Aug 15 2013

Life and death in wild Idaho

Published by at 7:26 am under Carlson

carlson CHRIS


Given what a strong Democrat Dr. Justin StormoGipson is and his spouse and life-partner, Dr. Maj StormoGipson was, I was surprised over the years I had not met either of them. She was a respected pediatrician, and he is an equally respected ophthalmologist, residing and practicing in Kootenai County.

They are the kind of people who help make Idaho special. They care about others and they love the wild aspects of Idaho – its wilderness, mountains, and rivers. Upon graduating from Dartmouth Medical School with their medical degrees, but before selecting their specialties, both spent two years as general practitioners working with the poor and needy in Central America.

Every year since finishing their residencies in 1991 they worked with Doctors without Borders volunteering time in third world countries helping the needy. Tellingly, both would speak eloquently not about what they were doing, but what they were receiving from those they assisted.

There is a special Grace in recognizing that in giving of time, talent and treasure to others one receives so much more in return.

On August 1 Idaho’s Selway River to hear the tragic news that Maj, the matriarch of a remarkable family, had drowned in a rubber kayak that became entrapped on a fallen tree across Idaho’s other truly outstanding river rafting experience, the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

According to a moving account written by her children and husband*, all of whom were on a trip that had been her Christmas gift to the family, she came around a blind curve with little chance to move to the far right quickly enough to avoid a recently fallen tree burned in a fire that had toppled most of the way across the Middle Fork.

Rafting guides will tell a client this is their worst nightmare. Depending n the volume of water even a raft can easily be flipped, let alone a rubber kayak, and the chances of instantly being trapped by branches under water is high.

The wilderness can be unforgiving of any mistake, whether of choice or chance. There is an inherent risk many are willing to take for the opportunity to be in and a part of wild Idaho that is what most of America was before the first European explorers arrived.

The closest a good friend of mine, the internationally renowned mountaineer, John Roskelley, has ever come to meeting his Maker was not some accident while climbing Mt. Everest or the numerous other Himalayan mountains he has conquered, it was instead a rafting accident on Idaho’s Lochsa River. His raft flipped in white water and he was pinned underneath a tree hidden under the water.

Only because he is in unusually excellent physical condition was he able to free himself and get to the surface in the nick of time.

Years ago I failed to follow a guide’s instructions while approaching some tremendous rapids in Hells Canyon. Instead of following the rafts to the river right I went to the river left right through the worst part. Almost instantly I was flipped out of the rubber kayak. I still vividly recall the water pressure, despite my life jacket, forcing me down, down, down ever deeper into the hole. In the nick of time the buoyancy of the life-vest took over and shot me to the surface, where I started to gasp for a breath of air.

Instead, another wave hit me and I took in water not air. Another whirl pool caught me and pulled me down, down, down again. At this point I realized I was in serious trouble. Had here been a tree underneath that would have caught me I’d not be telling this tale today. Once again, I popped back to the surface and swam over to one of the rafts where all those watching realized I had a narrow escape.

All recognized that Mother Nature was demonstrating how arbitrary and capricious she can be. Why I survived my mistake of choice and Dr. StormoGipson did not survive a mistake of chance, only God knows.

I’ll wager though that, like many who survive such experiences, she would not have given up recharging her spiritual batteries in Idaho’s wild. The reward far outweighs the risk. I only wish I could have had the opportunity to know her personally. She must have been a truly remarkable person.

*Statement by the Family

This was jointly written by myself, my siblings, my Dad and Eric. Please forward this onto anyone you think is appropriate. We appreciate your love and support during this most challenging time.


Dear Friends and Family,

Yesterday Justin’s beloved wife and our mother was taken from us during

a family rafting trip.

Our hearts are broken. Losing her has left a big aching hole in each

of us. This has been painful beyond words for all of us and especially

devastating for Justin, who tried valiantly to save her and lost the love of

his life for the past 39 years.

The details of this tragedy were excruciating to live through and are still

difficult for us to talk about. A part of us can’t believe it actually happened

and is waiting for the nightmare to end while another part of us keeps

replaying the experience over and over. We are writing the details in this

letter so that we can let people know what happened and then start the

hard work of piecing our lives back together


We are all here in Coeur d ‘Alene, Idaho for the next week as we make

preparations for a Celebration of Life service happening next weekend

(Aug 3rd/4th)- we won’t have details of date, time etc. until Monday and

will send them out as soon as we know.

