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Accident Description


Challis, Idaho Messenger

July 26, 2016

Challis mourns death of former Principal Mike Olson

BY TODD ADAMS. The Challis community was shocked and saddened to learn of the drowning death of former Challis Elementary School Principal Mike Olson.Olson, 46, was boating down the Middle Fork of the Salmon Tuesday afternoon, July 19, when the raft in which he was a passenger struck a rock in Cutthroat Cove Rapid. Olson, along with others, was bounced out of the boat, which spun around and was pinned against a boulder, said Chief Deputy Steve Penner of Lemhi County Sheriff's Office. The accident was about a mile below the river's confluence with Big Creek. A rope became tangled around Olson's ankle and he was unable to free himself from the raft. Apparently, Olson didn't have a safety knife, Penner told The Challis Messenger. Waves in the rapid were pulling Olson underwater, Penner said.

The oarsman was still aboard the raft, trying to retrieve Olson. Others in the party plus an outfitter from another group joined in a 20-minute long effort to pull Olson from the river but were unsuccessful. At one point, rescuers let air out of the raft to try and free it and Olson from the boulder. The current tore Olson out of his life jacket.

He was presumed drowned before his body floated downriver, Penner said, and was not seen until the afternoon of July 23, when multiple calls came in that his body had been spotted near Parrot Placer, about seven miles downstream from the accident scene. "It was a 20-minute ordeal," Penner said of the boating accident. "It was kind of like one bad event after another. It was a bad, unfortunate set of circumstances."

Olson, his daughter and one of his three sons had been floating in a private party of about seven boats, Penner said. Neither of the two children was in the same raft with their father when the accident happened. Olson's wife, Lisa, was visiting with friends in Challis and did not go on the river trip.

Search, recovery: The Lemhi County Sheriff's Office was notified of the accident at 3:40 p.m. on July 19. Since the call originated from the rugged Impassable Canyon section of the Middle Fork, satellite communications were spotty, Penner said. With the help of U.S. Forest Service employees who knew the itinerary of Olson and his rafting party, the search area was narrowed to a 10-mile section of the river. A rescue helicopter from Two Bears Air out of Whitefish, Montana, was dispatched, and the aerial search continued as long as daylight allowed but was unsuccessful by the end of the first day, said Penner. Air and watercraft search efforts resumed in the following days and included a Forest Service contract helicopter. Boating parties were alerted to be on the lookout.

At 3:00 p.m. Saturday, July 23, the sheriff's office received multiple satellite phone calls from Middle Fork outfitters that Olson's body had been located on the west bank of the river across from Parrot Placer Camp. Dispatch again called on Two Bear Air Rescue. The helicopter and a rappelling crew recovered Olson and flew his body out to the Salmon Airport. "The Lemhi County Sheriff's Office would like to thank the huge number of people that assisted in the search for Olson's body after his tragic accident," a news release stated. Searchers included U.S. Forest Service employees and administrators, whitewater river outfitters including O.A.R.S. Rafting Vacations, Lemhi County emergency responders and Two Bear Air Rescue. Challis

Michael Olson served as Principal of Challis Elementary School from August 2008 until June 2015, when he left to become Principal of Lyman Intermediate School in Wyoming, under former Challis Superintendent Colby Gull. "I thought the world of Mike," said current Challis Superintendent Peter McPherson, who worked with Olson for a year and a half. "Mike was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. "His is a tremendous loss," McPherson said. "To hear the news last week was like getting punched in my gut. I was sick to my stomach. It was brutal." Olson was savvy technologically and went above and beyond his job description as elementary school principal, McPherson said. Olson and CHS Principal Russ Bradshaw absorbed the superintendent's duties after Gull moved to Wyoming.

After McPherson was hired as superintendent, he asked Olson why he was content to serve as elementary principal although qualified to be superintendent. "I love kids," was Olson's reply. He stepped back into his principal's job to spend more time with students one-on-one. Olson's successor, CES Principal Lani Rembelski, was a kindergarten and first grade teacher during Olson's tenure as principal. "Mr. Olson was definitely a very giving person," she said. "He would do anything to better the teachers and students. He was a very compassionate person who put their needs before his." Olson helped Rembelski in her transition from teacher to principal. During her first year, she relied on his files and advice over the phone. "He was a big help. He wanted people to be successful. He was a wonderful foundation and support." Working with Olson was "Always positive and happy," said Rembelski. "He had a smile and was ready to help wherever he could. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who disliked Mr. Olson." He had a good reputation among other Idaho principals and teachers, she said.

Under Olson, Challis teachers and administrators started going to an annual teaching conference in Las Vegas. The dozen Challis educators found out about his death at the annual conference last week and talked about the wonderful times they'd had working with Olson. "I feel blessed to have known him," Rembelski said. "He definitely enriched anyone's life who came into contact with him. He had a lot of wonderful qualities. He was not at all selfish. He definitely gave a lot." Originally from Spring City, Utah, Olson graduated from North Sanpete High School in Mount Pleasant, Utah, and from college at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, according to his Facebook page. "I don't think you'll ever know the difference and impact you made in all of your students' lives," a former student, now teacher, posted in tribute. "I'll never forget the memories made in French class. You'll always be one of my favorite teachers. I hope my students will remember me how I remember you. Thank you for the kindness, love, and humor you shared every day."