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Tragic Owyhee rafting trip formed a family

A Spokane physician who tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate a drowning victim in a remote southeastern Oregon canyon said the rafting party is still haunted by the death.

What came next seemed even worse, he said, until it became their deliverance.

“After the helicopter took his body, we all wanted to go home,” said Spokane ophthalmologist Ken Mondal. “But we realized we had three more days of whitewater rafting to reach a takeout.”

On May 23, Robert Desmarais, 65, of Hauser, died in a frothing Owyhee River keeper hole during a rafting trip guided by Coeur d’Alene-based ROW Adventures.

The group of six guests and three ROW guides were on day two of a five-day trip when the accident occurred. They had bonded with a day of whitewater fun followed by camping on one of the desert river’s white-sand beaches.

They’d already learned the trip had a special meaning.

Desmarais was meeting up with a friend from Yakima he’d met on previous whitewater trips. Mondal’s 30-year-old son, Keith, had traveled from Denver to rekindle their relationship.

“Keith and I love the outdoors,” Ken Mondal said. “Ever since he was 13, we have tried to do at least one outdoor adventure a year.”

The trip was led by Peter Grubb, who founded ROW in 1979. His 20-year-old daughter, Mariah, already a licensed guide, was grooming her skills to be certified on the Owyhee.

Jess Evans-Wall, 26, guiding since 2003, was the other certified guide for the company recently ranked by National Geographic as one of the top international outfitters.

The group was reveling in the remoteness that attracted them to the unpopulated deep canyons, enjoying the blooming wildflowers and soaring eagles.

Two of the kayakers had flipped in different rapids early in the morning.

“They were all Class 3 rapids with easy water downstream, so there was no reason for concern,” Mondal said. “They were having a blast.”

However, around 11 a.m., Desmarais, in a tandem inflatable with a 70-year-old guest, found himself headed toward water pouring over a boulder in a rapid called Bulls Eye.

“We’d been warned in the morning briefing to avoid the rock and the hole below it,” said Mondal, who was riding in a big raft with Peter Grubb.

The paddling partner, Mondal said, later recalled Desmarais’ last cheerful words as, “Everybody else has dumped today, I guess it’s our turn.”

The two were ejected from their boat as they went over the rock and into the hole. Plunging water forced them down into the froth.

The hydraulics quickly spit out the other kayaker and he swam toward shore as Evans-Wall prepared to throw him a safety rope.

But Desmarais kept circulating to the surface and down.

“Peter began blowing hard on his whistle, and everybody tried to get in position to help,” Keith Mondal recalled, noting that Desmarais was wearing a helmet, life jacket and dry suit.

“Peter eddied out and ran upshore to throw a rope,” Ken Mondal said. “But there was no time when Bob could have grabbed a rope.”

After four or five minutes, Mondal said the hole released its grip and Desmarais’ limp body was swept downstream, the life jacket doing its job to float him face up. The three guide rafts gave chase.

A guest helped Evans-Wall pull Desmarais into her raft. She gave him mouth-to-mouth breaths immediately before they put him on the seat board and began compressions, Mondal said. Grubb used a satellite phone to call Boise for help.

“We couldn’t give up on him,” Mondal said. “Jess gave it her all, doing the breaths over and over as we tried to get the water out of him for more than an hour.”

EMTs continued the effort when they arrived by helicopter. But Desmarais was declared dead and they flew off with his body.

Grubb brought the group together in a circle and debriefed them on what had happened.

“He offered us all a chance to say something,” Keith Mondal said.

“Then we discussed our options, which came down to two choices,” Ken Mondal said. “We could go out as fast as possible in two days. But we chose to go out carefully in the normal three days.”

The weather was cold and rainy that night as the guides did chores and fixed dinner while trying to hide their emotions, Keith Mondal said.

“It was my 61st birthday,” his father said. “They made me a cake, but the wind was so bad the candle wouldn’t stay lit.

“Jess brought out her guitar and played songs as we huddled around the campfire. It was very comforting.

“But mostly, we didn’t say much.”

The next day, the group had to negotiate the only Class 4 rapid on the trip. “The guides were cautious and nobody paddled the kayaks,” Mondal said. “But the big water actually washed out the rapids to some degree. “Keith decided to get back into his kayak. It was something he had to do.”

“I said a prayer with the group the next night,” the elder Mondal said. “We were all processing what had happened.

“The tragedy bonded us into a close little family that leaned on each other and took strength from each other. It was good that we couldn’t end the trip when Bob died.

“When we finally had to say goodbye, we were clinging on each other, anxious to get back to our loved ones but not wanting to let go of our river family.”

Mondal said he left the river impressed with the professionalism and compassion of the guides.

Grubb was still emotional about the incident on Wednesday.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” he said of the only fatality in his company’s 32-year history. “You can’t give the family back what they lost.”

Said Mondal, “I’m looking forward to many more outdoor adventures with my son. I think this will make us closer than ever.

“We all know there are risks to these adventures. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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