Accident Database

Report ID# 3396

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Body of missing Breckenridge rafter found in Arkansas River

By Janice Kurbjun
Frisco, CO
Thursday, October 28, 2010

BUENA VISTA — The body of a Breckenridge rafter missing since July was located by rescuers at about 1 p.m. Wednesday at Frog Rock rapid on the Arkansas River.  Kimberly Appelson was a first-year Arkansas Valley Adventures raft guide who was ejected from a raft during a private excursion July 11. Her body had remained trapped in the area since.

The body was found toward the center of the river in a 10x10-foot underwater cavern created by piled boulders. Divers entered the cavern through a 4x8-foot opening approximately 6 feet under the water's surface and below a boulder in the center of the river.

It was the first time anyone had seen the extent of what's below the surface at Frog Rock, said Rob White, park manager for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. (The hazard) seems a little worse than any of us thought it was,” he said, adding that boaters should run far left of the feature or portage it.

White said divers described the cavern as having slots high on its walls where water could exit. A diver with one of the teams saw debris in a slot and, upon removing several armfuls of branches, leaves and other debris, spotted the body. They were working in 35-40-degree water.The hypothesis is that Appelson was drawn into the sieve and then into the cavern through one of the slots before being pinned against a smaller slot through which water can flow.

The body now goes to the coroner for an autopsy and positive identification. White said the body is in good enough condition that an unofficial identification was possible. “Everyone is relieved,” White said. “It's a tragic situation. We're all reeling somewhat from the fatality, but everyone is relieved and happy the family can have closure.”

The search

Officials believed Appelson's body was located in or around a river feature known as a sieve, which works like a narrow tunnel of rocks funneling water and creating high pressures. About a week ago, they had used cadaver dogs to confirm for a third time the likelihood of finding the body there.

“They can smell the bubbles from the rapid,” White said. He added that two dogs were brought in from above, and they both zeroed in on the bubble line coming up from the sieve.

Several other efforts had previously been made to locate the body, including probing for two to three days immediately after the accident and about a month later when Bureau of Reclamation officials could drop river flows from 700 cubic feet per second to 160 cubic feet per second. Still, the current and flow prevented divers from safely navigating the feature. This week's operation was the last in the arsenal. It took about three weeks to implement from concept to active recovery.

On Tuesday, a cofferdam was built to divert water flow away from the sieve. An excavator moved riverbed material from the left side of the river into the center to divert water from its regular flow through the sieve. That riverbed material will be put back after the operation is complete.

The recovery search began on Wednesday morning with about 30 interagency workers staging the recovery area. Divers used an underwater camera to identify potential hazards to a dive operation. Though the cofferdam didn't create a dry riverbed, water was virtually still around the sieve and provided a safe place for divers to work.

White praised the effectiveness and safety of Wednesday's work, saying “it was perfect for a recovery effort.”

Three agencies split the cost of the recovery because the effort was not budgeted. Chaffee County Search and Rescue gave $3,000, the Bureau of Land Management contributed $2,500 and Colorado State Parks put in $3,200.

Several members of the rafting community have expressed relief at the recovery.

“I really appreciate the efforts of all the agencies who helped. They put such an effort in to find her even after the fact,” said Kaitlin O'Hara, Appelson's winter roommate in Breckenridge and a raft guide novice with a different company. O'Hara was among other guides who helped in the initial recovery effort in July.

“I'm relieved she's out of the river. Ultimately, that's what everyone wanted,” she said, though she added that she'd come to terms with Appelson not being found. “Kim and I had talked about it ... She always believed you go back to being an energy in the earth. If you have positive energy here, you become positive energy.”


Rafter, 23, missing in Arkansas River

The woman was thrown Sunday from a private vessel north of Buena Vista

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 12:00 am the Pueblo Chieftain


BUENA VISTA — Search and Rescue workers continued searching Tuesday for a 23-year-old Breckenridge woman who was thrown from a private raft into the Arkansas River north of here about 5:40 p.m. Sunday. Chaffee County Undersheriff Keith Pinkston said his office was called at 5:42 p.m. Sunday via a cell phone call reporting the accident which occurred near Frog Rock, two miles north of Buena Vista.

The raft was carrying five passengers when it entered the Frog Rock rapid and high-sided, ejecting two of the passengers. One male was able to pull himself back into the boat, but Kimberly Appelson was unable to make it back into the boat or to shore and the group lost sight of her. Appelson, who is reportedly a raft guide and strong swimmer, has not been seen since. She was wearing a flotation vest, but was not wearing a helmet, Pinkston said.

