The Terrifying Whitewater Trip That Turned into a Dream
How young is too young for risk? During an Idaho river adventure that included her seven-year-old, Tracy Ross faced this question in the most harrowing way imaginable.
For decades, people have taken seven-year-olds on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. But after the fact, when I asked my most experienced rafting friends if they would have done it, they scratched their heads and said, “It depends.”
The Middle Fork runs roughly 100 miles through the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. It’s wild, remote, and riddled with hazards. Along those miles of whitewater are about eight Class IV rapids and dozens of Class IIIs, depending on water levels. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own.
I knew this from previous trips and from stories told by people who’d suffered various catastrophes there. One man was thrown from his boat and died of a heart attack in the frigid waters; his group had to haul his corpse down the river until they reached a spot where the body could be evacuated. A friend broke her leg on day one and spent the next five days howling every time the bone was jostled. During a guided trip, an outfitter I know heard the cry of a boy who’d been bitten by a rattlesnake. He saw the fang marks in the boy’s foot, which bled terribly. Because outfitters carry satellite phones, he was able to summon a helicopter, but many noncommercial river runners lack satellite communication, so if someone gets bit, there’s a reasonable chance they’ll either lose a limb or die.
What I remember from the first day of my most recent Middle Fork trip, in July 2019, is my family floating down the river and my husband, Shawn Edmondson, trying to catch an eddy above a blind corner. I remember jumping from our raft and attempting to pull the boat to shore. I slipped on the rocks and lost my hold just as the river ripped the boat back into the current. Shawn is a very experienced rafter, but thanks to this chain of events, he and my seven-year-old daughter, Hollis, were suddenly headed toward a Class IV rapid called Velvet Falls, an infamous bottomless hydraulic that eats swimmers.
Lumbering onto the bank, I watched the river pull the boat toward Velvet with Shawn and Hollis aboard. We’d had a plan: two adults on the raft at all times, in case it flipped and one had to wrangle it while the other grabbed Hollis. That plan had just exploded, and now I heard an anguished cry surging out of me: “Fuck! Hollis! No!”
Followed by: “Shawn! Hold on to her! Please!”
Shawn tried to catch an eddy. Thinking it was shallow, he leapt out of the boat. But the water was too swift and the raft too big, and he could neither drag it to shore nor heave himself back in.
Hollis was on the raft alone, and at the time, I thought Velvet Falls was just around the corner.
I no longer ask what others would have done, because it’s enough to know what I did. I know the choices I made and the outcomes they resulted in. I know their ripple effects, too.
I also know that my desire to put Hollis on the Middle Fork came from a good place. I love her, she loves adventure, and prior to the 2019 Middle Fork run, we’d taken her on six multi-day raft trips. Out there on the river, her needs are pared down to essentials: water, sunscreen, food, and warm, waterproof clothes for inclement weather. We keep her safe by buckling her into one of the best children’s floatation devices you can buy, an Astral Otter. And we try to protect her from dangers that include scorpions, snakes, sunburn, dehydration, hypothermia, food poisoning, falling out of the raft, and slipping off a bank into the river. As a result, she has drifted through wildernesses that the vast majority of people will never see, and is attuned to the earth’s processes in a way that’s becoming more and more foreign to an increasing number of kids.
Shawn and I have decades of boating experience between us. He started guiding in Alaska in the 1990s, then guided in Colorado, and has since run many rivers in the West: Oregon’s Rogue, Idaho’s Main Salmon, Alaska’s Talkeetna, and—on the easier side—the Upper Colorado, Utah’s San Juan, and Montana’s Smith. When we go, he does most of the rowing, but I assist when I’m not, say, duckying big sections of whatever river we’re on. In other words we weren’t beginners, or even intermediates. But any river expedition is a major undertaking, no matter the depth or breadth of your experience.
Now we’d won the lottery to run the Middle Fork, a breathtaking river that joins the Main Salmon after an average five- or six-day journey. You don’t know how truly fortunate this was unless you know rafting. Every year, thousands of boaters put in for permits, and only about 350 noncommercial groups get them during the season, which runs May 28 through September 3.
