July 11, 2009
Grand Teton National Park rangers, Teton interagency fire personnel and emergency medical personnel rescued a father and son on Friday night, July 10 at 9 p.m. after they became separated from their small boat and stranded on a logjam in the swift-flowing Snake River. Forty-year-old Byron Thames, of Los Angeles, California, and his 15-year-old son were floating down the river in a petite, swimming pool-style, inflatable raft when their boat partially deflated, causing them to eventually fall into the river. Teton Interagency Dispatch Center received a report of the incident at 5:55 p.m. from the wife and mother of the two Thameses. At 6:40 p.m., park rescue personnel located the two boaters hanging onto a logjam on the right side of the Bourbon Street channel, about a mile and a half south of the Moose Bridge.
Thames and his son launched their inflatable dinghy from Deadman’s Bar—one of four river launch areas in the park—at approximately 2:30 p.m. They intended to float all the way to the Wilson Bridge, about 25 river miles away. A river guide for a park concessionaire saw the pair getting ready to launch and questioned their preparedness. The guide noticed that the two did not have any oars or paddles and cautioned that they needed something to help them navigate their small craft. Thames then picked up two sticks to serve as makeshift paddles for his float trip. Besides lacking oars, the Thameses did not have any life jackets—basic safety equipment required when boating on park waters.
The pair floated several miles downstream without incident until the side of their inflatable dinghy got punctured, leaving only the floor chamber inflated. They were able to float past Menor’s Ferry and attempted to pull out at the Moose landing; however, they could not reach the riverbank using the makeshift stick paddles and continued floating beyond the Moose Bridge. About a mile and a half south of Moose, the river forks and the floaters took the left channel known as Bourbon Street. At this point, their inflatable dinghy became lodged against an obstruction, causing both men to fall into the river. Byron was trapped in a tangle of branches on a submerged tree and pinned underwater. River users call this river debris a “strainer.” Strainers are a particularly risky hazard for boaters because they can trap people against the branches and cause them to become submerged in the current. Fortunately, Thames was able to free himself from the strainer and make his way upstream to where his son was clinging to a logjam. Once he reached his son, Thames was able to call his wife from his cell phone; she then called for help.
Rangers used a technical river rescue technique to reach the stranded men, positioning a rescuer into the current to reach each of the floaters, one person at a time. While both men experienced early stages of hypothermia, they were not seriously injured and refused medical treatment. A total of 21 park personnel and Teton interagency firefighters responded to this incident. Two citations were issued to Byron Thames: one for not having life jackets, and the other for failure to obtain a park boat permit.
Although this incident had a positive outcome, it could have resulted in serious injury or worse for the two boaters. The force of the current and water temperature of the Snake River can be deceiving. Rangers remind river users that the section of the Snake River that runs from Deadman’s Bar to Moose is fairly technical and demands a certain level of skill to negotiate. Proper equipment, as well as knowledge of how to read a river’s current, are essential before beginning any float trip. Boaters are required to have certified personal floatation devices for all persons aboard the watercraft and to obtain appropriate permits.