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Rafter survives after embarking on a solo trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Posted at 6:18 PM, May 25, 2024

STANLEY, Idaho — I called rafter Thomas Gray after he was back at his home in North Fork, Idaho. Gray has more than four decades of rafting experience and he's been running the Middle Fork of the Salmon through Marsh Creek for more than a decade.

His story of survival is a testament to his will to live, but he made several crucial mistakes that put him in a tough spot in the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return west of Stanley.

A map of the route Thomas walked from Boundary Creek

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the premiere multi-day river expeditions in the United States. However, for boaters to float this remote stretch in June, July and August they have to win a permit in a lottery with the odds being around two percent.

"I put in for a permit, of course I didn’t get one, as usual," said Gray. "I've been running this stretch through Marsh Creek since 2011."

Marsh Creek

Boaters have an easier time getting a pre-season permit in May. However, during this time the road to the Boundary Creek put-in remains closed because of snow. This forces boaters to put-in at Marsh Creek which is notorious for having wood hazards around blind corners. That's where Gray first ran into trouble about seven miles in.

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"There was a lot of current by then," said Gray. "I came around the corner and the logs totally blocked it, except for one spot about five feet wide on the left. So I rowed with all my heart to get to the left side and I got about half way because I was on the right side. I wish I would have known it was there, I would have been on the left side to start."

The road to Boundary Creek has snow on it about a mile in

Gray pinned his cataraft on the log and climbed on top of the log. A short time later a group of kayakers came by and helped Gray free the vessel. It floated downstream where Gray retrieved it and said goodbye to the kayakers while he worked to put all the pieces back.

"The kayakers saved my bacon actually," said Gray.

Dagger Falls

Gray camped along Marsh Creek, but this ordeal put him well behind on his goal of meeting his wife and daughter at the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon. He does solo trips now because the last time someone came with him, his brother drowned in Dagger Falls.

Gray scouted Dagger Falls and decided to run the rapid because he didn't want to delay any longer. He had run Dagger Falls three times before without a problem, but the Middle Fork was running at around 6,000 cubic feet per second on Saturday, May 18.

Dagger Falls from water level

"I made the fateful decision," said Gray. "I’m going to float it, what is the chance of me going over? Well, that was my big mistake."

Gray flipped in the rapid hitting his leg on the oar lock on the way out. He was able to swim to shore and although he searched for his cat, he never found it. There went all his food, his clothing, his shelter, sleeping bag and all his supplies.

Not the actual outhouse, but a similar one to the one Gray tough shelter in

Gray took shelter in an outhouse at Boundary Creek where he stayed for two nights to get out of the elements as best he could. He was able to get all his gear dry except for his socks.

"Never try to sleep in one of those outhouse, you know why?" asked Gray. "Because they have concrete floors. I was frozen, I’ve never been so cold in my life. I’m thought I'm not going to make it, I’m going to freeze to death so I walked all night in that outhouse in the pitch dark."

21-miles to Boundary Creek. Gray stayed near the air strip

Gray made up his mind the next day to start the 21-mile journey back to Highway 21 along a snow covered road. After about 12-miles Gray reached the Bruce Meadows Air Strip where he found a small cabin unlocked where he stayed another night.

"I walk into the cabin and there is a fireplace and there is wood." said Gray. "I thought, I’m going to be warm tonight, but I don’t have matches. At least it didn’t have a concrete floor, but I discovered the wood floor didn’t make a whole lot of difference."

Snow remains in higher altitudes in the Frank Church

The next morning Gray started off over the pass, but at this point he hadn't ate anything for four days, he drank water from streams or ate snow. He almost reached the summit when he laid down.

"I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I was praying, 'Lord, don’t let me die'," said Gray. "I was getting so tired, I would sit down. It was hard for me to get back up on my feet, I would take little naps and then I heard a noise."

Steve Lentz from Far and Away Adventures

Gray's luck finally changed as Steve and Annie Lentz of Far Away Adventures drove over the pass with a crew. They were on their way to access the situation at Velvet Rapid because there was a landslide that dumped a bunch of wood into this rapid and they were hoping to clear out some of the debris.

They found Gray, still in his river gear. The 73-year-old man was rescued and they brought him back to civilization. Thomas Gray survived a harrowing adventure in the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return to be reunited with his wife who was worried when Gray didn't show up.

Thomas and a first responder who went looking for him

"They gave me a little food and I hopped in their truck," said Gray. "It was the first heat I’ve had in four days, it was wonderful."

Thomas Gray made several mistakes including being on the river by himself. It's always a good idea to have other people with you, especially on a wilderness overnight expedition.

Gray should never have let running behind influence his decision on the river and he paid for it at Dagger Falls. He had also never heard of a Garmin InReach, but if he had a satellite communication device he could have called in a rescue at Boundary Creek. However, he did show great resolve in hiking more then 20 miles — his will to survive and a little bit of luck all made this a happy ending.