Gunnison River claims rafter's life Incident reported to be first of its kind since 1984
Times Staff Report
A family float trip down the Gunnison River turned tragic Saturday when 57-year-old Michael Dennington, who authorities say was not wearing a life jacket, apparently drowned after his raft overturned from striking an island in the river
According to a Gunnison County Sheriff's report, three kids and one other adult, Dennington's wife, Cynthia Oberholtzer Dennington, were able to swim to shore after the current swept them about a quarter mile downstream from where they were ejected. The kids were reported to be wearing life vests. All four survivors were treated and released from Gunnison Valley Hospital for multiple abrasions and hypothermia.
Dennington is a Front Range doctor who had a second home in Almont. Two of the children belonged to Dennington's wife -- boys, ages 8 and 10. The third child rafter, an 11-year-old girl, was said to be a family friend. The accident occurred in the normally placid stretch of the Gunnison River between McCabe's Lane and the inlet to Blue Mesa Reservoir, just west of the Cooper's Ranch picnic area -- underscoring the strength and severity of the river, which has swollen this spring from one of the largest runoffs in decades.
Bill Folowell, an investigator with the Gunnison County's Sheriff's Office, explained that the rafters were heading toward one channel of the river and then, changing their minds, attempted to manuever toward the other channel. The swiftness of the water pushed the raft into a log jam at the center of the island and the raft flipped over on top of the family. Folowell said the boat was heavy -- a 14 foot, high-side catamaran with attached frame, seats, oar locks and ice chests inside. "It was your typical fishing type of raft," he said.
The preliminary autopsy was consistent with drowning, Folowell said, but there were other factors as well, such as hypothermia. The water was at about 40 degrees (F), he said. Flows Saturday afternoon at the confluence of the Gunnison River and Tomichi Creek -- not far upstream from where the accident occurred -- are estimated to have been 4,233 cubic feet per second (cfs), according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey's gauging stations.
In comparison, the highest flows recorded so far this year were 6,113 cfs at the same location on May 22. Milt Voss of Gunnison was a "casual friend" of Dennington's. He estimated that he'd had his home in Almont for "10 or 12" years. "He was very nice, very friendly," Voss said. "He enjoyed coming up here on weekends."
JoAnn Stone, longtime emergency services official in Gunnison County, recalled this being the first rafting-related fatality in the local stretch of the Gunnison River since 1984. The water was so high that year that local law enforcement actually "closed down the river" for a short while, she explained. In some ways, this year's river conditions are even more dangerous, she explained, because of the amount of debris that is overhanging, or in the river due to the large snow accumulation in lower elevations this past winter. "There have been a lot of people who have been dumped this year who've either self-rescued or been assisted without calling 911," she noted.