You wait with angst to find out, fearing you won’t win, and when you do, you immediately round up the flotilla of river runners you feel most comfortable with, because that way you know everyone’s approach to doing things. You know who has what gear, rescue experience, and medical training, and you know who’ll remember to bring a margarita mixer. You know that person X has kayaked regularly for 20 years and managed to get out of some sticky situations, while Y once guided the Grand Canyon and makes killer Dutch oven pizza. You know that Z always brings sand toys, even though her kids are grown, and that she can read water better than anyone you’ve ever met.
But the summer of 2019 was unusual: none of our go-to boating friends could do the trip. So we invited a new group, forming a party that totaled 16 in all. We knew most of them, but we’d boated with only one.
Among those we hadn’t rafted with before were a family with an eight-year-old girl, Hollis’s friend Brynn. Her mom and I went back and forth about the wisdom of bringing our daughters. Hollis could have stayed with relatives, but I struggled with the idea of leaving her behind, possibly missing the one chance she’d have to feel the magic of the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The Middle Fork, and the 2.3 million acres of wilderness surrounding it, is like heaven, if heaven is a place where wolves, black bears, mountain lions, moose, and elk roam, and where river otters play in water somehow both crystal clear and emerald green. You can soak in a hot spring at a camp that the Sheepeater (Tuka Dika) Indians used, back when Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark through the region.
All this made me want to bring Hollis, but another factor sealed it. If she didn’t go, Brynn wouldn’t either. And if Brynn didn’t go, her family wouldn’t. We needed her family because we liked them, because they had years of experience, and because without them, we lacked enough boats to carry the group’s gear.
Brynn’s mom was named Tracy Foster, and she and I both knew that with some extra effort, we could pull the boats into eddies above the biggest rapids, haul the girls out and hike them around, and then put them back in below the rapid and carry on.
After we decided, we still felt nervous. But we were going.
On Memorial Day, a month before the Salmon River trip, my 16-year-old son, Hatcher, and I were standing in southwestern Idaho’s Payette River, a few feet from a snowbank. We were both shivering, despite having on multiple layers of long underwear and expensive drysuits. A clutch of boaters surrounded us. We were taking a swiftwater rescue course I’d signed us up for, because Hatcher wants to be a river guide someday and because we’d soon be heading to the Middle Fork. The plan was for Shawn to do most of the rowing, for me to entertain Hollis on the boat (and hold her tight through the big rapids), and for Hatcher to kayak.
Today was experiential-education day for Hatcher and me. Despite the late-spring snow melting into runoff, we were taking turns diving into the Payette. You start by standing a few feet offshore, in water up to your knees. Then you jump in, skimming the surface with your belly, and swim like hell. The goal is to move upstream into the current at an angle that efficiently ferries your body across the water. The best swimmers would be able to catch an eddy behind a rock located about two-thirds of the way across, scramble on top, and then flop back in to swim to the opposite shore.
It was anxiety producing but fun, and the exercise taught us that we could hold our own in frigid water. We also practiced throwing a rescue bag to capsized boaters, swimming in whitewater while maneuvering to negotiate hazards, and pulling a person in distress from the river. By the end of the day, Hatcher seemed comfortable in a range of rescue situations, and I felt better prepared.
The Middle Fork, and the 2.3 million acres of wilderness surrounding it, is like heaven, if heaven is a place where wolves, black bears, mountain lions, moose, and elk roam.
Day two was mental training, and that made a strong impression on us. In a chilly storage room at the outfitter running the course, Canyons River Company, we listened to Nate Ostis, founder of Wilderness Rescue International, introduce the idea of heuristics. Put simply, heuristic techniques are the mental shortcuts we use when making decisions. They’re useful for everyday, low-risk scenarios, but can easily become traps that put us or others in danger.
For example, the trap of familiarity occurs when someone skis a backcountry slope after a big storm without checking the snowpack, based on previous experiences on that slope. Acceptance involves giving in to peer pressure—like when you go out during a time of considerable avalanche danger because your friends are doing it and you don’t want them to think you’re uncool. Scarcity is when you bypass logic altogether to pursue a limited supply of fun. As in: “The storm dangerously loaded the slopes. But there’s powder out there—let’s get it!”
