ST. GEORGE – A Colorado family stranded along the Escalante River in Garfield County was “accidentally found” by a Utah Department of Public of Safety helicopter Sunday while a search for a missing kayaker was underway.
The Utah DPS helicopter crew was originally dispatched to Garfield County Sunday to assist in the search for a kayaker who was 48 hours overdue, Utah DPS Chief Pilot Luke Bowman said during a press conference in Salt Lake City Monday.
The missing kayaker had been out with friends who decided to go down the Escalante River which had rising water levels due to recent storms. The kayaker had missed a pull off point out of the river and his friends subsequently contacted the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office a day later after not hearing from him.
While following the Escalante River for signs of the kayaker, the helicopter crew saw a man step out on a sand bar and start waving and signaling at them, Bowman said. Thinking it was the kayaker, the helicopter landed and contact was made with the man who turned out to be the father of a family of four from Bailey, Colorado.
The family had been rafting down the river Friday when they reached a point that brought the river trip to an end.
“They were river rafting down the Escalante River and came around a corner where there was a choke point with a lot of boulders,” Bowman said. “The water was just going so fast that they didn’t have time to pull out and walk around or anything, so they hit the rocks and lost a bunch of gear.”
The family lost the majority of their paddles and a bit of their gear, yet were able to salvage camping gear and food.
“They were in pretty good condition when we found then, but very excited that they were getting out,” Bowman said.
The Colorado family consisted of the father, the mother and two teen daughters.
The family had attempted to climb out of the area but was unable to because the sides of the canyon the river went through were too steep. The area, which Bowman called “remote,” also lacked cellular phone reception.
The family had planned to raft down the river for the week and conclude by Saturday, the day after they hit the rocks. They had also instructed family in Colorado to contact the authorities if they weren’t heard from shortly after the trip was to end.
DPS took the mother and two daughters of out of the area first and flew them to a local airport. They then returned for the father and one of the helicopter’s crew who had stayed behind. The father was taken to where the family’s vehicle was parked. From there he drove to the airport.
And what of the missing kayaker the helicopter was originally called out to help find? He ended up riding the river for a while longer before being able to get out and eventually return to camp safely, Bowman said.
Utah DPS operates two helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft that aids in broad searches. The purpose of the aircraft overall is to aid in search and rescue and law enforcement operations.
“We’re there to assist the county,” Bowman said, adding that the helicopter is able to get into places faster and easier by air than others could by foot or ground-based vehicles, particularly when dealing with inhospitable terrain.
“Some of these areas in Southern Utah are very huge and have very aggressive terrain,” he said.
Being able to call on the DPS helicopter in cases like this is something Garfield County is very appreciative of, said Denise Dastrut, Garfield County Sheriff’s Office public information officer.
“They’re a huge resource.” Dastrut said. “We love to have it.”
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