Case Study: A River Trip

October 1, 2016

River Rafting

A Case Study: Risk Management on the Colorado River

How does this trip compare to adventures that you have taken?

Paddling Trip on the Colorado River below the Hoover Dam

Trip Description

The put in for the Black Canyon of the Colorado River is directly below the Hoover Dam. Paddling ½ river mile puts the group out of sight of the Hoover Dam. The section is 12 miles and will be explored over 4 days/3 nights. The river has a median flow of 7000 cubic feet per second (CFS). At median flow levels, the river is swift moving flat water with a few ripples. The group is planning to camp at Mile 2, Mile 4, and Mile 11. Each camp offers side canyon hiking and hot springs. The group is properly equipped with their personal gear and group gear which includes boats, boating safety gear, kitchen, food, water, tents, and bathroom system. The take out is planned for a reservoir 12 miles downriver. There are no bailout options.

  1. Do you have any thoughts or concerns relative to the trip description?

The Group

The paddling trip was led by 6 experienced paddlers. The group was a collection of friends totaling in 20 adults. There were no medical conditions reported except dietary needs including vegetarian, vegan, and dairy free. In each canoe there was at least one experienced paddler, if not both. About half of the group members had paddled this section of the Colorado River prior to the trip. This was the 4th Annual Black Canyon trip.

  1. Based on the description above, what if any concerns might you have about this particular group?

Actual conditions: Day 1

On the day of the launch, the 3-day forecast called for daytime highs in the 90s and clear and nighttime lows in 70s. The river was flowing from 8000 – 10,000 CFS. The group launched from the put in at 11AM. At 12PM all boats have traveled down river out of sight of the Hoover Dam and are beached on a sandy spit on river right. The group enjoys lunch before continuing downriver to Mile 2 Camp. By 3PM all boats have arrived at camp. At 5PM camp is set up including kitchen, tents, and bathroom.

Day 2: Part 1

Camp is awake and moving at 700AM. At 730AM a group member realized that only 9 canoes are down at the river. The group leaders quickly decide two boats with ride with 3 paddlers down to the next camp. Before paddling for the day, the group splits up into smaller hiking groups to explore the side canyon and hot springs. All groups are carrying water and vary in size from 2 – 6 people. Leaving camp between 8AM and 10AM, the groups are spread throughout the 1.5 mile side canyon. At 2PM after returning to camp from a side canyon hike, a group of 4 paddlers push off from Mile 2 Camp for Mile 4 Camp.

  1. Based on the details of the trip thus far, what are your impressions?

Day 2: Part 2

The two canoes paddle close together as the move down river. ½ mile from Mile 2 Camp, the canoes pull over on river left. At 3PM, 3 additional canoes launch from Mile 2 Camp. All 5 canoes gather together on river left. The group moves downstream together. 1 canoe paddles down river ahead of the group. As the river bends to the left, the paddlers in the lead canoe spot a considerable wave train. The paddlers yell to notify the following boats of the whitewater. At 330PM, the lead boat paddles into the wave train with the bow of the canoe perpendicular to the wave while paddling strongly downriver. The canoe safely exits the wave train to river left. The canoe paddles to the shore. A second canoe is paddling through the wave train as the paddlers of the lead canoe move up the shore to set safety for the following boats. The paddlers see some debris floating downstream and then two swimmers and lastly a capsized canoe. The paddlers, become rescuers, signal for the swimmers to swim to shore. The second canoe, still upright and in the water, paddles downstream to collect gear.

Rescuer #1 releases a throw bag to the swimmers. Neither swimmer is able to reach the throw bag. The swimmers continue moving across the river but also down river. The rescuer recoils and throws the bag again this time reaching one swimmer. Both swimmers make it into the safety eddy on river left. The rescuers swim out to meet them. All four swim 50 feet back to shore together. The swimmers are exhausted.