The river was running about 700 cubic feet per second in that area Sunday. A search was initiated Sunday involving Chaffee County sheriff's personnel, search and rescue workers and Colorado State Parks rangers as well as kayakers. The search continued through most of the day Monday. Searchers focused on a "hole" near Frog Rock where the current has washed previous river accident victims. Underwater cameras and probing poles were used while others walked the bank and used boats downriver to Buena Vista, without success. Tuesday's search involved divers who searched deeper holes in the river between Frog Rock and Buena Vista. Other occupants of the boat were identified as Rebecca Webb, 26, of Fort Collins; Matthew Weber, 25, of Fort Collins; Kyle Blakley, 23, of Boulder; and Jared Perrio, 24, of Lafayette, La.

Four other drowning deaths have been reported on the Upper Arkansas River this summer.


Search for missing rafter continues, intensifies

Audrey Gilpin - Mail Staff Writer

Colorado State Parks continued to search the Arkansas River for raft guide Kimberly Appelson of Breckenridge Thursday, and a "more intensive" search will continue today. Stew Pappenfort, senior ranger at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, said river technicians from Colorado State Parks and Chaffee County Search and Rescue and a special operations team from Summit County will help with the search today. Specially trained tracking dogs from Pueblo and a special camera on loan from Fremont County will be used, Pappenfort said.

Appelson, a first year guide with Arkansas Valley Adventures, was one of two passengers thrown from a private raft carrying five people near Frog Rock about two miles north of Buena Vista July 11. Fellow guides from AVA have volunteered to help with the effort. That segment of river where the incident occurred has been flowing less than 600 cubic feet per second this week. Signs posted before Frog Rock warn boaters there's danger of entrapment and to stay river left or portage the rapid. Pappenfort said the incident is still under investigation.

Breckenridge woman's body remains missing at deadly rapid

Parks ranger contemplates temporary dam

Robert Allen Summit County correspondent Vail, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado — Kimberly Appelson's body remains missing nearly two months after the 23-year-old Breckenridge woman fell off a raft into the Arkansas River. Her death and disappearance have brought into question a particularly hazardous feature of the Arkansas and how much should be done to alter a natural feature to make boating the area safer. The notorious underwater feature at Frog Rock rapid, about 2 miles north of Buena Vista, claimed another life despite efforts to make people more aware of the danger.

Appelson, an off-duty first-year rafting guide living in Breckenridge, fell in after the boat hit a rock the afternoon of July 11. At least six deaths have occurred at the area since 1990. A married couple, Jennifer Down-Knorr, 36, and Bernd Knorr, 39, died in the hazard together in August 2001, according to a Colorado State Parks incident report. Luca Angelescu, a 12-year-old boy, died there in July 2000. Items such as his lifejacket, his long-sleeve spraytop and his cotton T-shirt surfaced the evening he went missing, and his body was recovered the next day about 70 feet downstream, at the bottom of the river.

The deadly feature at Frog Rock is an underwater sieve, which works likes a narrow tunnel of rocks funneling water and creating high pressures. It's more easily avoided when the river flows above 1,000 cubic feet per second, but by mid- to late-summer it gets to about 700 cfs and becomes considerably more dangerous. “This is just really ridiculous that this is continuing,” Mara Frazier, Jennifer Down-Knorr's sister said shortly after the news about Appelson was published. “How many more people have to die?” Breckenridge woman's body remains missing at deadly rapid Parks ranger contemplates temporary dam


Body Recovery may take helicopter or new road

Robert Allen Summit County correspondent

Vail Daily, Vail, CO Colorado

The search to recover Appelson's body has involved free diving, underwater cameras, technical rope systems, boat systems, probes, reducing flows and bringing volunteers from neighboring counties. “We've just about used all the tricks in our book,” said Stew Pappenfort, senior ranger at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Flow levels were reduced to 160 cfs in mid-August, in an attempt to retrieve the body. Pappenfort said the current “still went right where we were trying to work.”

Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting company — where Appelson was employed — said the efforts are appreciated.“It's been a hard summer for us as a company, and we obviously want to see Kim come off the river,” he said. “The river has challenged us.” Pappenfort said a cofferdam is being considered to finally allow access to the body's likely location. This would involve bringing in a tracked excavator and building up a mostly rock and dirt dam to move the water away from the site. The expensive process would involve either building a road of about 100 yards from a nearby railroad track or using a National Guard helicopter to give the excavator access. Pappenfort said both options are open, and he's working on the logistics. Search dogs gave “very strong indications” of a scent in the area in previous weeks, and Pappenfort said he's “reasonably certain” that's where she is. He said the cofferdam is a “rarity,” but it's something people have used to locate bodies in other rivers. 

