By now the flowers have wilted, and perhaps, floated away—downstream—mingling with the rocks and sand of the high Rockies. They were temporary, not meant to last. We put them there to remember Justin.
We had walked up river, from Radium, not twenty-four hours after Justin had been there. Not twenty-four hours after Justin had left that place, and the world. The three of us walked in silence, not knowing the words that fit with our thoughts. We went to the Colorado looking for answers, and, at least for me, hoping for some remnant of meaning from this tragedy.
The construction of the railroad years before, had left the river right shore littered with a cobble of sharp granite. At the rapid called Eye of the Needle the river is constricted between the railroad slag and a cliff on the left bank. At the top of the rapid, dead center, sits a rock. For a boat there are two choices—go left or go right. Both channels have sufficient flow. The rapid is sandwiched by large flatwater pools. By anyone’s standards Eye of the Needle on the Upper Colorado is a straight forward rapid.
Justin was in an inflatable kayak on June 20th, 2008. He had his dog Cassius and a weekend’s supply of gear: sleeping bag, pad, tent, and food. With him, was a group of thirty, celebrating the end of the spring semester at CU Boulder. Justin had more to celebrate. He had just turned thirty, was engaged and had his wedding invitations in the mail. Justin had also finished three years of school and now had his MBA. Everything was ahead of him.
I try to imagine how he felt. The excitement of a new river and new friends. The scenery spectacular. High mountains in the distance, aspen fringed meadows descending rapidly to the deepening gorge of Lower Gore Canyon. The smell of earth in the gurgling waters. The birthplace of the Colorado just a few miles to the north. I can see him smiling. A river trip!
The river was busy that day. Boat after boat came through Eye of the Needle. Some fumbled, others had no problems. As Justin approached, I am certain he felt the quickening awareness of a rapid unrun.
Justin flipped as his ducky hit the rock and slid off the left side. He was first in his group. One friend saw him reflip his boat. Thinking he was okay, the decision was made to go after the dog. The next person that came through saw Justin on the right bank. They exchanged a few words, made a joke, and assumed everything would be fine. This would not be the case. This was the last time he was seen alive.
The remaining boats came through the rapid—not one had seen Justin. Thinking he hiked downstream unnoticed, the group decided to find his boat. They left Eye of the Needle, and floated downstream. His boat was on shore, half a mile away, put there by a kayaker from another group. They waited. They talked and laughed. And still, no Justin. They were not worried. This was a float trip. Class II. No need to worry. Justin would show up shortly, they thought.
Finally, on the railroad tracks, they saw someone walking towards them. Thinking it was him, everyone continued downstream—save one. Justin should have no problem getting back to his boat.
The person was not Justin.
An alarm went off—where was he? That alarm, though, only sounded in one person’s mind. Everyone else had left. With an increasing sense of urgency, this person ran back upstream.
Something was wrong.
He did not find Justin. Another group did.
They pulled him out of the water. His body battered. He was not breathing, and he had no pulse. They began CPR. Someone went to call for help. They continued CPR as they floated to the take out. They passed the rest of Justin’s group and told them.
They got to the take out just as the ambulance arrived. Despite these heroic efforts to save him, Justin was pronounced dead at Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Denver.
No one saw what happened to Justin. He was on shore and seemed to be fine. He was surrounded by tame waters—the worst of what there was, was upstream. Somehow Justin drowned. Perhaps he slipped, hit his head, and rolled into the river. Maybe he had hit his head when his boat flipped, and slowly went unresponsive. We will never know. What we do know is that he is gone.
Assumptions killed Justin. Justin and his group assumed that the river was benign. It was class II, after all. They assumed that Justin would be alright. That he would be able to help himself. He was on shore, right? They assumed that Justin was the man walking down the tracks, and left him. As it turned out, all of these assumptions were wrong.
There is a fine balance we must maintain as river runners. Our goals are diverse, but mainly, we participate in this sport for enjoyment—whether that is the enjoyment of being with friends and family in the wilderness, or the enjoyment of discovering new places, or even the enjoyment of testing our limits.
It is natural, then, that we strive for a level of comfort. We become proficient at the skills necessary to achieve our goals. We feel confident. Our stress level increases with the challenges the river presents us, but like water rolling onto a beach, it recedes to a manageable level—back to comfort.
In order to return home safely, we must maintain a heightened level of awareness, but not become paralyzed with paranoia. We must be aware of the consequences. We must strive to foresee all the possibilities, and plan accordingly. And ultimately, we must understand that the river is neither benign nor malignant, it just is.
On the rivers I have run since Justin’s death, and the rivers I plan on running in the future, the balance between comfort and paranoia is and always will be on the forefront of my mind. When I feel it tipping too far to one side, I know, then, it is time to stop and readjust. For me, being too comfortable on a river is as scary as looking into the frothing jaws of a terminal hole.
I do not wish to rationalize Justin’s death. Nor do I wish to add meaning to it. The world is a lesser place without him and he will forever be missed. However, being unwillingly forced into this situation, the only option left is to learn from that day, and to prevent the same mistakes from ever happening again.
Justin, you will be missed.
by Cody Harris