73-year-old survives five days in the wilderness after raft flips on the Salmon River - East Idaho News

73-year-old survives five days in the wilderness after raft flips on the Salmon River

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SALMON — Thomas Gray, 73, is lucky to be alive. He endured five days in the wilderness after his raft fell apart on the Salmon River.

According to a news release from the Custer County Sheriff’s Office, Gray took off for a 3-day solo rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River from the Marsh Creek launch area on May 17.

Unfortunately, a series of log jams caused his raft to fall apart, and Gray sustained a leg injury after a log hit him in the leg. According to Custer County Sheriff’s Marine Deputy John Haugh, Gray was forced to completely disassemble his raft in the water and rebuild it on the shore.

Eventually, he decided to camp along the bank of Marsh Creek that night. The following morning, May 18, Gray traveled to Dagger Falls.

When he arrived, he decided to “run the falls” or raft down Dagger Falls, as he “did not want to delay meeting his wife at the confluence (where the two rivers meet) on Sunday, May 19.”

Dagger Falls | Trails Off Road

While running the falls, Gray’s raft flipped, injuring his leg even more, and he was ejected at the bottom. He then swam to shore as his raft floated down the river without him.

Almost exactly two years prior, Gray’s brother, 63-year-old Robert Gray, was killed after flipping a raft in nearly the exact same spot, according to Haugh.

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After realizing his raft was gone with all of his equipment, including his knife, Thomas Gray climbed up a mountain and hiked toward the Boundary Creek launch site.

Because of his leg injury, Gray stayed at the launch site when he arrived, finding shelter in an outhouse for two nights. During the day, he watched the river in hopes someone would float by and offer him help.

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Oddly, at the same time on May 20, Custer County and Valley County had sent search and rescue crews down the river after receiving a missing report for Gray, and a report of a “punctured cataraft being found on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.”

Haugh says crews must’ve unknowingly floated by Gray who was in the outhouse, with both parties missing each other.

After the second night at the outhouse, Gray decided to walk toward Fir Creek Pass. According to the sheriff’s office, Gray remembers nothing from that night.

On May 21, Gray stumbled upon a Bruce Meadows Snowmobile Club trailer. Inside the trailer was a wood stove, but no matches to light it.

Unbeknownst to Gray, Sheriff Levi Maydole had activated the Custer County Search and Rescue this same morning, but they were unable to find Gray.

The Civil Air Patrol was also activated to search the river from Boundary Creek to Indian Creek several times but did not find Gray either.

Meanwhile, Gray woke up the next morning, May 22, and continued down Bear Valley Road. Three miles in, he became too exhausted to continue and laid down in the snow.

The Sheriff’s Office estimates Gray had walked approximately 23 miles by this point, drinking only creek water and eating snow.

“Tom was totally exhausted, he decided this was it. He just laid down in the snow and said a prayer,” says Haugh. “He was resigned that this was not going to end well.”

Shortly after, Steve and Annie Lentz, the owners of Far and Away River Adventures, spotted Gray lying in the snow alongside the road.

Gray heard the sound of their car, which, luckily, was also carrying several first responders, who jumped out to help him.

“If they hadn’t come along, he probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” says Haugh. “He was in pretty bad shape when they got him.”

They took Gray to the Mountain Village restaurant, where he met with Custer County deputies. They gave him a ride to the Sheriff’s Office, where his wife was eagerly waiting to reunite.

Haugh says he is still “smiling ear to ear” since finding Gray. Haugh was one of the first responders who assisted in searching for his brother’s body in 2022.

“Tom called me and said I was his ‘live-saver,’ but I said no, I’m just your Uber deputy,” says Haugh.

Haugh strongly discourages rafters from going on excursions alone, and to always bring safety supplies that can end up saving your life.

“Never go solo. that’s number one. Number two, you have to wear the right gear, he was wearing the right gear,” says Haugh. “You need to keep your knife on your (lifejacket). Even if you’re traveling in a party, it’s a good idea to carry some kind of fire-starting device. Waterproof matches, a lighter, something. He went four days, unable to make a fire. And put a candy bar or something in your life jacket.”

Haugh also highly recommends taking a device with you that can reach first responders if necessary.

“The biggest takeaway is, take a satellite communicator,” says Haugh. “If something goes wrong, they’re waterproof, you just get on that and punch a message into the sheriff’s office or the forest service saying ‘I wrecked, I’m at Boundary Creek, I’m injured but I’m okay.’ It helps a lot.”