The Middle Fork Revisited
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
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 dangerous stretch of rapids, known as Impassable Canyon, a long, steeply pitched corkscrew of a gorge leading 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 awoke 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 oneof 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 least 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'd 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 huddled 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 a life jacket he could barely keep his head above water. Harmon, recalling Spaulding's advice, pulled himself onto 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 downstream, 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 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 underbrush. 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 backside. It was about 4:30 pm. Smith and Maxwell decided to try another route downstream 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 another 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."