Editor's note: Grand Teton National Park officials on July 13 corrected the last name of the two boaters. It should be Thames, not Phames.
A father and son who thought they could negotiate 25 miles of the Snake River on an inflatable raft better suited for a swimming pool and armed with sticks for paddles had to be rescued by Grand Teton National Park rangers several miles into their journey when the raft sprung a leak.
Amazingly the two, 40-year-old Byron Thames and his unidentified 15-year-old son, both of Los Angeles, survived their ordeal with nothing more than a mild case of hypothermia and two citations, according to park officials.
The two had launched their ill-fated float from the put-in at Deadman's Bar about 2:30 p.m. Friday with plans to float all the way down to the bridge at Wilson, a distance of about 25 miles. Signs at Deadman’s Bar, a popular launching point for commercial trips that ferry park visitors past the Tetons, promise those continuing on down the river to Moose that the trip will be anything but lazy. There are no technical rapids along these 10 miles of river, but the signs caution that advanced boating skills are needed just the same for navigating extremely swift currents and cold, near 50-degree water that is not what you want to be splashing around in, not even in late-summer.
Now, before the father and son actually got on the river a river guide for a park concessionaire saw the pair and questioned their preparedness. According to a park release, "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. Phames 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."
To put this in its proper perspective, the stretch of water the two planned to float was the very same that witnessed a rafting accident in 2006 in which three people drowned.
According to park officials, the Thameses 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 briefly pinned underwater. River runners 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.
Mr. Thames was able to free himself from the strainer and make his way back upstream to where his son was clinging to a logjam. Once he reached his son, Mr. Thames was able to call his wife from his cell phone; she then called for help. The Teton Dispatch Center received word of the incident at 5:55 p.m. 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.
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.