Men’s Journal | May 2007: The Middle Fork Revisited
THE MIDDLE FORK REVISITED
By TOM BROKAW
THIRTY-SIX YEARS LATER, FOUR OLD BUDDIES RUN THE RAPIDS THAT KILLED THEIR FRIEND.
A RECENT GUIDEBOOK TO THE FAMED MIDDLE FORK OF THE SALMON RIVER, a 106 mile stretch of wild water racing through north central Idaho, has on page 58 this cautionary note about a well-known set of rapids: “Mile 82.6 Weber (Redside/Corkscrew): Weber is infamous for drowning a passenger and a guide on a commercial trip that Dan Rather was on in the late 1970s. The party flipped two boats during extremely high water.”
Um, not exactly.
Yes, a guide and a client were killed when their boat swamped in Weber, but it was in 1970, not later in the decade. Yes, a second boat went over as well. But Dan Rather was not on the trip. If he had been I think I would have remembered, for I was on the second boat that flipped. And it was my friend who was killed in the first boat. Whitewater rafting was just taking off as a popular way to escape the city, and the Middle Fork was a premier destination, a true wilderness river with continuous rapids snaking through steep canyons. Plus, the Middle Fork had a certain cachet. Bobby Kennedy had kayaked there with John Glenn four years earlier; Arthur Godfrey, the adventurous radio personality, had floated the river with Everett Spaulding, a veteran oarsman and outfitter and the same guide who would be leading us on a six-day run.
A year earlier Spaulding had guided Harvey Karp and his family down the Middle Fork. Karp so enjoyed himself he booked Spaulding for a second trip, but this time he asked if he could “make it a little more exciting.” Spaulding said, “Come back in June, when the water is higher.”
Karp, a successful industrialist, contacted his friend and business partner Martin Stone, and another friend, Dick Gold, who had sold his business to finish a Ph.D. in economics at UCLA. Stone in turn recruited me, and I asked two friends, Roy Doumani, an enterprising young bachelor who was beginning to make his mark in commercial real estate, and Ellis Harmon, a fast-rising L.A. attorney.
We were an odd lot: three Jewish businessmen, a Jewish lawyer, a Lebanese-American entrepreneur, and me, the prairie Protestant and the only one in the group who had spent much time on rivers or in the outdoors. My experience was mostly on the Missouri River in South Dakota – not exactly whitewater, even during flood stage, when I often swam in it during youthful camping trips.
Before leaving for Idaho we saw an 8mm film of a Middle Fork trip taken the preceding year by a playboy L.A. developer. It featured scenes of a backcountry chorus line of his bikinied girlfriends doing their morning exercises at the river’s edge. Harmon’s wife Millie laughingly teased him that night, “Oh, that really looks dangerous. Are you sure you’re up for this?
Two weeks later Harmon was dead, and so was his guide Gene Teague. Stone almost perished as well. I had a close call but managed to escape an overturned raft and spent the night on a cliff with Stone, Karp, Doumani, and Gold.
Now, 36 years later, I decided it was time to revisit the river, but when I called Stone to suggest the trip, he wasn’t wild about the idea. Then, after a few minutes, he said, “Well, why not? I’ve often thought about what it would be like going back.” Karp and Doumani were in too, but Gold decided he’d rather spend the week at his Aspen home than in a sleeping bag on a riverbank. And who could blame him? I wasn’t sure what to expect or what I was looking for, exactly, by returning to the site of such a traumatic experience. But there was only one way to find out.
Called the crown jewel of the protected wild rivers in the American West, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River lives up to this travel brochure cliché. A central artery in the Frank Church Wilderness, the Middle Fork is one of eight rivers originally designated “Wild and Scenic” by the federal government, a distinction it received in 1968.
As we readied to launch in 1970 we were the only party at Indian Creek. Today Indian Creek in summer is a riverside D-Day, with kayakers, sweep boats, whitewater rafts, and McKenzies (wooden dories with high bows and pinched sterns that were popular with old-timers on the river) crowded along the shore as eager clients and guides bronzed, ponytailed, and sandaled – load up the waterproof containers of camp furniture, stoves, food, water pumps, Porta-Potties, beer, wine, and soft drinks. Small planes line up over-head, awaiting their turns to land on the dirt strip at river’s edge to drop off clients and supplies before taking off again for Stanley, Idaho.