The trap that interested me most was called the expert halo. Ostis explained it like this: “I wouldn’t normally run Middle Fork Salmon at seven feet—a crazy-high level—but since X person is on the trip, I’m in. X always talks me through the lines. She’s always there when I flip. She’s always stoking me, coaching me, correcting me, catching me. I can operate in terrain beyond my typical comfort zone when I’m within X’s aura.”
That sounds a lot like positive thinking, but there’s a downside. “I cease to make complete decisions for myself when in the protective presence of X,” Ostis said. “I default to her judgment instead of relying on my own.”
At the time, I had no idea I would succumb to this trap, and to others, too. In fact, I’d already walked into the scarcity trap by choosing to bring Hollis, which I’d done partly because of the rare opportunity to run the Middle Fork. But it was something like the expert halo that would have the greater impact on me, and I should have seen it coming. I’ve always been highly susceptible to giving my power, knowledge, and instinct away to others. Soon that tendency would have serious consequences for our trip.
By June 4, Hatcher and I had finished our course and were headed to Montana. We’d been invited on another permit-required trip, on the Smith River. The Smith is straightforward—mellow, meandering, and always within striking distance of safety.
We’d also boated it before, so I felt good about bringing Hollis. Our neighbors would drive her and our raft up from Colorado, and Hatcher would do most of the rowing. During the trip, we would discuss what we were learning and drill into our heads the safety and rescue measures Ostis had taught us.
Before that, though, Hatcher and I spoke with an acquaintance who’d boated the Middle Fork a lot. He’d learned that we were planning to take Hollis on our trip, and he issued a dire warning. He called the Middle Fork a “real river” and said young kids should never go on it.
I countered that we planned to walk Hollis around all the potentially dangerous rapids.
He said we could try that but we’d likely run into trouble, starting with the first Class IV rapid, Velvet Falls.
I listened, comparing these warnings with my own knowledge.
I knew Velvet was a big deal—I’d read the Middle Fork guidebook and had been on two previous trips there. I also knew that Velvet could be very dangerous at six or seven feet, but my group had already decided not to go if the river was above three. Yet for some reason—perhaps a general inability to trust myself—fear knotted in my chest.
Now I was in a conundrum, because we’d already decided to bring Hollis. Yet in an instant, I could feel my friend’s warning begin to erode my confidence. By the time we were done discussing Velvet Falls, his expertise had become a worm burrowing into my brain. But instead of taking it for what it was—an informed opinion—I’d end up processing it in a way that would create more danger.
Three weeks later, four-fifths of our family crammed into a borrowed Chevy long bed and sped toward the Salmon, with the smell of sagebrush wafting through open windows. (Our oldest son, Scout, was working on a commercial salmon-fishing boat in Alaska.) Blue nets secured our gear, accumulated during decades of boating. Hatcher sat in the passenger seat Snapchatting friends; Shawn and Hollis read books, played tic-tac-toe, and munched Pringles. I drove 80, amped on Pearl Jam and the joyful excitement of heading toward a river.
A day and a half later, we arrived in Stanley, a tiny town at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains and the gateway to the Middle Fork. There we met Tracy, her husband, and their two kids. Under a hot sun, we stocked up on last-minute supplies and washed our hair with a hose behind the store. The Sawtooths glinted above us, the pale ales were cold and hoppy, and the river had dropped to three feet.
Oblivious to anything but the fact that they were together, Hollis and her friend Brynn saw each other, screamed, and raced around on the grass, happy as puppies. Like Hollis, Brynn had been on several raft trips, and she was just as comfortable sleeping on a sandy beach as in her bed at home. Her parents had a combined 40 years of experience. They knew the rewards and risks.
I fed off the girls’ excitement, and Tracy’s, too. We were thrilled to be far from home, in such a beautiful place, with six days of fun ahead. Still, we worried about my friend’s warning, which I had mentioned to her.
“What do you think?” she said, huffing, during an after-dinner run we took to calm our nerves.
“I mean, I think it’s OK,” I said, also winded.
“You think they’ll be all right?” She coughed.
“Yeah, but we have to hike them around Velvet,” I said.
“Yes. No matter what.”
