Man's canoe overturns on San Miguel River.
A flipped canoe. Rushing water. A man missing.
Those were about the only things search and rescue crews knew when they set out with kayaks, canoes and a small airplane to scour the San Miguel River for a missing boater Sunday evening.
He turned up four hours later, safe and sound, hiking through the wilderness on the south side of the river.
Steven Johnson, 49, of Ridgway, escaped with minor cuts and bruises.
The San Miguel is roaring this time of year. Johnson was canoeing on the river with his buddy Ted Yoder, also of Ridgway. Their canoe overturned several times, and they had trouble bailing out the water.
“We ended up swamping several times, but we were just riding it out and having a lot of fun, except when your boat’s full of water it’s hard to control,” Yoder said.
About 4:30 p.m., it overturned again, this time near mile marker 89 between Specie Creek and Beaver Creek, and both Yoder and Johnson abandoned ship.
Yoder was able to grab the riverbank a bit downstream. He looked back and saw that the canoe had gotten stuck under an overhang on a cliff.
What was worse — much worse — was that he hadn’t seen his friend float by.
“I was expecting to see him floating along with me,” Yoder said. “And when he didn’t come around the corner … .”
Yoder worried his friend was a goner.
So he called the sheriff’s office.
However, Johnson wasn’t trapped. Upstream, he, too, had grabbed hold of the riverbank and pulled himself out.
But instead of staying put on the side of the river, where kayakers would see him, Johnson started to hike up the side of a steep hill. He was going to make it to the put-in point near Specie Creek. He hiked nearly five miles east, through rough, pebbly, unstable terrain.
But for his friend Ted, it was like he had disappeared.
Search-and-rescue teams, determined to find Johnson, deployed to the river.
They brought boats. They brought ropes. Tom Meehan even flew his own Cessna over the area looking for Johnson.
Bill Glasscock and John Warren, among others, hurried to check out the trapped canoe. Glasscock tied a rope to himself and swum into the icy river. He checked out the canoe and discovered Johnson wasn’t there.
Much of the search was concentrated downstream from the overturned boat, not upstream, which is the direction Johnson headed.
Johnson, at one point, saw the plane flying overhead and waved his jacket at it, but the plane didn’t see him.
He eventually pretty much “walked out of the woods,” in the words of Sgt. Michael Westcott, battered but basically unharmed.
Yoder said he was happy that so many search and rescue personnel came out to look for his friend.
“I’m really grateful for the help, that people are willing to come out and give of themselves,” Yoder said.
It’s a perilous time to be out in a boat on the rivers these days. The rivers are running high, and the San Miguel is more dangerous than it might appear.
“It’s not like [the area where the canoe overturned] is the rowdiest part of the river, but there’s definitely some moves you gotta make. There’s some rocks in the way,” said Erik Dalton, an avid kayaker. “I could see how someone could get themselves in some trouble there. … It’s definitely no Valley Floor.”
The sheriff’s office encouraged boaters to be prepared, use the right equipment, have a backup plan in case you get separated from your friends and buy a search-and-rescue card.
But Yoder said that Johnson is doing fine.
“He was pretty chipper, not suffering at all,” Yoder said. “He’s really grateful for the help and concern that was put out there for him.”