On a raft trip meant for my brother, I carried my brother’s ashes
Two years ago today, my older brother, Chris, died of complications related to decades of drinking. I share this story to both honor him and call attention to the issue. If you or someone you know in Grand County is struggling with addiction, there are several resources to help: Tame Wellness (970-964-7959) offers sober support in Fraser. Sue Johnson (970-531-4669) is the Behavioral Health Navigator for Middle Park Health; your primary care doctor can prescribe medications; and Front Range Clinic, a medication-assisted treatment group, comes to Fraser and Granby from Steamboat every Tuesday (970-846-1231 or visit FrontRangeMD.com for information).
What I am remembering now is driving Chris down the highway in central Idaho. My stepdad, oldest son and I were cruising along and a few tablespoons of Chris sat in a jam jar jiggling on the car dashboard. My dad had taken special pains to insure that the lid stayed on by crisscrossing it with several strips of Scotch tape. He did so because we were taking the jar and its contents on a six-day guided trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with an outfitter called Canyons River Company owned by a longtime Fraser Valley local (and my longtime friend), Greg McFadden
It was Aug. 6, a year and three months after had Chris died. He was supposed to have been on the trip; my mom and I had bought seats for him and my dad for Christmas in 2019. But that was the last time I saw Chris. On May 27, 2020, he told my parents, who he’d been living with, that he didn’t feel well and was going to bed early. It was the height of the pandemic so my mom didn’t hug him. But she did wish him a goodnight and tell him she loved him. Normally back then, she and Chris would get up early and walk in my parents’ southern Nevada neighborhood before the desert sun superheated the blacktop. So when 9:30 a.m. on May 28 came, and Chris hadn’t emerged from his bedroom, my mom went to check on him and found him dead, lying on his bed with dried blood crusting his neck and upper chest.
Chris had been an alcoholic for more than three decades, and at 53, his liver had finally ruptured. That’s a very sad story, but sadder still is that for seven months before he died, he’d been sober. When I saw him on Christmas of 2019, he was just a month into sobriety. I knew he struggled — and I know how transformative a river trip can be — that’s why my mom and I bought him a trip down the Middle Fork.
Less than 24 hours after we pulled into Canyons’ headquarters, we were standing in the McCall Aviation office meeting our trip mates. I was the family spokesperson, Scout was the token teenager, and my dad carried the duffle with Chris’s ashes. That we were harboring dead matter was a secret to the handful of folks who’d fly to Indian Creek landing strip with us, but not to the guides on the trip. In fact, one of them, a smiling 18-year-old with a swimmer’s build and a hint of pink across his cheeks, was Scout’s younger brother, Hatcher, who’d started a job that summer in the Canyons warehouse.
By the first week of August, he had worked his way from packing trips to flying all of the food for a Middle Fork trip once a week to Indian Creek in a Cessna. He’d unpack the food from the plane and haul it to the river. Then he’d fall sleep under the stars to the lullaby of riffles. As soon as Hatcher told me about the best part of his promotion — flying in bush planes — I thought of Chris, who had always wanted to be a pilot. That lead to me thinking of how thrilled he would have been to putter through the origami folds of the Frank Church Wilderness’s mountains with “Hatch Daddy,” his favorite nephew. Hatcher loved him the most of my three kids. And because he’d already left for Idaho when we had Chris’s long-overdue memorial in Nevada, us bringing Chris along was especially powerful for Hatcher.
From the put-in, our group of 20 piled into duckies, paddle rafts and oar boats. The sun beamed down and the sky was cloudless. The water was an emerald green, warm enough to swim in. As we took off, I looked at my dad, who gave me a wistful smile. The journey to introduce Chris to my family’s favorite place in the world, and then leave him, had begun.
Two days later, we were getting the best of a river trip with Canyons. In low water and perfect weather, the sweep boat would leave early in the morning. Then several other boats would go, carrying passengers. And usually, Hatcher and I were somewhere in the mix, R-2’ing a 10-foot inflatable. That’s when we’d say a few things about Chris, conjuring his spirit. I talked about how much Chris loved the outdoors when we were young and our family traveled frequently to our favorite spots in Idaho. Hatcher talked about how much Chris would have loved the simple act of floating. I thought of how much he would have goddamned loved “The Frank,” with its twisting canyons, black cliffs, hot springs, sagebrush and Sheepeater ruins. He wasn’t much of an adventurer by the time he died. But I fully believed that the river might have stirred his spirit.
It wasn’t much later that our trip came to a screeching halt, when the sweep boat got stuck in an impossibly shallow rapid. As the rest of us came upon it, the other guides initiated a coordinated effort to free the boat. Soon, each guest was helping in some way to dislodge it — either by watching up-river for other groups, or by being part of the fire-line to offload some of the sweep’s gear, or by the younger passengers helping the older ones carefully navigate the boulders lining the river.
It’s moments like these that dismantle the walls between strangers on a commercial trip. Maybe it — and a couple of beers too many — is what loosened my dad up at that night’s camp. Whatever it was, he let it leak out that we were carrying Chris’s ashes. I heard him telling Syver, one of the guides, with tears in his voice. He added that we might want to leave some of Chris on the river if we could find the right spot. Syver suggested one we might like.
That wouldn’t come for a couple more days, during which we got to experience more of Canyons’ magic. It starts with Greg, one of the most well-known and well-respected guide-outfitters on the Salmon. To me, Greg’s name conjures love. It’s love, too, that he infuses in his guides. All that love comes pouring into guests. And on our trip, it and the love of the guests flooded toward us.
We felt a kind of love and support I never had before as word of our mission slowly spread through the group. Ever so tentatively, different people would approach us and ask a question about Chris. They knew Scout, Hatcher, my dad and I were on the trip to memorialize him, but it took added probing to learn we had him. I thought we might weird them out or mute their fun, but they only wanted to know more about us, our story and my big brother. I’ll be honest: we were pretty raw the whole trip. But once the others knew our secret and supported it, we were unselfconsciously able to do things like throw our arms around each others’ shoulders and rest our heads together and cry over what was coming.
We’d had Chris’s body cremated but we hadn’t buried any of his ashes. On the next morning — the second-to-last of our trip — we would finally make that happen. The guides had made a plan that everyone would understand once they revealed it. After breakfast, yoga and packing up, the sweep boat would depart about an hour before the others. Just behind it would be Syver, my dad, Scout and me in an oar boat. And off on his own, but within sight, Hatcher would paddle a kayak. We’d be able to see him, but we wouldn’t know that as he paddled was crying.
As Syver rowed, he continued a story of the river that he’d had going all week, about its geology, history, wildlife, and inhabitants. My dad, Scout and I didn’t mind. It gave us more knowledge about the place we’d leave Chris, which we came to as the day’s first rays of sunlight touched the river.
It was a hike to get to the spot Syver had suggested. But we were told there was no hurry. The others wouldn’t arrive for an hour, so we could take the time we needed. My dad reached into his dry bag and pulled out the jar with Chris’s ashes. The tape he’d affixed to its lid with had held; inside were the minerals and bone shards of my brother. My dad asked Hatcher to carry Chris in his daypack as we began the hike to the place we thought would leave him.
I can’t tell you where it was, but I like to think it was as perfect as heaven. A place where Hatcher can visit him each time he floats the Middle Fork.
A perfect, forever spot where Chris can always hear the river.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.
Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.
If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.