And that was that, because we’d done our research, the water had dropped, and we’d made our call.
When morning came my anxiety was heightened, because everything about the Middle Fork is sensory overload. The wilderness itself feels primordial. The river throbs below the campground. To lower your raft at the put-in, you place it on a ramp that slants down at a 30-degree pitch, then the whole group holds on to the frame as it slowly drops 150 feet.
The river is calm at this spot. When we launched, Hatcher was in a ducky, Shawn was rowing the raft, and I was in charge of Hollis. I held her tight, breathed the river in, and enjoyed the moment. We were, after all, a highly skilled group. In addition to Tracy’s family, we had two experienced rowers piloting catarafts (boats with inflatable tubes connected by a metal frame), two expert adult kayakers seasoned in river rescue, and three teens in kayaks and duckies.
All this allowed me to relax, and when I did, I marveled at the mountains rising on either side of us, the clear green water, and Hollis’s face—eyes closed, chin tilted toward the sun, smiling.
Soon we entered a section of river where the water was lower and more rocks were exposed. It would be easy for a boat to get stuck.
Our group maneuvered as best we could, but inevitably, a few of us got hung up. When a boat strands on a rock, it can take a while to shimmy off. Do this repeatedly and the hours can pass without you noticing; as a result, it can feel like you’ve covered more ground than you have.
Some of us were getting stuck on rocks and others had to stop and help. Time slowed; speed and distance warped. Before long we came to a rapid. A knowledgeable member of our group identified it inaccurately, causing the rest of us to believe we were closer to Velvet than we were.
Tracy and I started to stress. We insisted that Shawn and Tracy’s husband pull our boats into eddies ahead of every blind turn. And each time they did this and Velvet didn’t appear, the rapid seemed to loom with added menace in our minds.
An acquaintance learned that we were planning to take Hollis on our trip, and he issued a dire warning. He called the Middle Fork a “real river” and said young kids should never go on it.
Finally, I made Shawn pull over long enough for Tracy and me to get out and scout around another corner. The girls came along, all of us crossing an island covered in fire-blackened logs. This foray resulted in lost footing, scraped legs, and kid complaints, so Tracy took the girls back to the boats while I hiked up the mountainside for a better look. No dice. I clambered back into the boat. My family floated until we went around another bend and saw Tracy and her crew idling in yet another eddy.
“I was so sick of stopping. I was at the point where I was no longer going to do it,” Shawn later recalled. But as I verged closer to panic, thinking we were just above Velvet, he tried rowing us out of the current. Our raft is a 16-footer, and when it’s loaded down with the three of us plus gear, it maneuvers like a tank. Shawn is strong and athletic—part backcountry ski guide, part housebuilder—but with all that weight on board, it was almost impossible to bring the boat to shore.
Thinking I’d help, I leapt out and lurched toward the bank. Bowline in hand, I tried to pull us in.
The current, the boat’s heft, and my inadequate strength caused me to trip and fall, and I was dragged across the rocks near the shore. That’s when I let go of the rope and watched as Shawn and Hollis drifted into the river’s green tongue.
Then I basically lost my mind.
Thinking we were just above the killer rapid, I screamed. In an instant, I visualized Shawn rowing the boat, Hollis failing to hold on, the boat flipping, and Hollis flying out. I saw my seven-year-old flailing for help while the recirculating rapid held her under. I saw her lungs fill with water.
“Oh, my God! Shawn!” I screamed. “Make her hold on!”
The fear in my voice caused him to try and bring the boat to shore. He jumped out, tried to pull it in, failed, and was unable to heave himself aboard.
Now I watched Hollis, alone on our raft, head for what I thought was the last turn before Velvet.
Accounts of what happened next vary based on the observer. One of our kayakers, Gary Eldridge, says he saw Hollis from his own perch in an eddy a few yards down the river. She was “alone but unaware of what was happening,” he says. Shawn, who was in the river clutching the frame, remembers her “just sitting there, looking stunned.” Hollis describes it like so: “I was so scared, because I thought I would never see Scout again. I thought I’d never see Boone.” Boone is our dog. In other words, she thought she was going to die.
