The Middle Fork Revisited
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum

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.

It was a long time ago, and a different time in America and in the lives of the six of us who decided to make the trip that summer. 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 to go 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.