Ethics and manipulating nature

With heavy equipment so close to the deadly hazard, just eliminating it altogether might save some lives. “A lot of people say, ‘You've got a trackhoe in there, why not pick up the rock and get rid of it?'” Pappenfort said. “It's controversial ... How many people have fallen off one of the climbing faces at Rocky Mountain National Park or Yosemite?” He said the industry's general opinion is that “we don't take wild places and turn them into Disneyland scenarios.”

This certainly isn't Pappenfort's first recovery at the hazard in his more than 20 years of river work; he was involved with finding the bodies in both the 2000 and 2001 incidents. “My ethics as a manager are resistant to changing a natural feature,” he said. “However, my professional sensibilities — having been at Frog Rock way too many times already — say I'd rather not go back there again.”

Pappenfort has contacted river managers across the United States and Canada regarding the Arkansas hazard's removal, and he said some rivers have indeed been altered “for public safety.” While many river features can be the result of human development, this segment of the Arkansas is natural. Whitewater parks are built on rivers. But these are often restoration efforts that help slow the water's flow after people have tried to straighten them out. People developing communities by rivers had a tendency to manipulate them, he said.

Because the river is on U.S. Forest Service land, there would likely be a complex process to get permission to alter the natural feature. Noah Klug, an attorney in Breckenridge, said the situation appears to be one “more easily resolved through politics than through law.” Or perhaps rafting companies could take action to get it altered. Bradford said he's supportive of eliminating the hazard. “It needs to be done,” he said, adding that “with some minimal use of a backhoe” the flow could be altered away from the hazard. But liability issues do arise when a party makes an effort to change a feature. And many river enthusiasts could have ethical concerns. “It's a tough situation in a tough area,” Bradford said. “Any time you alter a river, I think everybody needs to think about it.”

Signs warn people from about 100 yards above Frog Rock to stay to the left side of the river. “The efforts after the first two instances we thought were working,” Pappenfort said. Nearly two months after Appelson went missing, the river's flows are waning and rafting companies are preparing to close for the season. Pappenfort said he anticipates ending the search that began July 11.


Naperville North grad still missing in Colorado rafting accident

By Christy Gutowski Daily Herald Staff

Kimberly Appelson lived just 23 years but, to those who loved her, the Lisle native's sense of humor, adventurous spirit and endless energy were unmatched. On Sunday, more than 200 people filled DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville for an emotional tribute to remember how Appelson lived, rather than her untimely death.

The raft guide went missing just before 6 p.m. July 11 after being ejected into the Arkansas River during an off-duty outing with four friends in Colorado State Parks. Authorities said the boat high-sided and Appelson fell into the river near a dangerous underwater hazard at the Frog Rock rapid, about 2 miles north of Buena Vista, in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

Her body still hadn't been recovered Monday, and recovery efforts were suspended for a few more weeks until the high water flows drop, said Tom Waters, assistant park manager. Waters said another member of Appelson's group also fell into the river, but he was able to grab on to the side and pull himself back into the boat. The group soon lost sight of Appelson, who was wearing a life vest but not a helmet.

Search techniques included divers, underwater cameras, probing poles, technical rope systems, and tracking dogs along the bank, but none led to Appelson's recovery, according to Chaffee County Undersheriff Keith Pinkston. Fellow guides from Arkansas Valley Adventures - the company Appelson worked for as a first-year raft guide - also volunteered to help in the search.

Deadly rapids on Arkansas River drive debate over removing hazards<

By Jason Blevins
The Denver Post
Posted: 10/04/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT

BUENA VISTA - During a Sunday-afternoon float down a stretch of the Arkansas River in mid-July, Kimberly Appelson tumbled from a raft in the seemingly innocuous Frog Rock rapids. Almost three months later, the 23-year-old's body remains trapped in an underwater cave clogged with wood.

Reaching her body, a priority for Arkansas River guardians who want to provide closure to Appelson's family, will require heavy equipment and major work in the riverbed. As officials ponder a temporary dam, diverting the river and clearing a deeper channel away from the fatal cavelike feature as part of the retrieval, they are mulling an even thornier ethical dilemma: the impulse to permanently alter the natural rapids, which

have claimed four lives since 1990.

"To make this spot less hazardous would certainly make my professional life more pleasant," said Stew Pappenfort, the senior ranger at Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area who has retrieved three bodies from the Frog Rock sieve since becoming a ranger in 1990. "However, changing wild places and natural places does not run with my particular environmental philosophy. There are camps on both sides of this issue, and I feel like I'm in both camps," he said.