Gary saved us. He saw the commotion and was able to paddle over, stuff his kayak nose beneath our raft, stand on the hull, and jump in. Then he secured our boat’s oars, reached over the side, grabbed Shawn by his PFD, and hauled him aboard. The two men lost their balance and crashed into Hollis; only then did she start to wail.
Gary rowed to my side of the river. I couldn’t gauge how far downstream they’d gone because I was filled with terror. Adrenaline surging, I staggered over the rocks until I reached Hollis, who was shaking as she sobbed. I held her as tight as I could and announced that this was it for her and me; we were close enough to the put-in that I’d hike her out. I didn’t care about anything else.
Shawn said that this plan didn’t make sense. Gary agreed, addressing both Tracy and me. “Tracy and Tracy! You have to stop! This scouting around every corner is causing our problems. We have people who are more than qualified to row Velvet. But you have to let them do it.”
I guess that’s what liberated me from the spell of expert opinion. Once I’d almost killed Hollis, I realized that my fear of harming her could have been lethal. And to top it off, Velvet wasn’t right around the corner at all; it was two miles downriver.
When we finally came to it, we pushed through without incident. It’s true what the guidebook says, that at five feet or higher it becomes a “boat flipping hole that is difficult to miss,” but at three feet it was a straight shot, off an exciting drop, into pushy water that helped us grab a nearby eddy.
That night we camped on a wildflower-sprayed bench above the river, and the next morning we were up and paddling early. Small whitecaps formed on the rapids, which glinted in the sun like tinfoil. Ospreys perched in the branches of lodgepoles, and Dolly Varden trout darted in the clear emerald water.
Later, a boat pinned in a logjam redirected our attention. We worked for hours to free it but couldn’t. After serious deliberation, we loaded its occupants onto other craft, and they caught a flight from an airstrip the following morning. (The boat was later recovered.)
Overall, with Velvet behind us, my anxiety eased considerably. But soon we would face our second big rapid, a Class IV doozy called Pistol.
Because the raft was heavily loaded, we were at heightened risk of flipping. Shawn has safely rowed countless Class IVs, but you can never count on past successes. This time, Hollis was in Tracy’s more maneuverable raft, floating with Brynn, screaming and laughing. That arrangement allowed me to breathe easier and take in the experience free of fear.
We surged into Pistol, spun around, bounced against a rock, and stalled on a hydraulic. Shawn rowed, a friend and I grabbed oars, and we all paddled like hell. It was touch and go for maybe 15 seconds, but we ran it without flipping. My heart was pounding, but without Hollis on board I was able to embrace the thrill.
At Pistol Creek Camp, where we later regrouped, I examined Hollis for any signs of trauma. She seemed fine: She’d found a helmet and a pair of sunglasses, and had lured Brynn into a ducky. Tied to a rock and floating in an eddy, they played for an hour. I noticed that Hollis had put herself in charge, and that her rules were pretty strict. She shouted, “There’s a rapid, Brynn! Paddle! Paddle!”
The rest of the evening brought a slow loosening of tension, coupled with immersion in the magic of the river. We were at 44.7 degrees north, and twilight lingered for hours. In the purple glow, we found and relocated a baby rattlesnake. The teens kicked a Hacky Sack as the adults cooked dinner. Later we spread our sleeping bags on a tarp as the sand beneath it began to cool. Under a cloudless sky, we watched stars appear, first one, then thousands. All was quiet except for the sound of the river lapping the beach and water coursing between the inky rocks in Pistol.
Now past our biggest hurdles, we settled in for the next three nights and four days. On the river, I simultaneously loved the ride and steeled myself when we hit a big rapid. I’d snake-grip Hollis, squint my eyes, and hold my breath until we pushed through. Once safely below it, I’d feel a rush of joy. Hollis would splay her little body out on the cooler, singing a song she’d made up about otters. She’d cheer on Hatcher and his pals as they tested their growing kayak skills.
Day three was mellow paddling, casting for trout, and scanning for wildlife. We paddled 21 miles through multiple big rapids and had nothing but fun. That night we stayed at Whitey Cox Camp, named for a World War II infantryman who’d come to the Salmon seeking gold and had died when his placer mine collapsed on top of him. You can still visit his tombstone on a bench above the campsite, and the women in our group scurried up there for a little freedom. We did some burpees and sit-ups, and sipped a couple of beers in honor of old Whitie (the correct spelling of the poor man’s name).