For friends and family that are flying in for Kate’s wedding we are

having a Celebration of Life service on Saturday Aug. 10th instead of a

traditional rehearsal dinner. We know Mom would want the wedding to

go on, but we also want to commemorate Maj’s life. We know she would

love to have all her siblings there. We’ll send more details later.

Yesterday seems like a world away, but on July 26th at noon Maj drowned

and our lives were turned upside down. It was day five of a six day rafting

trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Idaho Wilderness.

Mom had been looking forward to doing this rafting trip for years and

it was her Christmas gift to us. She was so exited to be doing her two

favorite things – being with her family and spending time outdoors on the water.

Yesterday morning Maj was paddling in a single person inflatable kayak, along with Luke, Kenna, and Justin instead of riding in a larger seven person paddle raft (where Kate and Eric were). She had chosen to do the inflatable kayak because the morning rapids were easy and she wanted to be in the larger raft after lunch when the rapids were more difficult.

A few minutes before lunch, the group reached a small rapid around a blind curve with a semi-submerged tree. The tree had recently fallen in a forest fire and the roots remaining on the bank continued to smolder.

Because of the turn in the river, Maj didn’t see the tree until it was too late. It blocked more than half the river and the only open water was on the far right. The larger paddle boat in front with the guide moved to the far right and the guide screamed for the kayakers to “get to the right!”

Luke made it around, but watched helplessly as mom’s kayak hit the tree

sideways. He screamed, “Mom lean into the tree!” but the force of the

water against the tree quickly flipped the kayak. And Maj disappeared.

As soon as Mom fell in the river she was trapped by the tree branches

with the entire force of the river rushing over her. This is called being

caught in a “strainer” and is one of the deadliest situations for a kayaker

to be in.

Luke, who saw the whole thing happen, was screaming from the opposite

shore for help. Justin having seen the kayak flip and before even realizing

it was his wife inside, within seconds had kayaked around to where he

could scramble onto the tree. He was the first person there. Dad groped

under the big ponderosa pine until he felt her lifejacket 3 feet down. He

straddled the tree with his legs and pulled with everything he had but

could barely get her lifejacket above water. Sadly, her paddle had pinned

her to the submerged branches of the tree.

Soon after, several raft guides reached Justin. Only after four people were

there, were they able to wrench Maj’s body up out of the water. It was

torturous to watch, and by then several minutes had passed. We wailed on

the shore.

Maj was not breathing, pale, and had no pulse. Justin, Eric and the guides

performed CPR as soon as she was on shore, for 25 minutes they labored

with no response.

And then it was over. Except it wasn’t.

Rescue helicopters won’t come for the deceased. So we had no other

choice but to raft the remaining 18 miles of river canyon to the road.

Before Mom was put in a sleeping bag and strapped into the raft, we spent

some precious last moments with her and left a cross on the shore. It

was a six hour funeral procession down the river followed by a two hour

bumpy car ride to the nearest town.

The nightmare that started just before lunch reached a resting point at


Justin made arrangements with the local sherrif for Maj’s body to be at

the local morgue and we got a hotel room. There was an 8 hour drive

ahead of us to get back to Coeur d’ Alene and we were in no position to

drive so we stayed in Salmon, ID.

None of us slept much last night. Thankfully Kate’s husband, Eric, was

composed enough to drive us home this morning.

We arrived in one piece and yet totally shattered. This was the longest

journey home.

We cried in waves and screamed in voices we’d never heard ourselves make before. We held each other, we talked about Mom, and mostly we sat in shattered silence.

We are all thankful to the guides Alison, Ben and Jeff who risked their lives to try and save Maj and helped to recover her body. And we are drawing comfort from Mom’s spirit. The last words she uttered to Luke before entering the rapid were, “It’s such a beautiful day!”

She was doing what she loved- being in the water with her family.

Carrying her body down the river we felt her presence. A great BlueHeron swooped ahead of the raft and guided us out of the canyon and through the remaining rapids. When we reached the road another Heron was there to greet us and fly beside the car.

Then this morning, Justin threw a farewell rock into the river, and one last Blue Heron arose from the bank and flew gracefully into the distance.

In love and sorrow,

Justin, Kenna, Kate, Luke, and Eric

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