Sitting on the arena observation deck last week, Pete, Andy, Dawn, our hired-hand, and Beth, Andy’s assistant trainer, were enjoying a lunch break after working our horses. It was what we think of as a perfect afternoon: the air quiet, the aspen and cottonwood stands around the arena steeped in spring’s vibrant color, and the temperature in the mid-70s, Colorado’s elixir for a very long winter. Relaxing, we couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Then from beyond the cottonwood bank of the river, we all heard a “Whoop!” as if a river rafter were coming through the rapids loving the adrenaline rush. But in our minds we knew river rafters don’t come through flood stage water. And then we heard what we thought sounded like, “Horse!” Andy scanned the river through the cottonwoods and within a few seconds exclaimed, “There’s a horse in the river!” Leaping off the rail he ran to a small beach area not far from the arena. Holding onto willows he waded carefully into the water but was unable to make contact with the horse. At that point, Andy, with Pete not far behind, ran to the southern edge of the ranch hoping to find and rope the horse, pulling him to the banks’ edge where he could step onto dry ground.
Back in the barnyard, another question quickly came to everyone’s minds: If there’s a saddled and bridled horse in the river, there’s got to be a rider. And we all wondered where he or she was. Just as I ran through the barnyard and asked Beth, Andy’s assistant trainer, if she had seen anyone come out of the river, a man in boots, spurs, jeans, and a t-shirt came out of the brush. To my astonishment, it was a neighbor who came walking toward me. Thoughts flooded my mind: a rider survived the high water and he was walking through our barnyard. How was it he was in the river with his horse? How could he have survived? I had known Paul for twenty-four years. He and his wife live three miles west of us and I see them regularly when I’m out with Emma and Griz running on the road.
After asking him if he were alright, Paul and I quickly walked through the barn to see where Pete and Andy were. Coming back up from the river, they were hurrying to open gates and get the Gator through. Passing us, Andy said hurriedly, “We missed him but we’re going down to the bridge on County Road 54 to see if he passes through.” They all immediately loaded up in the truck and headed out.
Dawn and I stayed behind to take care of abandoned horses at the arena and barn. While we waited to hear what they found at the bridge, it was hard to not be with them. Knowing Andy had stepped into the river concerned me. I’ve heard too many stories about individuals going in to save someone or something and never coming back even though they may have saved the victim. When I’d run through the barnyard, I told Beth, “I can’t believe Andy went into the river and tried to grab the horse. This isn’t worth a life.” Unequivocally though, Beth replied, “To tell you truth, I would have done the same thing,” Before Paul hopped on the truck, he shook his head and repeated, “No, this isn’t worth a life.”
We expect high water from late May through early June when the surface of the Elk River transforms from a clear and quiet early spring flow to a muddy and roiling pregnant waterway. This year the run-off rapidly increased because of daily temperatures’ quick rise. Water began to flood areas here at the ranch where it had never flooded before. Andy and Pete navigated two feet of water in a meadow to get to the lower river access.
About forty-five minutes after they’d left, I couldn’t wait any longer to find out what they’d found at the bridge. I called and Pete answered, “He didn’t show up at the bridge, so Paul, Andy, and Beth all headed up river. I’m going to drive to Trish’s driveway (a neighbor downriver) and access the river there.” When Pete got there, he saw Paul, who had just spotted Bugsy. Walking along thick willow and cottonwood stands, the three of them had made their way a mile north along the banks of the Elk. Paul was the first to spot Bugsy, his nine-year old bay gelding. Stuck up against an island after traveling a mile and a half down river, he’d come to rest at a bend in the river. From the group’s report, Paul was lucky to have even caught sight of him in the turn and thick of the riverbank.
Once located, they had to figure out how to reach Bugsy. It would mean crossing two deep channels. And when they could got to him, how would they ever get him out, as he stood chest deep in the river. At first they thought, they’d have to leave him and hope the river would come down enough in the next twenty-four hours that he could get himself out onto the island. They concluded however, they would have to try and get Bugsy out.
The rescuers and Bugsy were in the water for three hours, water which was snow in the high country the day before. Our concern had been for Paul. He seemed terribly chilled and in mild shock but he kept going. Andy and Beth at one point told him to take off his t-shirt and hug Bugsy to get warm while they talked about their options for getting Bugsy out of the river.
At the same time, Pete called me and said, “I think you better get some dry clothes down here for Paul. We’re worried he’s hypothermic.” Grabbing three different sweatshirts and pullovers, I started out the door and was met by Paul's wife, Bobbie. She's gotten a call at work from Paul, using Pete's cell phone. I told her where everyone was and that Paul was OK, but that I was worried that everyone would stay safe trying to save Bugsy. She headed out and Dawn and I quickly loaded up and followed Bobbie to Trish's. We handed the clothing off to Pete who took them out to Paul along with the ropes they would use to hopefully get Bugsy out of the river.
With Paul warmed a bit with a dry sweatshirt, the group took two ropes and a Westerner’s can-do attitude and shimmied across a log to cross the first channel. Their plan was put a rope under and around the swell and another rope, fashioned into a halter, over Bugsy head. Paul would stay behind and pop Bugsy on the rump, Andy, Beth, and now Pete, who had made his way to the far bank would belay the ropes to a tree. They hoped Bugsy would take a true leap of faith or two and jump across the eight foot channel. And that’s just what Bugsy did. With the first jump he landed in the channel and with the second he leapt onto the bank where the threesome secured him until he caught his balance. Then they led him carefully through the brush and down timber to a nearby meadow which was under six to twelve inches of water.
Although Bugsy had a couple of scraps and was surely sore from being tossed around and struggling to keep his head above water as he was forced down river, once onto to the open meadow he calmly began grazing. At that point, all of us commented on Bugsy had turned over his complete trust to his rescuers and displayed a calm confidence in doing what they asked of him. And now that he was on dry ground, all was truly right with the world.
While our ranch borders a half a mile of the Elk River, we’ve never seen or experienced the river in this way. Everyone was lucky to survive, particularly Paul and his horse, Bugsy. Both seemed to have a calm steadiness that served their survival. I was grateful that Pete, Andy, and Beth all survived without being injured or swept away.
From those moments of spring bliss, enjoying a lunchtime respite, to the shocking scene of life and death in flood stage waters was difficult to process while it was happening. But there was an intense realistic urgency, propelled by adrenaline and primitive instincts to save and protect life. The three hours it took to complete this high water rescue was, in the end worth the time spent, because it allowed for everyone’s instinctual need to preserve life to be tempered by clear thought, realistic planning, and collaborative action.