Ridgway residents Steven Johnson and Ted Yoder started their trip in a traditional canoe at the Specie boat ramp located two miles below Placerville. For experienced boaters, the San Miguel River at the time was at the perfect flow – not too high, not too low. The river had already reached peak run-off earlier in the month, at about 1,100 cubic-feet-per-second, and was around 700 that day.
For Johnson and Yoder, the problems began immediately after launching, when their canoe rapidly filled up with splashing water, swamping the boat and causing it to overturn a number of times.
About two-and-a-half miles downstream, the flooded canoe overturned again, tossing Yoder and Johnson into the river. Yoder was able to swim to the right river bank and grab hold, but was unable to spot Johnson. Worse yet, the canoe was pinned on an undercut cliff, where it was possible Johnson was. Fearing the worst, Yoder walked to reach Hwy. 62, which runs parallel with the river at this point, where he flagged down a motorist and called the sheriff’s department. That’s when the San Miguel Search and Rescue volunteers went into action.
Bill Glasscock, the lead swift-water rescue technician for San Miguel Search and Rescue, dispatched his team immediately upon receiving the dispatch from the sheriff’s office; because his kayaking gear and raft were already with him, Glasscock was able to go straight to the river and assess the situation.
Glasscock’s first concern was to clear the capsized canoe to make sure the missing Johnson wasn’t pinned against the undercut rock.
“We wanted to make sure there was nobody trapped in the canoe,” Glasscock said in an interview Tuesday. “I put on my kayaking gear and two of us worked the left side of the river. Telluride Outside guide John Warren, who was helping us in his off-duty time, gave us a valuable assist.”
To make sure Johnson wasn’t pinned in the boat, Glasscock performed a “live-bait swim” to the canoe, in which he swam toward the undercut cliff (and pinned canoe) while tied to a rope. By performing this dangerous maneuver, Glasscock could ascertain that Johnson was not pinned in the canoe; he went on to tie a rope to the canoe and pull it off the undercut cliff.
At this point, other members of the search and rescue team had arrived and launched a raft to begin a search of the river corridor downstream of the canoe. Tom Meehan of Norwood added eyes in the sky, providing aerial support with his Cessna. The team searched the banks of the river clear for approximately 10 miles, all the way down to the Norwood bridge.
As dusk set in, the search and rescue team members were discussing the various search options when a call came in from a sheriff’s deputy that Johnson had been found, with only minor scrapes and cuts, at the Specie put-in where the two had started their trip.
According to Sergeant Michael Westcott of the San Miguel Sheriff’s Department, Johnson, after falling out of the canoe, floated further downstream than Yoder, then climbed onto the river’s left bank, then climbing another approximately 800 feet up a steep embankment to the top of Specie Mesa and back to the put-in.
“One of our officers pulled into the Specie Creek boat ramp and found an individual standing in the road with a lifejacket on.” Westcott said. “It turned out that he grabbed a branch on the bank of the river and pulled himself out and hiked straight up one side of the canyon – clear to the top of the mesa and then back down to Specie Creek. I am guessing he probably walked upwards of around five miles.”
After a quick check from paramedics, Johnson was cleared and reunited with his friends. For Glasscock, this rescue mission was an example of how well-trained the rescue team is and how quickly the volunteers drop everything to help people in need.
“The search was anything but frantic,” Glasscock said. “It was very organized. Our turnout was excellent, we had somewhere around a dozen volunteers on the search. Our team has a core of longtime and dedicated volunteers that are highly qualified and great people.
“Our coordination with the sheriff’s department was excellent. We are all outdoor enthusiasts, and our skill comes from practical knowledge from being outdoors. We believe in community involvement and this is our way of giving back to our community.”
For Glasscock, there was one shortfall regarding this particular mission, and that was the fact that the searchers weren’t thinking big enough in their search when it proved that Johnson had gone outside of search parameters.
“The one shortcoming for us was the expanded parameter,” he said. “When looking for people in parameters, these people can blow your mind. We always say, ‘Remember the 9-year-old who walked ten miles over night on rugged terrain.’” Of Johnson, Glasscock said, “He went so far out of the river corridor and went so far out of my personal river search, I was not thinking wide enough. He went up 800 feet up a steep hillside and then walked across the mesa. He took our parameters of search and blew it off the chart.”
If Johnson would have stayed on the banks of the river, he would have been found in a shorter amount of time, it seems.
Glasscock added that those planning to recreate on whitewater rivers should gain some knowledge before attempting to do so.
“If you don’t have river knowledge, go with people who have the knowledge,” he said. “There are a lot of venues out there that can teach people hot to become good boaters. Sign up for a swift-water class; our local outfitters offer great pricing on river trips. If you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors, get your Colorado Search and Rescue Card.”
Funds from the sale of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card go towards the state’s Search and Rescue Fund, which then reimburses teams like the San Miguel Search and Rescue for costly missions – costs often mounting to thousands of dollars. Funds remaining at the end of each year go toward teams’ training and equipment costs. Anyone with a current hunting/fishing license, or boat, snowmobile and ATV registration is already contributing to the fund.
Cards are available for $3 for one year or $12 for five years and can be purchased at over 300 retail stores in Colorado or by calling 970/248-7310. Cards can also be purchased online at www.dola.colorado.gov.