At the time of our original trip the Middle Fork of the Salmon averaged a little more than 3,000 boaters a year; today the average is almost four times that. The Middle Fork remains a wilderness experience, but not entirely. Because of its popularity a thick set of regulations governs everything – acquiring a float permit, campground reservations, human waste (“pee in the river, not on the campsite”), fires, and fishing. And while the Middle Fork’s primal setting and raw character constantly remind you that you’ll enter it on nature’s terms – two kayakers died on a tributary in 2005 – many tour operators offer what is more or less room service on the river, with comfort and pampering the priorities. Private, noncommercial trips run by locals for their own pleasure are a little closer to the mark, but they too are more about beer coolers and less about living lightly on the land, as Buddhists say.
For our reunion trip we decided to gather first at the Montana ranch that my wife and I share; as Karp, Stone, and Doumani arrived I knew for sure that this was a good idea. Harvey Karp is now 79 and the chairman of Mueller Industries, a prosperous metal fabricating company; he lives in fastidious, elegant style in the Hamptons and Beverly Hills, ever the urbane intellectual and medical science patron. He’s justly proud of the fact he’s never spent the night in a hospital. Martin Stone is the aging jock and an entrepreneurial spirit with a home in Tucson and one on Flat Head Lake, Montana. He has made big money in real estate and other investments over the years, but his passion always has been and remains baseball. He owned the minor league Phoenix Firebirds and threw batting practice for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox until he was 50. The Red Sox were so grateful for his help over the years that they gave him a ring after they won the American League championship in 1975. Marty survived prostate cancer, and he has an artificial hip, but he still walks four miles a day with his dog.
Marty and Harvey have been close friends for more than a half century. Harvey is meticulous and cautious; Marty is happiest working up a big sweat and swinging for the fences. Privately I’ve always thought of them as Oscar (Marty) and Felix (Harvey).
Roy Doumani, 71, lives in Venice, California, in a stunning home designed by his friend, the artist Robert Graham. He has recovered from serious health problems as a result of radical prostate cancer treatment, and he’s still physically active despite two artificial hips. Roy was a partner of the late Bill Simon, the former Treasury secretary who made a killing in the leveraged buyout business. Roy also invested around the world for Middle-Eastern royals, so he has the means to indulge his passion for modern art from the likes of Graham, Dale Chihuly, and Ed Moses.
As for me, my circumstances also have changed greatly since 1970, when I was a local anchorman in Los Angeles and part-time correspondent for NBC News. I was making about $45,000 a year then, so the cost of a week on the Middle Fork, $ 600, was a big consideration. We had three small children, and I remember wondering if I was being selfish by indulging myself. This time we flew from my ranch to Stanley, in a chartered jet, and the trip’s $2,000-a-head charge, while not cheap, seemed to us about what it would cost a similar group to have a big night on the town.
On the river in 2006 we’d be in the hands of four veteran guides who balanced the scales between indulgence and self-reliance, three men and a young woman who run rivers through out the West for OARS, a California-based outfitter. We had four long rafts to carry all the gear and a couple of kayaks for sport. As we floated away from Indian Creek this time the conditions could not have been more different from how they were in 1970, when the river was swollen with runoff. Of course, we had no idea when we launched back then that the runoff would do anything more than add to the excitement. In fact, the night before the accident, we were eager for more action, having grown bored with our mastery of the river. Be careful what you wish for.
On the original trip I was not yet into fly-fishing, but the river then was running so fast it would have been impossible to fish from the old McKenzie boats as we zipped downstream. We’d wait until the end of the day and fish the eddies around our campsite with spinning gear. This time around I brought along a six-weight rod and an assortment of dry flies. I expected lots of catch-and-release action as we floated what is one of the richest trout habitats in the West, but the action was slow, very slow. The fish that did rise to my fly came off the bottom as if they were on a freight elevator in low gear. My oarsman, John Hillman, a former fish biologist with 11 years of experience on the Middle Fork, blamed the lethargic trout on smoky skies and fluctuating temperatures, a result of epidemic wildfires.
We drifted lazily the first two days, stopping at hot springs and hiking to old homesteaders’ cabins or the remains of house pits dug by the Sheepeaters, the indigenous tribes that roamed this wilderness 200 years ago. Thirty-six years earlier we’d had similar light moments early in the week. Doumani had led us on a punishing hike up a steep peak during one long afternoon.