The river lulled us to sleep again, and in the morning we were up early. Today we were going to Big Loon Camp, one of my favorite spots. The Sheepeater Indians inhabited this place until they were forced onto reservations more than a hundred years ago. I had also solidified several friendships here in 2014 while rafting with a group of under-forties who’d survived cancer.
Loon has some of the best hot springs on the Middle Fork. Getting there requires a dusty, mile-long walk up Loon Creek, but I was excited for Hatcher and Hollis to see them. My kids have done a lot of cool things—skied in the Tetons, spent a summer in Alaska, flown to glaciers in tiny planes—but they’ve never soaked in a tarp-lined log “tub” in the middle of nowhere.
Never mind that Hollis barely dipped her toe in the water. Someday she’ll realize how special it was to visit a creek only a fraction of the world ever sees. For now, Pringles and Oreos called her back to the boat. We got going again and ran Tappan Falls, Tappan III, and Earthquake Rock (all challenging rapids) before camping at Sheep Creek. The next day, we celebrated our first Fourth of July on a river.
We marked the occasion with a stop at the Flying B Ranch, a fly-, float-, or horseback-in kind of place that sells beer, candy, T-shirts, and ice cream. Tracy had packed patriotic temporary tattoos for the girls. As Hollis licked an ice cream bar, the Statue of Liberty danced on her cheek.
On the deck outside the store, there’s a bulletin board where you can leave messages for other boaters you know are coming through. To my high school friend Matt, Hollis wrote, “Hi Matt. How are you? Have you met me?” I grinned watching Hollis have yet another only-on-the-Salmon experience before we headed to our fifth and final camp of the trip. In a whipping wind, we ate a classic Independence Day dinner (burgers, with a bit more dirt in them than usual), waved glow sticks at bats dive-bombing mosquitoes, and thanked the stars for aligning to give us this trip.
The next morning, we headed toward our last stretch of river before the take-out, one of the most beautiful sections of the Middle Fork. The accordion of mountains loosens, and the coin-slot canyons open up. The river becomes wider and more gentle, enormous boulders dwarf humans, and your surroundings feel prehistoric.
In one tricky rapid, Hatcher flipped, attempted repeated rolls, and finally had to wet-exit his kayak. We collected his boat and pulled him into the raft, and I snapped a picture that conveys exactly how he says he felt: “Pissed that everyone was so focused on the little kids that they barely noticed when I had a few scary flips.”
I guess I figured that since he was older and quickly becoming a solid boater, he didn’t need my worry. Plus, the adult kayakers in our group were keeping close watch over the teens—giving them hundreds of dollars’ worth of instruction for free.
Then one of the coolest moments of our journey happened. At our final lunch stop, Hollis asked Shawn to play with her in the river. At the edge of an eddy with a gently moving current, she had him stand by her ducky and hold it steady. In her shiny black wetsuit top and her purple PFD, she said, “Wait right there, Dada.” Then she waded several yards upstream.
What she did next was even better. Belly down on the river’s surface, she let the current take her. Showing no fear at all, she floated to the boat, pulled herself over the side, and beamed with pride.
Things seemed perfect. But one more challenge awaited.
The final section of the Middle Fork is difficult: in just seven miles, there are two Class III–IVs, three Class IIIs, and four Class IIs. The bigger rapids are both stay-alert, watch-yourself runs.
Reveling in the excitement, we all took to saying, “This is a true adventure. A true epic.” Everyone agreed that it was a trip we would never forget.
We cruised through Class III–IV Hancock Rapid like old hands. We barely noticed the Class IIs. But then came House of Rocks, a technical Class III–IV with heavy hydraulics. Before we even entered, things went south.
House of Rocks has two lines, one that goes to the right of a set of boulders, and one that goes to the left. The left channel is the move—the way you’re supposed to enter. “We had been so glued to the guidebook. I was glad to read and run,” Shawn said later. “But of course you can’t do that on the Middle Fork.”
