Stand-up paddler dies Saturday on Arkansas River, marking
Colorado’s eighth water death of the season. Michael James, 40, of Boulder, was
last seen in the Buena Vista whitewater park before his body was found
By Jason Blevins - the Colorado Sun
BUENA VISTA — “Dude, that guy has been surfing all day
long,” said Jon Donaldson as we kayaked through the Buena Vista whitewater park
late Saturday afternoon. “I bet he’s tired.”
The music was blaring from the town park. A beer fest was in
full swing. And this guy was still shredding the wave at the park’s Staircase
rapid. We had surfed with him several hours earlier. As the afternoon waned, he
was among only a few paddlers left in the park after a long, busy day on the
The man had spent the day cheering everyone on the wave. He
was riding a locally designed Badfish river surf board, with a bamboo paddle
made by Grass Sticks in Steamboat Springs. He was well-equipped, with a
personal flotation device, helmet and wetsuit.
I remember he had a beard. I never asked him his name. He
would hoot and holler whenever someone found their feet after struggling in the
surging rapid. At one point, an empty kayak floated through the park and he
joined another surfer to retrieve the boat and drag it to shore.
We had seen Michael James, 40, surfing around 4:30 p.m. on
Saturday. A few minutes later police started fielding 911 calls from people
around the river park about a man swept downstream. A news release from the
Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday said rescuers pulled James’ body onto
a beach several miles downstream just above the put-in for Browns Canyon.
River managers and search-and-rescue personnel spent
Saturday night trying to piece together the events that led to James’ death
after surfing in a whitewater park. “Apparently folks heard him yelling for
help,” said Rob White, park manager of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
“People were running along shore with a throw bag but they were unable to catch
up with him. The vegetation on shore prevented them from throwing the throw bag
The Buena Vista whitewater park offers several manmade
features that draw dozens of kayakers and surfers every weekend.
On Saturday, a steady stream of surfers took turns on the
Staircase wave while the kayakers spun in the competition hole rapid just below
the Surf Hotel. Downstream of the comp hole is a stretch of difficult
whitewater. The river was high on Saturday, running close to 4,000
cubic-feet-per-second just below Buena Vista.
Downstream of the rapids below the Surf Hotel, a paddler in
an inflatable kayak was waiting for a shuttle at the Wilderness Aware raft
launch just upstream of the U.S. Highway 285 bridge over the Arkansas River. He
saw James and his board float by, White said. “He was not responsive at all,”
The man in the inflatable kayak paddled to catch up with
James and struggled to pull him to shore in the swift river. A private
landowner upstream of the Browns Canyon put-in called police to report a body
hung up in wood on the river right side, White said.
A few minutes later James’ body washed out of the strainer
and rescue personnel were able to pull him to shore at the River Runners
rafting compound. The Chaffee County Sheriff’s statement said he was pronounced
dead at 5:50 p.m.
The sheriff’s office said James was from Boulder. White said
he had taken a lesson from RMOC two weeks earlier, but White was not sure if it
was a beginner or intermediate lesson. He was a solid surfer, from what I saw
on Saturday, able to get on the wave using both a paddle or paddling with his
With so many paddlers in the water, it’s easy to think of
whitewater parks as maybe a bit safer than the natural river, with lots of
people ready to help a struggling swimmer. It’s unclear how no one was able to
chase the man after he missed two critical eddies to escape the current before
swimming through the rapids below the park.
“It’s just a very, very bad deal,” White said. “He was
probably tired and missed an eddy and maybe ingested some water. Who knows.
It’s just so sad.”
BY The Associated Press
June 30, 2019
BENA VISTA, Colo. (AP) — A man who was paddle boarding on
Colorado’s Arkansas River is dead after being swept away in the swift water.
The Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office says 40-year-old Michael Robert James of
Boulder fell off his paddle board in Buena Vista’s river park and was unable to
get back on Saturday. Other boaters tried to rescue him both initially and
downstream but weren’t able to because of the fast-moving water. The office
said one boater accompanied James to the shore at a rafting outfitter about an
hour and a half later. Emergency crews and others helped pull him out but James
was already dead.