  1. List your concerns at the present moment.

At 3:50PM, paddlers from the 4th and 5th canoes arrive by foot at the shore where rescuers are assessing the swimmers. The 4th and 5th canoes, upon seeing the 3rd canoe capsize, decided to pull over on river left before running the wave train. The paddlers of the 4th and 5th canoe walk along the river bank to find the rest of the group. The rescuers assess the swimmers and find no health concerns. At a similar time, paddlers of the gear retrieval and 2nd canoe, return with some pieces of gear. It is concluded that the group has a total loss of: 2 canoes [1 from prior in the day, 1 from the capsize], 1 stove, and some personal gear.

  1. As a group leader, what would you prioritize?


A group leader with the help of group members, decides to set up camp for the evening at the current location in order to minimize risk for the remainder of the day. Paddlers from the 4th and 5th canoes are able to make it back up river by way of land in time to notify the remaining boats of the whitewater section. The canoes pull over to river left. All canoes are unloaded of their gear and portage the gear to the selected campsite ½ mile down river. Once the canoes are unloaded, the paddlers move through the wave train to the safety eddy on river left. Of the 7 canoes to still move through the wave train, 6 canoes paddle through successfully. 1 canoe capsizes but with other group members setting safety downstream, the canoe and paddlers are safely and quickly rescued from the river. The group brainstorms a solution to their lost stove dilemma; cooking over a fire.

On Day 3, departing at 11AM, the group paddles 8 canoes to Mile 11 Camp. They do not experience any whitewater sections on this portion of the river. The group arrives and sets up camp at 1PM. All group members agree to stay at camp for the afternoon. At 6PM, the group prepares dinner over a campfire once again. On Day 4 the group paddles 1 mile downriver to the take out at the reservoir. While unloading the gear and boats to the trailer, a few group members walk the perimeter of the reservoir and are able to locate 1 of the 2 missing canoes and 1 bag of personal gear.

What are your overall impressions of the incident? What are the primary lessons learned from your perspective? How common do you think this scenario is on a private river trip?


  1. Do you have any thoughts or concerns relative to the trip description?
  • Days v. Distance – Lots of time for not many miles.
  • River Flows – Depending on low, median, or high flows, how does the river change?
  • Campsites – Are there other options?
  • No bailout option except put in and take out.
  1. Based on the description above, what if any concerns might you have about this particular group?
  • Group Leaders – 6 is a lot of people to be collectively leading.
  • Group Size – 20 is a lot of people to manage.
  • Group Cohesion – How do you set norms, boundaries, and expectations for the group?
  • 4th Annual Trip – The group could become complacent.
  1. Based on the details of the trip thus far, what are your impressions?
  • CFS – The river is flowing higher than average.
  • Missing Boat – What happened to the canoe?
  • Decision Making – The group leaders make a quick decision without considering other options.
  • Group Separation – Why is the group separated throughout the day without check-ins? Who has first aid kits?
  1. List your concerns at the present moment.
  • Other boats – Where are the remaining 5 canoes?
  • Swimmers – Are the people physically okay?
  • Gear – Is there any important gear lost in the river?
  1. As a group leader, what would you prioritize?
  • Communication – Notifying the other members up river of the wave train in order to minimize further problems.
  • Risk Management – Determine the best way to move people, gear, and boats downstream given the unexpected whitewater.
  • Camp – Select the best option to set up camp for the night; current location or planned Mile 4 Camp.
  • Kitchen – Without the stove, brainstorming options to feed a group a 20 people.


What are your overall impressions of the incident?

  • The group was fortunate that all minor incidents/opportunities for incidents did not develop into major incidents that might require evacuation and assistance from outside help.

What are the primary lessons learned from your perspective?

  • It is important to make plans and share plans with the entire group.
  • Stay together; do not separate from the group.
  • Consider the ways in which conditions can change the experience, ie: river level and rapids.

How common do you think this scenario is on a private river trip?

  • Capsized boats on river trips are common enough that every person traveling on the river should get training on what to do if your boat capsizes.

Remember there are many way to manage risk when traveling outdoors.

  1. Proceed with the activity as planned.
  2. Modify the activity in order to reduce risk.
  3. Avoid the risk by not doing it.

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Lindsey Mersereau

Lindsey Mersereau is the Leadership Training Assistant at the Appalachian Mountain Club.