Somehow Stone lost his wristwatch on the way up and we found it on the way down, the mountain equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. He had picked up a horseshoe along another trail the day before, and we kidded him about his good-luck charm. Little did we know.
When we’d returned from the steep, hot hike, my friend Ellis Harmon stripped down and jumped in the river to see how long he could stand the frigid water. He lasted less than a minute, racing out into the hot afternoon sun, laughing and commenting that no one could last in that water very long. Tiny creeks became torrents, and the river continued to rise every day. I wrote after the trip that by the third day our chief guide, Everett Spaulding, was more concerned about the water level than the temperatures. As we prepared to retire for the night, he looked across to where the river was marking a shale wall and said, “I think she’s dropping.”
The next two days the watermark was even higher, and we casually began to talk about what to do if we capsized in the long run of rapids yet to come. Our guide Gene Teague was adamant. “Stay with the boat or overturned raft,” he said, “and let the current carry you to an eddy.” After a boyhood of swimming in the Missouri River at flood stage, I had a different theory: Stay with the boat until you get your bearings, then strike out for shore at an angle and swim hard for an eddy.
When I recounted those conversations three decades later to the OARS crew they were astonished we had continued to push ahead in the wooden McKenzies, for the worst rapids were still yet to come. Even so, for the first four days of the reunion on the river we felt only vaguely connected to the past. Doumani, ever the pragmatist, said, “What was, was. I moved on.” Karp said that for a long time he avoided rivers of any kind, but he’d gotten beyond that. Stone said he was just curious to see the fateful passage of rapids again. No one pressed the issue.
The river rats from OARS not only provided good company, they were as skilled in the campsite kitchen as they were on the river. We dined on grilled Copper River sockeye salmon, fettuccine with peppers, steaks as large as plates, corn on the cob, Dutch oven pineapple upside-down cake, and cold beer to go with a decent selection of wines. While sipping a particularly good red we did our best to entertain our guides with tales of life in the television jungles, Doumani’s dealings with Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Saad, and Stone’s days as a rubber-armed batting-practice pitcher and pal of the likes of Carlton Fisk, Joe Torre, and Maury Wills. Karp offered a penetrating analysis of the so-called intelligent design theory favored by some as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
It all seemed more mellow than melancholy, more pampered than dangerous, more sybaritic than spartan. We were hardly conjuring James Dickey’s Deliverance when Doumani and I spent two days in inflatable kayaks, bobbing through Class II water with ease, the 80-degree daytime temperatures quickly dissolving any chills from water over the bow.
By day four we were within reach of the final leg and the most dan¬gerous stretch of rapids, known as Impassable Canyon, a long, steeply pitched corkscrew of a gorge lead¬ing to the confluence with the main Salmon, the famous River of No Return. We were on the verge of Redside Rapids, the fatal passage.
When we awake that June morning in 1970, the river was still rising; one of the major tributaries, Big Creek, was running bank to bank as it poured melted snow into the Middle Fork at the entrance to the canyon. Years later Ken Smith, a Vietnam veteran who was one of our guides and who had run the river many times, said he was stunned by the amount of water coming down Big Creek from the Payette National Forest. For the first time, he said, he had begun to feel a little unsettled about what may lie ahead. Nonetheless, he decided to take the fight to the river.
Stone and I rode with Smith in the big raft. Karp and Gold were in Spaulding’s McKenzie, and Doumani and Harmon were with Teague in a second McKenzie as we entered the Impassable Canyon. For the details on what happened next, I’ve updated here an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times a few months later: About 1:30 PM we stopped just above Redside Rapids: whitewater from bank to bank for about 50 yards, with a drop of at least 12 feet. And 100 yards downstream was another set of rapids named Weber that was only slightly less forbidding in appearance.
After watching Redside, Spaulding outlined his plan. He would go over Redside with Gold and Karp in his McKenzie. He instructed Teague to line his boat over; that is, guide it from shore on a rope, and then get back in after Redside Rapids for the trip through Weber Rapids.
