The Middle Fork Revisited
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
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 overturned 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, 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 and 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 clean 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 SawyerÐHuck 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."

A River Wild

The Middle Fork of the Salmon has been run commercially since the late 1940s. In 2006 the author completed the six-day journey from Indian Creek to Stoddard Creek. His outfitter, OARS, runs this trip from May to September.