Paddlers and relaxers head to Frisco Bay Marina on Thursday, July 14, 2022.
Luke Vidic/Daily Summit News

Summit County hasn’t had a single drowning death this year, but that’s becoming increasingly unique to Colorado, which is on track for a record number of water-related deaths in 2022. Rangers from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office are doing what they can to keep Summit County from adding to that total.

The previous state record was set in 2020 when 34 people drowned, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This year, as of July 9, there have already been 24 drownings statewide and one death without drowning, said Bridget Kochel of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. That already tops the 2021 annual total of 22, according to Kochel.

Summit County falls in the Northwest region, which has seen seven drownings this year, she said. Regionally, Colorado’s southeast quarter leads the state with eight drownings and one water-related death, Kochel said.

The last drowning in the county came two years ago following a disastrous storm, said Erin Sirek of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office Ranger Program. Since then, although the waters have not always been calm, she and her fellow rangers have seen no serious incidents, she said. This is largely thanks to knowledgeable and well-prepared boaters and the collective efforts of the reservoir’s many partners.

The ranger program started in the 1990s, Sirek said, with just one ranger and support staff. In its early days, the ranger was just a member of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Program assigned to the reservoir, rather than a dedicated ranger at the reservoir, Sirek said.

The program has grown with the county and the popularity of its waters, Sirek said. He moved to two full-time seasonal rangers and two part-time seasonal rangers patrolling the Dillon Reservoir. Sirek and team member Kevin Kelble are the full-time seasonal ranger staff. Both have ski patrol training, and Sirek still splits his year between the slopes of Breckenridge and the waters of Dillon Reservoir.

The sheriff’s office ranger program employs a fleet of three boats: a pair of single-engine Boston Whalers about 20 feet long and a smaller inflatable muskrat. It also has a new, larger twin-engine vessel on the way, Watson said.

High Altitude, High Risk Waters

Special Operations Director Mark Watson said the reservoir’s altitude and temperature make it unique, as do its weather conditions. These characteristics influence the rules and regulations governing boaters.

It’s too cold to swim safely, Sirek said. On Wednesday, Sirek spoke to a person who was swimming from the dock near the Dillon Amphitheater. The man said he was from Texas and said he was unaware of the local rules.

“People can’t swim. … They don’t understand how cold it is and how it affects your body so quickly,” Watson said. Sirek said the water is so cold that swimmers begin to lose muscle coordination, which increases the risk of drowning.

In addition to natural hazards, storms will often pour out of Tenmile Canyon or south toward Quandary Peak, Watson said. It’s usually a microburst, he said, and “it’s only going to be for a short time, but it’s chaos.” Our firing ranges will immediately circle the lake advising people, “Up, up, up,” Watson said. Otherwise, after the storm, they will go clean up wreckage and scattered paddle steamers, he said.

A microburst last summer brought down 20 boats, Watson said, and sent an empty kayak into the Blue River with two shoes and a trail of debris behind it. The kayak owners turned out to have abandoned the kayak after being helped out of the water, he said.

To help responders in such situations, Watson and his rangers encourage everyone to put their name, phone number and address on their paddle. Otherwise, rangers are treating an unowned kayak as a potential emergency, he said.

Speaking of kayaks, Sirek also encouraged paddle boat owners to make sure their boat is properly lit at night. She said that’s especially true for people who enjoy concerts from the water at the Dillon Amphitheater, which can often run late into the evening. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2022 Navigation Manual, a rowing vessel must be equipped with lights or the paddler may have a portable light source.

In addition to lights at concerts, people should watch their alcohol intake, Watson added.

Before getting out on the water, Sirek said rangers encourage everyone to review Colorado’s boating statutes and regulations. and Dillon Reservoir Recreation Area Rules and Regulations.

Minions warn against requiring a life jacket

“We have what we call minions,” Watson said.

Large yellow buoys floating on the lake warn divers of the need for a life jacket. Every person who goes out on the water needs a life jacket with them.

Boaters without a life jacket can borrow one for free from the Ranger Loaner Program located at Pine Cove. Sirek said people could donate life jackets in good condition. A good test of whether a lifejacket is in good condition is whether the inside tag is still legible, she said.

People using personal watercraft like jetskis – which are not permitted on the Dillon Reservoir – must wear a life jacket at all times in Colorado, as is the case for some other activities like windsurfing and buoying towed – which are also not allowed on the tank.