Spaulding ordered the rest of us to pull the raft about 50 yards back upstream so it could have a longer run at the far bank, where he decided the rapids were less hazardous. Doumani leaped into the water to help Smith and another boathand named Bill Maxwell pull the raft into position. Once there, Stone yelled for Doumani to stay with the raft. He’s go with Harmon in Teague’s boat. While Teague, Stone and Harmon were lining their boat over to the east bank, Spaulding rowed out into the current, and with a few short strokes, successfully negotiated the rapids. In the small eddy between Redside and Weber Rapids, he pulled ashore to watch for the rest of us.
Working the front sweep with his good right hand, Smith steered the raft into the current and headed it for the middle of Redside, not the east bank as Everett had recommended. With ever increasing speed we drifted to the lip of the rapids and plunged in.
Instantly a wall of whitewater arose on three sides, several feet higher than the raft. Maxwell released the rear sweep and dropped to the wooden deck to hang on. Smith remained on his feet, looking not unlike Captain Ahab, his wet red beard glistening in the sun as he struck back at the angry wave with his long, powerful sweep oar. The raft creaked and groaned. For a moment that wall of water was all there was to see and hear. In another instant the wave retreated and we were safely through.
I looked up to see Teague, with Stone and Harmon as passengers, heading into Weber Rapids. They were ahead of Spaulding, who remained on the east bank, watching our progress.
Karp said he, Spaulding, and Gold turned their attention to us because they thought Teague was going to pull ashore, just downstream. In the raft we were elated with our success at Redside and, thinking the worst was behind us, Doumani pulled the life jacket from around his neck and let it dangle in front of him. Suddenly I noticed that Teague’s boat appeared to be stalled in the middle of Weber Rapids. It was sinking.
Later Stone described the scene. He said a huge wave broke over them and practically filled the right side of the boat. Teague yelled out, “Shift your weight! Shift your weight!” and began frantically pulling on the oars. But it was too late. Another wave rolled over the other side. All three men were swept into the raging water. On the raft Smith shouted, “Those guys are swamping! Stand by; we’ll be making some pickups.”
Doumani turned to signal Spaulding, and I began coiling a length of rope and assembling loose life jackets. Downstream I could see Stone and Harmon neck-deep in the middle of the river, racing in tandem toward another set of rapids. Teague was off to the side and behind them, heading for the same rapids.
Suddenly we had our own problems. Our raft flipped. As I tumbled into the water I was stunned by the ferocity of the current. In a lifetime of swimming I can’t recall a greater struggle to break back through a surface, even with the assistance of a life jacket.
After I did come up, I was swept under again, this time by Doumani, who was imprisoned when the loose ends of his life jacket caught on the raft’s frame. He was able to break free quickly, however, and we grabbed onto the sides of the overturned raft with Maxwell. Smith scrambled atop the raft; he was obviously relieved when he found us together. As we climbed up to join him the raft drifted near the east bank, and he yelled, “I think we’d better get out before we get into more trouble.” Practically as one we leaped into the water and swam the short distance to shore.
When they first were washed from the boat, Stone knew they were in danger. Even with his life jacket he could barely keep his head above water. Harmon, recalling Spauldings advice, pulled himself into the hull of the overturned boat when it surfaced. He saw the bowline trailing in the water near Stone and yelled, “Grab the line, get the line!”
By pulling himself up on the rope, Stone was able to look around. He saw a small eddy off to the right. His impulse was to swim for it, and he shouted to Harmon. This time, from behind him, Teague yelled, “No. Stick with the boat. Hang onto the boat.”
Stone was impressed with Teague’s calm. Teague was wearing a life jacket and holding a seat cushion, looking as serene as a Sunday stroller. That was the last Stone saw of Teague, ever. “Do you want to try for shore?”
“No,” Harmon yelled back. “Hang onto the boat.”
Stone’s impulse continued. “Let’s swim for it.”
The water quickly became much rougher, and although he couldn’t see more than a few feet down-stream, Stone was certain they were moving into rapids again. He was right. He started into the rapids trailing Harmon and the hull of the boat, straining to hang onto the rope as he was sucked underwater, battered by currents on every side, fighting for the surface and another breath. When he did break free Stone still had the rope, but he was a few feet in front of Harmon, who was still on the battered hull. They didn’t speak, concentrating only on their private struggles for air.
