The call of the cool waters of the Rio Grande recently has brought to its shores people launching swimming pool floats… flotation devices utterly unsuitable for river rafting. Some haven’t worn life vests, something required by state law. The result? Urgent calls to Corrales Fire Department and Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue, who aided people who had become stranded or injured while attempting to float down the river. The combined efforts of Corrales and Rio Rancho personnel rescued two people May 7, one of whom had a minor injury, and five people on June 2.
Corrales Commander Tanya Latin reported that although the water flow in the river has yet to reach peak run-off flows, the Rio Grande still poses a significant danger to boaters, rafters and swimmers. That’s especially true for people not using kayaks, canoes, actual rafts or shallow-bottom boats, for example, since those crafts are created for use in moving water, usually equipped with paddles or oars for steering around obstacles.
If you cannot steer, you are more likely “to be hung up on trees or caught in hidden debris under the water,” Lattin said. Fire-rescue personnel from both Corrales and Rio Rancho have witnessed many people using the river not only with inappropriate flotation devices, but also without wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) or life jackets.
Rafters and others are risking injury or death by not wearing those. When rescuers reach the river, they are often faced with adults and frightened children hanging on to branches of downed trees, or stuck on a sandbar, unable to cross the moving water. Firefighters often must deploy boats and kayaks to shuttle them to safety on shore. In extreme situations, rescue personnel may have to swim to victims, which puts these first responders in danger.
“People underestimate the power of water,” said Paul Bearce, fire chief for Rio Rancho. “Even moderate flow rates can knock down an adult and hold them under the water,” he added.
Recreational swimming in the river is firmly discouraged. You can be caught and dragged under the water by the current, and torn up by debris hidden below. Both departments have responded to injured boaters this year, and recovered drowned bodies in years past.
As Corrales Fire Chief Anthony Martinez put it, “While my crews have had to assist seven people to safety so far this season, all of whom were using pool floats, you can still end up needing to be rescued.”
Even if wearing a life vest and paddling a kayak, stay alert, note the flow of the river and also observe the river-mile markers along the Rio Grande’s west bank, from the Highway 550 bridge, south through Albuquerque. Knowing your location on the river if you need to call for assistance greatly helps responders locate you.