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.
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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.