We weren’t paying enough attention, and suddenly we found ourselves on top of the rapid. In a turbulent rock garden, Shawn tried lining us up but couldn’t. The river pulled us into the right channel, and as it took control, it turned us and wedged us between two rocks. The boat began to high-side, water piling up behind it.
My first reaction was to scream. If we didn’t right the boat we’d flip, and that meant plunging into a churning hydraulic. I knew from experience on the Middle Fork how one of these can hold you under. And I knew there was only a tiny chance that, if we did go in, I’d be able to hold on to Hollis.
But I had learned an important lesson. After our Velvet debacle, I realized that in giving my power away, I’d become useless—even a danger. Once I’d regained trust in my own ability to assess risk, the entire trip had gone much better. Now we were in a truly hazardous spot. But instead of losing my shit, I took a quick, deep breath.
I visualized my seven-year-old flailing for help while the recirculating rapid held her under. I saw her lungs fill with water. “Oh, my god! Shawn!” I screamed. “Make her hold on!”
Then I surveyed the scene and saw that one of the rocks pinning us was big enough for us to cling to. It wasn’t perfect; its shape was like an inverted tooth, and to stay on we would have to straddle it. But we’d be safer there, so I stepped from the lurching boat onto the boulder, pulling Hollis onto it with me. We were only about four feet from the shoreline, but the water in that gap was a dangerous torrent.
We were both terrified; I tried to calm Hollis as she shook and cried. Meanwhile, the kayakers had pulled off the river and were working out the best way to rescue Hollis and me from the gut of a raging rapid. In a matter of minutes, Gary was in position on a rocky bank several feet from us, stretching his arms toward Hollis. With the pinned boat heaving, Shawn stepped onto our rock and grabbed her. I told her she’d be all right and started to lift her off my body. My girl is sturdy, so as Shawn hoisted her across, I shouted to Gary, “Get ready! She’s heavier than she looks! She’s heavy!”
Hearing me, our group supported Gary as he lifted her over the water. Then he helped me leap across. I knew that if either of us had slipped, we could have drowned. But we didn’t. Shawn was able to bounce the raft through the rocks, and we all reconvened in an eddy below the rapid.
During this ordeal, Hollis had dug her fingernails into my arms. But after it was over, we gently urged her back into the boat. She was alright as long as she sat in my lap. The last two rapids nearly put me over the edge, and when we reached the confluence with the Main Salmon, I asked Shawn if Hollis and I could get out and walk the final Class III–IV. We did, and after Shawn ran it, we jumped back in.
Hollis floated the final quarter-mile to the take-out, gripping me tightly but with a grin on her sun-pinked face. When we slid the boat out of the water, she broke into a smile. I leapt out to take her picture. She’s wearing a shortie wetsuit, her PFD, sneakers, and a trucker hat with the word McFabulous across the front, which belonged to our friend Greg McFadden. He owns Canyons River Company, which runs trips on the Salmon all summer.
In the photo, Hollis is holding her arms in a flexed position that says I did this.
Later I asked Greg if we’d screwed up by bringing Hollis on the Middle Fork. He said no, we didn’t, that we had enough experience. We knew the risks and dangers, and we’d mitigated them. And we encountered our fair share of heuristic traps, which, Ostis later told me, you shouldn’t be afraid to confront.
“I’m not sure we should be trying to avoid them,” he said. “The ones we talk about—familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation, and scarcity—are quite inherent and therefore no surprise. Usually, three or four of them are present in a given incident. I feel good heading out when everyone in the group can recite and speak to these, so they can better recognize when they’re in play in the field.”
At the take-out, Hollis and Brynn high-fived before practicing floating under my supervision. Later, Tracy and I talked while ferrying gear to our trucks.
We both agreed that we’d do the Middle Fork again, now wiser. We’d understand more of the dangers and appreciate more of the beauty.
But one of the reasons you run rivers in the first place is that you can’t plan every moment. A river is by nature wild and unpredictable. That can make it dangerous, too, and yes, taking a child along is a risk.
I’m happy to report that a year after our trip, Hollis still shows no sign of scarring. She’s not quite ready to return to the Middle Fork. But she can’t stop talking about the river trips she’ll get to do once we can travel the world freely again.