of which may seem the most obvious: Rivers are dangerous.
The piecemeal statistics available suggest that rafters on commercial trips are much safer than people on private raft trips, and that they have a much greater chance of whacking themselves in the head with their own paddle or spraining an ankle playing Frisbee on shore than they do of getting hurt running a rapid.
But experienced river guides warn that the very slight objective danger in the sport is compounded by the contradictory belief of a new breed of thrill seekers--that adventure can be risk-free.
"The river industry is growing at a rate of 20% a year, and (injuries and fatalities) are going down," said Sherry Griffith, a veteran Utah river guide and president of Western River Guides Assn., which represents about 200 river outfitters in 12 Western states.
She added, though, that while whitewater rafting once attracted only "real outdoorsy adventure seekers," in the past few years "people who've never been camping in their lives" have been hopping into outfitters' rubberized-oar or paddle-powered rafts for trips of a few hours or a few weeks, sometimes on "Class IV" rivers that were "unrunnable" only a few years ago.
"I think part of the risk is (the result of) people not taking responsibility for themselves. . . ," Griffith said. And no matter how well-organized a trip, how well-trained a guide, and how harmless and meandering a river's currents might be, a passenger's life is ultimately in his or her own hands, she and other guides said.
Complete statistics on rafting are hard to come by, since different rivers are regulated by a variety of agencies, ranging from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service and even the Coast Guard, on the federal level, to various state and county agencies locally.
In the East, where the industry is expanding less rapidly than in the West, visitors last year spent more than 600,000 days on the 12 major rivers served by the 55 outfitters belonging to the Eastern Professional River Outfitters Assn., said David Brown, executive director of that organization. About 2,000 guides ran the trips, which brought in about $30 million in gross revenues for the member rafting companies, he said.