73-year-old survives five days in the wilderness after raft flips on Idaho river

Custer County Sheriff’s Marine Deputy John Haugh, left, stands with Thomas Gray, who survived five days in the wilderness, in this undated photo.

Custer County Sheriff’s Marine Deputy John Haugh, left, stands with Thomas Gray, who survived five days in the wilderness, in this undated photo. (Custer County Idaho Sheriff’s Office)

Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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

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

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. Gray was forced to completely disassemble his raft in the water and rebuild it on the shore, according to Custer County sheriff's marine deputy John Haugh,

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."

While running the falls, Gray's raft flipped, injuring his leg even further, 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.

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.

At the same time on Monday, 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."

'He was resigned that this was not going to end well'

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 Tuesday, 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, Wednesday, 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."

'He was in pretty bad shape'

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 'lifesaver,' but I said, 'No, I'm just your Uber deputy,'" says Haugh.

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

"Never go solo. that's No. 1. No. 2, you have to wear the right gear; he was wearing the right gear," says Haugh. "You need to keep your knife on your (life jacket). 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 OK.' It helps a lot."

Most recent Idaho stories

Related topics

Kaitlyn Hart


    Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the KSL.com Trending 5.
    By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

    KSL Weather Forecast