‘Clear Creek is not a lazy river for a long ride’

Tubing on Clear Creek offers fun, but precautions must be taken

Posted 8/1/17

On July 23, while enjoying a family outing that included tubing down Golden’s Clear Creek, Chance Baker experienced the scariest moment of his life.

“We almost drowned,” he said. “Thank God for the people of Golden, or the people who were …

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‘Clear Creek is not a lazy river for a long ride’

Tubing on Clear Creek offers fun, but precautions must be taken

Posted

On July 23, while enjoying a family outing that included tubing down Golden’s Clear Creek, Chance Baker experienced the scariest moment of his life.

“We almost drowned,” he said. “Thank God for the people of Golden, or the people who were there, that helped pull my daughter out. It was so heroic and brave of them to help us.”

That Sunday, Baker, his wife Aui and 8-year-old daughter Taren traveled from Colorado Springs to spend the day in Jefferson County. They checked out Dinosaur Ridge, then headed into Golden for some tubing fun on Clear Creek.

Baker rented a tube for him and Taren to share, and a life jacket for Taren. Aui found a park bench to sit on, and a couple of feet upriver from her, Baker and Taren got in the tube in a shallower part of the river.

“It was going good for the first 20 or 30 feet,” Baker said. “We waved at Mommy as we floated by.”

But soon after, the tube hit a dip, then a rock and started spinning in a current. Baker jumped out to guide the tube to shore, but the water was deep and he went under. Taren fell through the middle of the tube, but managed to hold on with Baker holding her up from below.

“The current was so strong. I fought so hard to try to keep her head above water,” Baker said. “When I got my head out of the water, I started yelling for help.”

Baker pushed the tube — with Taren still clinging to it — close enough to the bank where bystanders could help her out of the river. When he saw her standing onshore, he made his way to a shallower area and stabilized himself on his knees.

“We survived,” Baker said, “but it was an ordeal.”

Consistent runoff keeps river fast

Tubing on Clear Creek is a popular recreational activity that attracts people from all over the Denver-metro area. But what starts off as a fun outing can easily end up being a trip to the emergency room, Golden Fire Chief John Bales said.

“Even the most experienced people can get into trouble in Clear Creek,” Bales said. “It can be dangerous, even when the water’s not too high.”

This year, the fire department has received a slightly higher number of swift water calls, possibly because of a more consistent runoff than in previous years, Bales said.

Swift water calls are not always a drowning situation, Bales said, and could be anything from a missing person who was later found safe, to a person stuck on the far side of the shore who can’t get back across, or even a kayak or tube that floated down the river after the person fell off.

“But when the water’s running high, we don’t rescue things,” Bales said, “only people.”

As of July 31, Bales reported there have been 37 swift water calls — 12 of those incidents that required a rescue or aid to water-related injuries.

Nahomi Mendoza, 19, of Denver has owned her double tube for about year. She has been tubing on Clear Creek a few times since she bought it.

On July 29, she brought a group of five friends including Yueh Lin, 18, of Denver who had never gone tubing before.

“It’s really fun,” Lin said. “A little intense, but I liked it.”

The two didn’t feel they needed life jackets because they’re both strong and experienced swimmers, but Mendoza added that children should always wear one when tubing.

“The water can kind of take you away,” she said, “and it’s hard to stop.”

Mendoza said she did wish she had brought her water shoes because sandals are easy to lose and the rocks are sharp.

“Clear Creek is pretty safe,” Mendoza said. “Just beware of the rocks.”

Clear Creek ‘not a lazy river’

But local emergency personnel and river sport enthusiasts emphasize that Clear Creek isn’t a slow, gentle river ride.

Clear Creek in downtown Golden is a swift-moving river that has some man-made attractions built for kayaking. Depending on water level, it has Class 2 and 3 rapids, said Bart Pinkham, an experienced whitewater kayaker and owner of Golden River Sports. 

Golden River Sports has been renting tubes for four years, but has been advocating whitewater safety since 2004 when the shop opened. Every tube rental comes with a life jacket, and helmets are available for an additional fee.

“Clear Creek is not a lazy river for a long ride,” Pinkham said. “You won’t have control when you’re in a tube, and it will go with the current.”

The measurement used to determine a river’s flow is cubic feet per second, which through gauges along the river, indicates how much water is moving past a given point. The higher the cubic feet per second, the higher the flow. Generally, higher flows mean a more exciting and challenging rafting or kayak trip, but makes a river more dangerous for swimming and tubing.

Clear Creek peaks out at about 1,000 to 2,000 cubic feet per second, Pinkham said. Golden River Sports will not start renting tubes until the water is below 700 cubic feet per second. In addition, any one under 18 must have an accompanying parent to rent, and Golden River Sports will not rent to anyone under 18 — regardless of whether a parent is there — if the river is not at or below 500 cubic feet per second. The shop also does not recommend that anyone 10 or younger rent a tube if the water is above 200 cubic feet per second.

This week, the water level is running at 300 cubic feet per second, Pinkham said.

Kayakers, because of their experience with whitewater, are great allies in responding to emergencies on the river, Bales said. They almost always carry a throw bag, a piece of safety equipment used to help rescue a person. They also can extend their paddles to pull someone to safety.

“It’s not uncommon for kayakers to come to the rescue,” Bales said, “and we (the fire department) may not even hear anything about the incident.”

Additionally, Golden’s park rangers are cross-trained with the fire department to be first responders to any swift water-related emergency.

“They are the eyes on the creek. They walk up and down it all day long,” Bales said. But “when an emergency hits, we’re all on the same team.”

Golden River Sports fields many questions from people renting tubes, both from first-timers to those with some experience.

“Everybody has a different idea of what they think it will be like,” Pinkham said. “We try to explain what they’re getting into.”

But he recommends that anyone considering tubing first take a walk along the creek and watch other tubers.

“If it seems scary, wait until another time when the river is lower so you can have fun,” Pinkham said. “Because it’s meant to be fun — but you’ve got to do it safely.”

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