Dumbing Down Adventure, or Saving Lives?

Northwest editor Michael Lanza explores the controversy behind removing a dangerous boulder from Idaho's Staircase Rapid—and comes up with a surprising result

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Staircase Rapid on Idaho’s South Fork Payette River may soon undergo a facelift, and the proposed surgery has spurred a vigorous debate about whether we should alter whitewater to make it safer. It has also instigated the predicable bleats of righteous indignation from the shirtless chest-beater set, who don’t yet know the difference between living fully and dying stupidly.

Controversies like this tend to represent larger ethical principles for many people who are passionate about their outdoor sport. For those of us who’ve lost a friend in an outdoor activity, these stories can also carry extra weight: a reminder of a loss that, maybe, was avoidable.

As reported recently in a story in High Country News, an outfitter proposed removing a large and dangerous boulder from the class III-IV Staircase Rapid, where a 45-year-old rafting guide named Dean Fairburn drowned in 2007. Although fatalities there are rare, close calls aren’t: 15 to 20 boats wrap on that boulder every season.

This situation isn’t unique. The HCN story also notes that last July, “23-year-old river guide Kimberly Appelson became the fourth person since 2000 to drown in a more notorious, natural sieve in Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado’s Arkansas River. This fall, officials there also considered tweaking the rapid to make it safer—rousing yet more debate.”

As the story points out, the boulder in Staircase Rapid isn’t natural: The Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed the rapid after a mudslide blocked the river in 2001. This fall, with the river level low, Tom Long, whose family operates Cascade Raft and Kayak, obtained a permit from the state to alter the rapid. This released a waterfall of comments from whitewater boaters, some of whom feel that humans shouldn’t engineer a rapid to suit their desires. Cascade Outfitters hosted a meeting Oct. 11, attended by more than 80 people. According to this blog post, Tom Long proposed an alternative to removing the rock: repositioning it to eliminate the dangerous sieve that creates the hazard. A show of hands reportedly found six people opposed to moving the rock, six undecided, and the great majority in favor of that plan.

Cynics might say that Tom Long was worried about his company’s liability in taking clients down that river, but I wouldn’t give that idea much play. I think he’s probably been around whitewater and Staircase Rapid for enough years to have seen too many accidents, and a few tragedies, that might have been avoided. He deserves credit for his sensible solution and the way he invited others to participate in the decision.

(Continue reading this entry on Michael Lanza’s The Big Outside blog.)

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