Uriah Shaffer wanted his ashes spread on the Crystal River, according to his friend David Ockers, who was with the 39-year-old Carbondale man when the river claimed his life this spring.
“He went out doing what he loved in a place he loved,” Ockers said in an interview Friday.
Shaffer had introduced Ockers to kayaking in 2002, years into a friendship that started at Colorado State University, where both majored in construction management. He loved to kayak and ski, and played guitar despite having lost pieces of several fingers in a childhood accident.
He grew up in Delta County, went to middle school at Orchard Mesa in Grand Junction and graduated from Fruita High school in the class of 1993. After college, he returned to the Western Slope and was working on being closer to his family and had many friends in the Grand Junction area, but had been staying with Ockers in the Roaring Fork Valley off and on for several years.
Ockers described him as a dancing fool, poetic songwriter, great joke teller, Broncos fan and “the kind of guy people meet one time and never forget.”
“Uriah was fully alive,” Ockers said. “He had the kind of energy people could feed off of.”
Like most people, Shaffer had his share of ups and downs but had reached a good place. He had a chance to ski last winter and was enthusiastic to have a crew to go kayaking with in the summer.
On the afternoon of May 31, Shaffer, Ockers and two other experienced kayakers dropped their camping gear at Bogan Flats Campground and set out to get a run through Bogan Canyon, a Class 4 white-water run, before dark. The water was rising toward its annual peak at over 2,000 cubic feet per second. Without commercial outfits on the route to manage it, a lot of wood was in the water.
Shaffer was leading the pack when he caught the edge of his boat and flipped. He tried to roll upright but ended up in the water.
“It’s not a good place to swim,” Ockers said.
Ockers followed Shaffer downstream for a few hundred yards before losing track of him. The other two kayakers arrived at the scene and spotted Shaffer caught in a “strainer” of debris. Ockers, thinking the situation was in hand, went to chase Shaffer’s gear. When he returned an hour later, empty-handed, he found out otherwise.
According to an accident report one of the other kayakers posted on mountainbuzz.com, a white-water community website, the pair tried to pull Shaffer out of the strainer but had trouble getting a grip. Shaffer’s foot was caught between two logs, and eventually the current pulled him under.
“After a certain amount of time they knew he was gone,” said Ockers.
It was near dark by the time rescue crews arrived, summoned on a landline in an area with no cell service. The search continued until high water and lack of light postponed it until morning.
Ockers made the trip down to cell reception to call Shaffer’s father, and several members of Shaffer’s family showed up on Sunday.
The search ultimately yielded Shaffer’s life jacket and helmet, but no sign of the man himself.
Shaffer’s friends assisted in the search over the next few days, and solicited help from other kayakers on mountainbuzz.
“Kayakers go where others can’t go,” Ockers said. “That’s one of the reasons we do the sport.”
He added that his main concern at the time was the safety of the searchers.
“You have to keep yourself above water to be able to help anybody,” he explained.
Ultimately, the high water made the search untenable, and it was abandoned until levels came down.
Although Shaffer was an experienced kayaker and was a wearing a life jacket, the tragedy has been a reminder of the risks associated with river recreation. It hasn’t kept Ockers off the river this summer.
“Everybody that does it knows that it’s dangerous,” he admitted, “but it’s been part of me for so long.”
When the search resumed in late July, Ockers couldn’t join due to an injury. A pair of skilled kayakers from Gunnison County located the body against a bridge piling downstream on July 26, and a Carbondale rescue crew helped remove it. It provided closure for grieving friends and family.
The family has requested that memorial contributions can be made in Shaffer’s name to the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, a move Ockers supports. He got to know many of the firefighters during the rescue effort, and gained a great deal of respect for them and the profession.
“It takes strong men and women, mentally and physically,” he said. “They’re really good people.”