Accident Database

Report ID# 3528

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description

Fatality on the Middle Fork

On June 16, 2011, Brad Davis of Shreveport La. died after falling out of his raft at Murphs Hole on the Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho. The river was flowing at 6.5 feet, which is considered a high level and difficult rafting. Murphs hole is about a mile downstream of the starting point at Boundary Creek. Davis was part of an experienced private group of rafters and kayakers from Idaho and the other parts of the US.

Three rafts from the group had trouble in Murphs Hole: one flipped, one was damaged and another dumped the oarsman and continued downstream unmanned. Kayakers and rafters from another private group from Boise assisted in the rescue. After falling out of the raft Davis was reported to be swimming to shore on his own. A kayaker approached him to help tow him. The kayaker reported that Davis suddenly stopped swimming and became unresponsive. Another raft managed to get Davis onboard quickly and started CPR.

After aproximatly one hour of CPR doctors on the scene declared Davis dead. Rescuers were able to contact the Middle Fork Ranger District and the Custer County Sherrif's office with a satellite phone. His body was flown out at Morgan Airstrip from in a plane provided by the USFS. After the accident, some of the group walked back out to Boundary Creek, others flew out at Indian Creek. It is unclear if some of the group continued with the MF trip. Custer County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Talbot said that no one belongs on the river at this level.

Boater drowns in Middle Fork, another suffers heart attack

Seven people out of a 16-member private party decided to continue floating down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River after one in their party drowned on the first afternoon of their trip last week and another suffered a heart attack and was flown out to a hospital the second day. The others flew out from the private Morgan Ranch airstrip on Sulphur Creek.

Bradley Davis, 47, of Shreveport, Louisiana drowned after he fell out of his raft in Murph’s Hole about 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, said Launna Gunderson, marine deputy with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office.

A second man in his mid-60s suffered an apparent heart attack Friday morning while the group was camped at the confluence of the Middle Fork and Sulphur Creek, repairing their boats. He was flown out via air ambulance from the Morgan Ranch airstrip, said Middle Fork District Ranger Chris Grove.

Authorities did not know the heart attack victim’s name or his condition by The Challis Messenger’s press time on Wednesday.

“They had a whole string of bad luck,” said Grove, “with boat wrecks and problems from the start.” In addition to the casualties, another boater in the group flipped in a rapid and a pontoon on a cataraft was torn open, all on the group’s first day.

Davis was rowing a passenger in his 15 ½ foot self-bailing raft when he hit Murph’s Hole about 0.7 miles below the Boundary Creek boat launch ramp, just above the confluence of Sulphur Creek, Gunderson said. A fellow member of the party told Gunderson that Bradley took a bad line going into the rapid and was partially sideways.

Davis fell out and was underwater for about 20 seconds before he popped up, according to the witness. His passenger took the oars and got caught in a back eddy. Another boater in the group tried to grab Davis, but missed. Someone threw a rescue rope to him but he didn’t react. Within 5 minutes, a second grab succeeded and Davis was pulled from the water.

They got him to shore and started CPR. After 45 minutes of life-saving efforts failed, a doctor in the group declared Davis as dead.

Davis didn’t try to swim, so it’s possible that the shock of hitting the 38-degree water caused him to gasp, inhale water and drown, said Gunderson.

Coroner Vicki Armbruster listed his official cause of death as probable accidental drowning. She flew in to the Morgan Ranch airstrip on Sulphur Creek with a Forest Service representative. Middle Fork Aviation was contacted via satellite phone and Davis’ body was flown out the same evening, Grove said.

“The Forest Service played a big role in getting Mr. Davis out of the wilderness,” Armbruster said, adding that Middle Fork Aviation was also very helpful. “I don’t know how we would have done it without them.”

The victim was wearing a wetsuit, spray jacket and had a properly fitting life preserver on.

The gauge at Middle Fork Lodge read 6.6 feet the day Davis drowned, said Gunderson, adding the river was flowing at 9,000 cubic feet per second.

Any time the Middle Fork rises above 6 feet, the Forest Service considers running it to be an extremely hazardous risk, said Grove. Agency employees never advise boaters whether or not to run the river, he said; instead, they provide people with all the latest information on flows and hazards and let them make the decision based on their ability level.

Members of this group decided not to put in at upper Marsh Creek, which was raging, said Grove, or to fly into Indian Creek airstrip farther downstream, where the Middle Fork becomes less technical. Instead, they joined others in driving in to the Boundary Creek boat ramp. Private boaters, either in Davis’ group or another, reportedly shoveled snowdrifts to open the road.

“If you don’t feel comfortable or confident that you can do Marsh Creek, you ought to be thinking really hard about doing the upper river and maybe it’s better to put in at Indian Creek,” said Grove, since the upper Middle Fork is just about as technical and hazardous to float at high water as Marsh Creek.

Gunderson, who was a guide on the Middle Fork for 12 ½ years, agreed. “At this water level, you’ve got to be an expert.” Murph’s Hole is not a noticeable rapid at low water, but at about six feet it’s known to flip rafts, Gunderson said.

Davis was an experienced boater, had new equipment and had been floating rivers since he was 15 years old, witnesses in his group told Gunderson. People in the 16-member group were from Texas, Louisiana and Idaho, and had a total of eight boats: four catarafts, two rafts and two kayaks.

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