Harmon was taking wave after wave flush in the face as they washed over the hull, and the numbing effect of the 40-degree water was weakening his grip on the boat, as it was Stone’s on the rope. This is a dream, he thought. I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be on the raft. I’m gonna die. Just then he was sucked underwater again and the rope was torn from his grip. When he struggled to the surface for what seemed like the hundredth time, Harmon and the boat were gone. He had no choice. He had to swim for shore. Already exhausted, Stone flailed against the surface currents, convinced that he was making no progress. His tennis shoes, incredibly heavy, were dragging him down.
But gradually the water became less turbulent. Ahead of him he could make out the calm surface of an eddy. Mustering his remaining strength, Stone churned out of the current and into the eddy. Totally spent, he draped himself over a boulder in shallow water; afraid he’d collapse and drown if he tried to make the final few steps to shore. It was there that Gold and Spaulding discovered him, less than a mile from the site of the swamping. Of course Gold and Karp had no idea what their friend had been through. They were shocked by his condition. Stone cried out weakly, “Help me, please help me.”
Meanwhile, those of us who had been in the raft moved as fast as fast as we could along the rugged east bank. Remembering Harmon’s earlier attempts to swim in the frigid water and my own brief struggle when the raft went over, I was numb with fear. Seeing Stone at a distance, sitting safely on the shore, raised new hopes, but as we approached, Gold quietly signaled that Harmon and Teague were still missing.
There was no encouragement to be drawn from Stone. He sat in the hot sun, his head bowed, sobbing softly, “Ellis didn’t have a chance. He didn’t have a chance.” A few feet offshore the battered hull of Teague’s boat floated motionlessly.
After comforting Stone briefly, Doumani and I moved on downstream, certain we’d find Spaulding with Harmon and Teague just around the next bend. Progress was torturous.
Large, sharp rocks lined the water’s edge; higher up were steep slopes and thick under-brush. We were ill-suited for that kind of terrain, dressed only in swimming trunks and sneakers. Along the shore there were curious remainders of the accident: heads of lettuce, loaves of bread, plastic cups, and smashed storage chests washed up on the rocks.
The raft itself was tied neatly to a tree. That raised a new, optimistic theory: Spaulding wouldn’t take the time to tie up the raft if Harmon and Teague were still missing. The next day we learned we were wrong. Spaulding stopped at the raft because he thought someone might be beneath it, he said.
Finally we caught up with Smith and Maxwell, and they reported that the canyon ahead was impassible. Gold, Karp, and Stone were not far behind. Except for fatigue and some water in his lungs, Stone was in remarkably good condition. After agreeing to sit tight and wait for rescuers, we stumbled onto a rocky ledge a few feet above the water. It was well-protected by a towering ponderosa pine, a large boulder at the water’s edge, and a 100-foot granite wall on the back-side. It was about 4:30 PM. Smith and Maxwell decided to try another route down-stream to look for assistance.
By 8 pm a fire was our chief concern, as chances of a rescue that night were diminishing. Stone was eager to help, but he didn’t care about the cold. He remembers thinking, Hell, I’m just glad I’m able to feel the cold.
Our supply of damp matches dwindled steadily as Gold, assisted by Karp, patiently and with great care scratched one after an-other across the well-worn striking surface on the matchbook. Doumani tried to heat up the blade of a butcher knife we had recovered by rubbing it rapidly across the boulder. I searched my faded Boy Scout training and came up with a clumsy, futile attempt at the wood-friction method, forgetting completely the static electricity system for drying matches by running them through your hair. We were down to our last match, one with a misshapen head that Gold had picked up when we’d restocked the day before. As he scratched that last match he was reminded of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” But the match struck and ignited a small arrangement of dry grass and twigs that before long was a roaring fire.
Just as darkness was closing in we heard the drone of a light airplane. It circled twice, then made a low pass over the canyon rim behind us and dropped a package that bounced down a cliff about a quarter mile upstream. Scrambling across the cliff, I found it perched precariously in a treetop leaning out over the water. It was a sleeping bag packed with tins of crackers, ham, beef, apricots, a chocolate nut roll, coffee, tea, two spoons, a miniature can opener, and white paper napkins. But no matches or flashlight. We were furious at the oversight and doubly grateful our last match had ignited. Karp and Doumani opened the tins, identified them, and passed them on, each of us taking one bite until the contents were gone.
