Nothing is quite so thrilling as racing down a white-water river in a rubber raft. Nor are many recreation activities more dangerous.
But as inherently dangerous as river-running is, Utah boasts one of the best river boating safety records anywhere in the West. And the state also boasts the toughest river-boating laws outside of British Columbia."Thousands of people are spending a lot of money to come to Utah and run our rivers," said Max Jensen, southeast region manager for the state Division of Parks and Recreation. "The least we can do is make sure it is the safest possible experience once they get here."
Jensen's philosophy is simple: A safe boater will survive the experience to return to Utah another time. And he will probably bring his friends with him when he returns.
While it may be difficult to measure whether Utah's positive safety image actually promotes Utah tourism, Utah's river-running businesses are faring a lot better than some states where the frequency of river accidents has hurt the businesses.
Colorado, for example, found its poor safety record was hurting that state's river-running tourism. Officials there are now tightening river-safety standards.
Considering the fact that more than 6,000 people run the Colorado River every year, and thousands more the Green and San Juan rivers, Utah's river-fatality rate is low.
Twelve fatalities have occurred on the three rivers in the last 10 years. Most of those occurred on private river trips with operators unfamiliar with the river or boats not carrying the proper safety equipment. Many involved swimmers, not rafters.
The last five fatalities on the Colorado River occurred on private trips. Two of them didn't have permits to run the river, and a third didn't even have a life preserver.
"The private parties don't know the rules and they don't know the river. That can be a deadly combination," said Jim Bragg, district ranger for Canyonlands National Park.
The National Park Service works hand-in-hand with the state to enforce the state's tough boating laws. The Park Service not only issues permits to run the Colorado through Canyonlands, but it checks each private boat to make sure it is properly equipped and the operator properly experienced.
Utah's professional river-running companies like the strict regulations because they promote a positive image for the sport and also because it discourages the unqualified operators who may endanger recreationists and thereby hurt business for everyone.
"The rivers are not very forgiving," said state parks ranger Roland Bringhurst, who patrols all three southeastern Utah rivers. "Make one mistake and there are no second chances. So we try to minimize those risks by making sure the guides are properly trained and the boats are carrying the proper safety equipment."
The State Boating Act makes safety on Utah's rivers and lakes the primary concern of the state Division of Parks and Recreation. While permits to run the rivers are the jurisdiction of the federal government, the state calls all the shots when it comes to the safety equipment required in all boats and the licensing of commercial operators.
To get a river guide's license from the state, applicants must be sponsored by a legitimate river-running company, they must have a certain amount of documented experience on the rivers under the instruction of a licensed guide, they must have current CPR and First Aid cards, and they have to pass a written test on Utah boating laws and rules.
Currently, 900 to 1,000 people are licensed river guides in Utah.
The state has two rafts to patrol the rivers; the Bureau of Land Management and National Parks Service have others. Cooperatively, they check all rafters to ensure they are carrying mandatory safety equipment, like extra oars, bail buckets and throw-lines. And they make sure the boaters are actually wearing life preservers.
If it is a commercial trip, they also check to make certain the river guide has a current license.
National park rangers, with occasional assistance from state rangers, patrol those sections through Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. State rangers patrol the other stretches of the Colorado, Green and San Juan rivers, with assistance from the BLM.
Because of the sheer numbers of boats on the rivers, there is no way to check every boat, or even to patrol every river every day. The state relies a lot on commercial operators to police themselves.
"Commercial operators are very safety conscious," Bringhurst said. "They don't want accidents because that will just hurt their business. They are usually the last ones to cut corners to save a buck."
They are also the first ones on the river to help when an emergency does occur, even if it doesn't involve their own boats.