Body Found in Colorado River Likely That of Missing River Guide

Veteran river guide Joshua “Frenchy” Tourjee was helping lead an OARS trip when he went missing more than a week ago near Pancho’s Kitchen

Sep 22, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Float Trip

Park rangers found a body more than a week after a seasoned rafting guide disappeared.    Photo: Jonathan Nafzger/iStockphoto

Rangers at Grand Canyon National Park located a body near mile 139 on the Colorado River on Tuesday, September 20. A press release from the park states that early evidence points to it being Joshua “Frenchy” Tourjee, 34, an OARS river guide who was reported missing by his companions on September 12.

Tourjee was helping lead an OARS group that had camped at Pancho’s Kitchen—a mere two miles upstream of where the body was located. Tourjee's camp was just downstream of Deer Creek, a well-known side-canyon hike. Two other campsites sit nearby on the same side of the Colorado River. On the evening of September 11, Tourjee, who'd guided for the company since 2013, walked upstream to visit friends at those camps. The water is relatively calm in this area, and Tourjee would have been able to walk on dry land to the camps, says Tyler Wendt, director of operations for the OARS family of companies.

In addition to flip-flops and a headlamp, Tourjee was last seen wearing a neck-tie and an inflatable pool raft, possibly in the shape of a black swan. It’s a longstanding tradition for canyon guides to dress up for dinner, often in bizarre, fun thrift-store clothes. They sometimes will bring bags of clothes for themselves and guests. “Frenchy was well known for having dapper attire”—old sport coats and tuxedo jackets to liven up the evenings, says Wendt. "[He] would dress for dinner every night.”

Jonny Martellino and his wife, Penny, of Dallas, Texas, were on a memorable float with Tourjee in the upper part of the Grand Canyon a few days before he disappeared, before the couple departed at Phantom Ranch. During that trip, Jonny Martellino says, “There was no partying going on, not at all. As soon as the sun went down, it was cleaned up and everyone was in bed.” The guides were up again at 5 a.m., making coffee for their clients. At camp, Tourjee “was a literature guy, and a poetry guy, and so at night he would pull out a book” and do dramatic readings of poetry and prose about the canyon, says Martellino.

About 700 people have died in the Grand Canyon since modern record-keeping began, in incidents ranging from drowning to air crashes to suicides, says Dr. Tom Myers, who has authored or co-authored four books related the canyon, including Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon and Fateful Journey: Injury and Death on Colorado Trips in the Grand Canyon.

Occasionally, people disappear and are not found. Last year another river guide, Morgan Heimer, 22, was working on a commercial raft trip when he disappeared during a hike at Pumpkin Springs. An intensive eight-day search by the park turned up nothing. Heimer was last seen carrying a water bottle and wearing a PFD. A hiker disappeared earlier this year in the western Grand Canyon; searchers have been unsuccessful, says Myers. Four years ago, another experienced hiker also disappeared in the western canyon “and he was never heard from again,” Myers says. 

In 1975, a woman was found alive three weeks after she got lost hiking in a side canyon of Havasupai. In another incident, in 1959, “a kid...tried to float on some logs” down the river, says Myers. Nearly drowned, the boy made it to shore and was found after one week. And in November of 1991, a boater on a solo river trip flipped his raft and got stranded for a week before he was found, says Myers. Today, however, "there are so many people on the river… the odds of making it to shore and not being found are infinitesimal,” he says. 

While Myers did not know all the details of Tourjee’s disappearance, he feared that the guide tried to float back to his campsite on the relatively calm water in the area around Pancho's Kitchen, possibly using his inflatable pool raft. “As a guide he would’ve frowned on any client doing this,” Myers says. Had Tourjee missed the campsite, however, he would have quickly encountered Doris Rapid, a mid-sized feature that should not be swum without a PFD. A local newspaper reported that two days after Tourjee’s disappearance, another commercial trip found an inflatable pool toy about 19 miles downstream. 

The body was taken to the Coconino County Medical Examiner, in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it will be officially identified. 

Filed To: Gear, Rafting, Grand Canyon

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