Before the trip none of us knew more than two members of the group well. Now we were bound together, not just by the apricots and the warmth of the fire, but by a common concern for one another’s well-being. Stone spoke for each of us when he said about Harmon, “If Ellis is alive, this will have been a great adventure. If he isn’t.” and his voice trailed off.
I was especially haunted by what I then regarded as the certainty of Harmon’s death. I knew him best. I had invited him on the trip. Harmon was a son of the city, but his heart lay in the wilderness. During the trip he lectured us constantly on the necessity of preserving nature in its rawest form, undeterred by our reminders that he didn’t have to convince us.
But most of that long night I thought of Harmon’s family: his wife Millie and their three daughters, ages four, two, and eight months, asleep in their Santa Monica home. At 29 it was not enough to say that Harmon showed promise. He was a whole man. God, how they’ll miss him, I thought.
We learned that he was gone shortly after dawn, when two helicopters landed on a rockslide about a half mile upstream and stood by to lift us out. I charged up to meet one of the pilots. “Did they find any bodies?” I asked. “Yes,” the pilot said. “They’ve got a young man in the mortuary in Salmon.”
Thirty-six years later we were about to enter Redside Rapids again. I climbed the east bank to look downstream, and it all came back. All these years I’ve had fixed in my mind the sight of Marty Stone, Ellis Harmon, and Gene Teague just below Redside, heading into Weber. My memory matched up almost perfectly with the setting, except now the water was much, much lower. Then, the high, grassy bench framing the rapids was just a few feet from the water. Now it was 12 feet above the river and at least 10 feet back from it.
This time Stone wanted to ride through as the sole passenger on his own raft so he could be alone with his thoughts. Just as we lined up, again on the west side of Redside, it began to rain and thunder dramatically. The wind picked up, and for several minutes we were hunkered down against the unexpected change in the weather.
Then, just as quickly, it cleared again. It was eerie, as if the river gods were acknowledging what had happened here so long ago and reminding us that this beautiful place is capricious and deadly.
Back in that setting I again wondered, as I had so many times, what would have happened to me if I had been in the boat with Stone and Harmon. Would I have survived? I still think I would have abandoned the over-turned boat and churned for an eddy. My conceit is that I would have made it, but who knows? How many of us think when we hear of a miracle survivor in, say, a plane crash, That would have been me.
Stone can make that claim. He did make it. He recalled again the moment when he thought all was lost. He was at the mercy of the raging river, battered by the force of the rapids, tumbling downstream out of control. Then images of his family came into his mind and gave him a surge of energy. As the line he was holding was ripped from his hands, he abandoned the notion of staying with the boat and began a mad thrashing swim for shore. “I wasn’t going to die,” he declared. His surge of energy and determination carried him to an eddy, and survival.
Over the years the violent hydraulics of the Middle Fork have changed the river’s configuration along the banks, so we couldn’t determine exactly where Stone had washed ashore, near death from exhaustion and hypothermia. I remembered Doumani and I forded a turbulent waist-deep creek as we made our way downstream, but Grimes, our head guide, said nothing on the east bank matched that description. Then I spotted it: Mist Falls, a high trickle of water that in normal conditions feeds into the Middle Fork like a leaky faucet but in 1970 had been converted to fire hydrant strength by melting snow, one more symptom of the conditions that were reaching critical mass just as we entered this treacherous series of rapids.
Our next mission was to find the cliff where we had spent the night so long ago. We did find it, but it was no longer at the water’s edge; it was a tricky climb 30 feet from the shore over loose rocks, and the large slab on which we had made our improvised camp had tumbled to the base of the cliff. I scrambled up the slope and tried to call up that long-ago night, searching vainly for any sign we’d been there, obviously a futile exercise. I could see the small stand of scraggly pines where our rescue pack had landed. Karp reminded me there had been mountain lion scat everywhere, as well as signs of a fresh kill.
Back at water’s edge I asked for a moment of silence for Harmon and Teague. Afterward Stone sat in his raft and said, “I’ll never get over that this happened to Ellis. It is so sad…but the experience made me a better person. I used to be so uptight, worrying only about business, emotionally locked up. When I survived this I spent the next year hugging everyone I met.”
It wasn’t long after his near-death experience that Stone retired at an early age from his company, got divorced, married again, water, and started another family. He moved to the Boston area and bought a large ranch in the Adirondacks, near Lake Placid, pursuing a wide variety of investments and, as always, talking, dreaming, and playing baseball.