In late September, Pappenfort and more than a dozen river officials gathered at the Frog Rock rapids, where a hollow- bottomed rock juts into the flow. Beneath that massive, tank- sized rock, in a submerged chamber where water flows through tight crevices and a tangle of driftwood, Appelson's body remains trapped. The first goal of the somber gathering was to study how to retrieve Appelson's body. The officials call her by name and rarely mention the word "body." It's just "reaching Kimberly" and "getting to Kimberly."

Other lives lost

In July 2000, 12-year-old Luca Angelescu fell from a raft and was trapped in the Frog Rock sieve, an underwater slot that allows water to pass but traps everything else. A year later in August, rafters Bernd Knorr, 39, and his wife, Jennifer, 36, drowned.

Today, a sign urges paddlers to walk around the rapids when flows do not allow passage through the left channel, away from the dangerous feature.

The river's managers hope to erect a temporary dam - possibly using concrete highway barriers - to divert flow away from the sieve and give divers a chance to reach Appelson.

There's plenty of red tape to go through before any work is done. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service would require some environmental analysis. The Army Corps of Engineers would need to approve the plan. Wildlife officials require protection for the river's brown trout. If all goes well, work would be done sometime this month.

As the group ponders the complicated details of recovery - it could include using a military helicopter to bring in a a 47,000-pound earth mover - talk turns to changing the rapids so they do not claim another life.

"Is it ethical, and if so, can we be effective?" Pappenfort asked.

Mike Harvey, a river engineer who builds whitewater parks across the country, thinks the rapids could be altered to lessen the fatal risk. "It's going to take a significant amount of disturbance to go in there and recover Kimberly. Why would anyone put the rapid back together the way it is?" asked Harvey, who is helping sketch plans to retrieve Appelson's body. "The impact is already there."

The best potential alteration at Frog Rock seems to be deepening the left channel to allow easier navigation in low water, letting rafters avoid the deadly sieve.

Still, questions linger. If officials make changes, could they be responsible for incidents at Frog Rock? "Where would it stop?"

With whitewater parks, which require significant changes to riverbeds, municipalities assume some responsibility, much as they do for ballfields and playgrounds. But what about a natural river in a remote setting? The law protects parks from liability involving injuries by a natural feature.

"But once you start altering it, maybe you can create grounds for suing," said Charlie Walbridge, a whitewater- safety expert with American Whitewater. "Once you start moving rocks around, before you know it, you can be redoing an entire rapid. Then where would it stop?"

But Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting company, said he's not sure the liability argument is reason not to proceed. "We change rivers all the time. I understand there is a line here, but it should be studied on a case-by-case basis," Bradford said. "All we want to do is create an ability for safer travel down the left side."

The fact that the rapids in question are rated Class III, rather than something more difficult where risk is part of the reward, should also be considered, said professional kayaker Jed Selby, who helped sculpt whitewater parks near his South Main residential development on the Arkansas River. "I'd feel a lot differently if this was a Class V rapid," he said. "Class III does not share the same risk and commitment level. I just want people to have a safe and fun time on the river when possible, especially tourists in Class III."

While Pappenfort is unwavering in his push to retrieve Appelson from the water - in 20 years of river rangering, "I've never left anyone in the river," he said - he is less certain he should alter the rapids to protect future paddlers. He fears that an alteration of the Frog Rock rapids in the name of safety could set the stage for river-tweaking action every time someone drowns, or worse, it could send a message that the Arkansas is virtually free from danger, like a roller-coaster ride.

"I would hate to give the impression that any spot on the river is safe. I don't even like to use that word. It's either more hazardous or less hazardous," Pappenfort said. "It's a slippery slope, and to not go sliding down it is the object here."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or

Read more: Deadly rapids on Arkansas River drive debate over removing hazards - The Denver Post<

Re: Deadly rapids on Arkansas River drive debate over removing hazard

Posted by: "Ben Waller" ben_waller_hhifr

Mon Oct 4, 2010 2:40 pm (PDT)

This is a very similar problem to the Rachael Trois recovery on the Chattooga a few years ago. There are ways to do the recovery without altering the rapid and without undue risk to rescue personnel. The likely best way is to avoid anything that alters the rapids. Altering the bedrock in rapids has the potential to create a more serious hazard than just leaving it alone. Getting the wood out is a different story. Some may disagree, but if the wood adds to a life safety hazard in a frequently-run rapid like this one, then getting the wood out is preferable to the alternatives.

Getting the wood out may also help make the body recovery more practical.

Most unfortunately, some of the best ways to recover a body in this type of situation involve waiting until the water is low enough to reduce safety hazards to rescuers and to increase the chances of a successful recovery.

The bottom line is that recovering the body and getting closure for the family are important. Keeping the rescuers safe and avoiding rapid alterations that may accidentally make the rapid less safe are even more important.

Ben Waller


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