White-Water Rafting: Dangerous Sport or Fun Activity?

The outdoor recreation industry estimates that between 2 million and 3 million people did some guided white-water rafting this summer, which included commercial tours lead by trained guides.

While the activity can be fun and exciting, it also can be dangerous. And one of the country's favorite places for rafting, the Arkansas River, has had its share of tragedy this season.

Four guests died on guided trips of the Arkansas River this year — more than the last five years combined. A guide in training also died.

One Man's Story

Charlie Bointy was one of the guests who died.

He loved rafting on the river, according to his sister Sandy Bointy. He was one of the approximately 250,000 people annually who take guided trips on the Arkansas River.

But, Charlie's trip turned deadly when the rapids swept him up at a spot called "the wall slammer."

"They said that the boat had overturned and they were able to pull everybody else in except my brother," Sandy said. "He passed away doing something he enjoyed a lot."

While no one knows why this summer had so many victims, rangers said the river stayed at elevated levels longer than usual.

Rafters wear protective gear and get safety briefings before they go out.

"Survivability is a lot of times determined by your will to survive," said senior ranger Stew Pappenfort. "There is a chance that you will die."

This summer's top flow on the Arkansas was only about 9 mph — that could carry a person with the power of a 300-pound football player.

Safer Than Cycling

Even with the danger, industry spokesman John Cantamessa said the activity is safer than more common ones.

"The fact is that white-water rafting with its risks is still safer than a lot of sports like riding your bicycle," he said.

In fact, the industry said last year only 10 people died nationwide on guided white-water raft trips, out of at least 2.5 million guests.

Pappenfort said bumps on the water are just part of the sport.

"It's a lot like falling down is to skiing," Pappenfort said.

Even if people get in trouble on the rapids, they still have a good chance of survival.

"Most of the people who fall out of rafts make it to shore with little difficulty," Pappenfort said.

Safety Tips

Experts suggest knowing your limitations before hitting the water and telling the tour company. This usually means the rougher the rapids, the greater the chances of getting tossed into the river. If that happens, swim defensively.

You can't overpower the rapids so when you get to calmer waters, swim ashore.

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