Maxwell went back to work on the river later that summer and eventually made more than a hundred trips. He said that the river has never been as violent as it was that week, and that people still ask him about the accident. He also filled me in on what happened when he and Ken Smith left us at the cliff and tried to get downstream to organize a rescue.
“We were hoping the sweep boat would be just around the corner, but we got trapped by the high water so we had to go back into the river; we swam around a point and got swept downstream about a mile. When we got out we were cold and wet, and we had only one Lucky Lager T-shirt between us, so we kept trading it back and forth all night.”
Maxwell told me how to reach Smith, now retired in Montana. Smith picked up the story with some details Maxwell didn’t recall. “Finally,” Smith said, “about four in the morning Billy got tired of that and asked me to bury him up to his neck in the sandbar where we were stranded. That’s how he stayed warm for the rest of the night.”
Smith, who eventually took over his family’s river-running business (he sold it a few years ago), said he replays the accident every time he goes back on the Middle Fork. He also laughingly referred to his “youthful bravado” when I recalled that we thought we could rescue the doomed McKenzie boat. “Yeah,” he said, “people still can’t believe what we went through.”
He filled in some blanks for me when I asked how he managed to get back on top of the raft, with one hand in a cast, after we flipped. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t tell you I was a reconnaissance swimmer for the marines in Vietnam. I’d slip off a Zodiac at three in the morning and swim two to three miles through the dark to an enemy beach to see if it was safe to put a patrol ashore there. I got to be a pretty strong swimmer.”
When I brought up Everett Spaulding, Smith sighed and said, “Yeah, wasn’t that something?” A few years after our accident Spaulding was preparing for another river trip, when the story goes, he backed into the prop of a supply plane with the motor running. He was killed instantly.
Karp & Stone had a heart-stopping moment on the final day of our recent trip when their raft had a rough ride through a set of rapids known as Devil’s Tooth. In low water, our guidebook warned, “making a line through Devil’s Tooth is the most technical challenge on the river.” John Hillman, our oarsman, acknowledged that he made a clumsy run, and for a moment the raft stalled, the stern dangerously low in the water, but he knew he could make a quick recovery and he did.
As we floated along I continued to reflect on the earlier trip, which, despite the accident, had led me back into the wild. I had a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn childhood along the Missouri, camping out, hunting, and fishing whenever I could, but after college I lit out for bright lights and big cities, determined to leave my Boy Scout days behind. The Middle Fork reawakened in me a passion for wild places that you enter on nature’s terms. I began backpacking through the Sierra and Rocky mountains with my wife Meredith. We did an Outward Bound trip on Penobscot Bay in Maine. We’ve been to the Himalayas and sailed in Indonesia. And every year since the river trip I’ve gone off by myself, if only for a day, to someplace where I am humbled by the delicate beauty and raw power of the truly wild.
Taking in the last stretches of canyon, I thought about all that I would have missed if I had gone down with Harmon on the original journey. Rivers, with their ancient origins and silence, I find, are better than a therapist’s couch for contemplation. At one with the rhythms of the Middle Fork, I became absorbed in the emotional richness of my long love affair with Meredith; the passages of our daughters from childhood to maturity and the glories of grandchildren; the realization of my career and all the rewards that went with it, professional and financial. As well as what I would have missed, I saw what I did not appreciate in 1970, that I was just getting under way in a life that would prove more rewarding than I dared hope. That summer I was on the cusp of a long-running great adventure that took me to other dangers in the wilderness and war zones in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. It was, fortunately, an adventure with many more good times than bad. When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “My mistress still the open road / And the bright eyes of danger,” he was speaking to me; yet Harmon’s and Teague’s deaths had been an important caution to the perilous consequences of those bright eyes.
When I returned from our reunion trip I called up Harmon’s widow Millie. “It still hurts to realize Ellis didn’t have the rich life he deserved,” I told her. “But if he had to die at that age, he did so in a beautiful place, fighting all the way against the powerful natural forces he so admired.”
Millie agreed, and then laughed a little, remembering his liberal sensibilities. “On the other hand,” she said, “he wouldn’t be happy with the state of the world these days. He wouldn’t believe what’s going on.”
All of these years later I can still hear Everett Spaulding’s mournful observation. “That river swallows people,” he said. “Some it gives up. Some it don’t.”