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Sports >  Outdoors

Stranded rafters, damaged cars, stolen money: Idaho shuttle company under investigation

By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Paul Beckford’s weeklong rafting trip came up at the last minute. A friend secured a permit for the wild Main Salmon River – a rare feat – and within days assembled plans, including booking a local company to shuttle the group’s vehicles from the put-in point to the takeout.

On the Fourth of July, the five families launched their boats at Corn Creek, a popular put-in on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, with plans to raft about 80 miles.

Six days later, the group of 16 reached its destination at Spring Bar, about 10 miles from Riggins, Idaho.

Beckford started up the boat ramp to the edge of the road. Tired and ready for the trip home, he worked quickly to disassemble his raft.

He reached the roadway. His car wasn’t there.

In fact, only one of the five vehicles the group had paid to be delivered to the take-out could be found.

For Beckford, it was a nightmare scenario come to life – stranded without transportation, cell service or supplies.

“The idea that you’re in the middle of nowhere and your cars aren’t there has always scared me,” said Beckford, an avid rafter.

Beckford soon learned that the same company had left scores of other rafters in similar positions.

“DO NOT USE THIS COMPANY,” one Google reviewer wrote. “WILL NOT RETURN CARS.”

“Fyre festival 2022,” another wrote, referencing the fraudulent music festival of 2017.

Others said their cars were returned with additional miles, empty gas tanks and damage. The experiences prompted complaints to the Idaho attorney general’s office and local law enforcement. Now the company is the subject of an AG investigation into possible violations of consumer protection law.

As for Beckford, he said it took days for him and the rest of his party to locate their vehicles.

Wild River Shuttles, co-owned by spouses Michelle and Tammy Nelson, was founded last year, according to Idaho secretary of state business filings.

Like several other Idaho shuttle companies, Wild River offered rafters transportation for their vehicles.

Rafters drop off their vehicles at the Salmon business, and the shuttle company drives the vehicles to the rafters’ planned take-out point, sometimes as far away as 10 hours in remote Central Idaho.

For months, reviews posted on Google showed positive experiences with the company. But in early July, the tone of the reviews shifted sharply.

Reviewers reported vehicles missing from the take-out and spotty communication with the company. The allegations escalated to claims of vehicle damage, missing money and more.

“We had a vehicle with a tracking device on it and that truck was driven up to 113 mph with a dual axle 18-foot trailer behind it,” one reviewer wrote. “UNACCEPTABLE. When I emailed the company about this they ignored me.”

Another reviewer said Wild River put 1,400 miles on their truck during their rafting trip. (The longest shuttle trip the company offers is 427 miles one way.) Another said their bumper was dented from having a trailer jackknifed into the car.

A fourth said some of their group’s vehicles had garbage in them, and one car had a dog in the backseat.

“We were told by Tammy that a now-fired, disgruntled employee had used another vehicle in our group for personal use,” wrote yet another reviewer. “The car was found near Boundary Creek. That car had beer and clothes left in it.”

Consumer protection complaints filed with the Idaho attorney general’s office detail thousands of dollars in unfulfilled services and damage to vehicles. The complaints – obtained by the Statesman through a public records request – said the company was engaging in “likely criminal conduct” and “should not be allowed to operate.”

One customer’s van was “totaled” in an apparent crash and abandoned on a highway, according to a consumer protection complaint.

When the customer recovered the vehicle, the airbag had been deployed and the rear axle had been “torn free from its mounts,” the complaint said.

“I DID NOT however receive any calls, texts, not other communication from Wild (River) Shuttles regarding this accident,” the customer wrote.

Multiple people said the $100 they were required to leave in the vehicles for gas money was gone, despite their gas tanks being left nearly empty.

“It is clear that the river community and sheriff are aware that this company has gone off the deep end,” Stefan Christie wrote. “Although it may have once been a functioning business, you will surely lose your money and possibly your vehicle and be stranded at your takeout if you use this company.”

On July 14, the Salmon-Challis National Forest, which oversees the Salmon River permit lottery, began emailing permit holders to warn them of the situation.

“We are writing to let you know that there have been significant issues with Wild River Shuttles and vehicles not being shuttled as requested,” the email said. “We strongly advise confirming your vehicle shuttle reservation with Wild River Shuttles prior to your launch date as well as researching the river shuttle company you are planning on using.”

Around the same time, the rafting community started to post warnings on online forums. Beckford shared his experience on MountainBuzz, an online whitewater community, and heard from dozens of other users, including some who’d had similar issues with Wild River Shuttles.

Beckford said he wasn’t too surprised by the feedback – he knew from his own experience that many other people had been affected. He felt compelled to warn rafters who might have upcoming reservations.

“I was just like, ‘Look, other people need to know this,’ ” Beckford said.

Tammy Nelson told the Statesman that Wild River Shuttles is permanently closed and refunding customers – $14,000 has been refunded so far, she said by text.

Amid “problems with drivers,” the company overbooked customers, “not wanting to turn anyone away,” Nelson said.

She said that she sought help transporting customers from other shuttle companies, but none offered aid, and that contracts for upcoming shuttles were stolen after a burglary in the company’s office.

“We are very sorry to all affected by our company,” Tammy Nelson said. “This has destroyed our business.”

After spending a night camping at the take-out, Beckford started hitchhiking to Riggins to track down his group’s vehicles. Beckford recalled that a truck driver heading the other direction stopped and said: “Hey, are you the stranded rafters? I’m here to rescue you.”

Dave Young, owner of Rubicon Outfitters in Riggins, was coming to retrieve a different group of rafters that had also been stranded by Wild River. Still, they loaded up Beckford’s group and their gear, and offered to store it at the Rubicon boathouse. Beckford said Dave Young even handed him the keys to his personal vehicle so Beckford could drive around and search for his missing Honda Pilot.

“We finally got ahold of (Wild River), but we could never get a straight story,” Beckford said. “One owner told us to call the police on the other owner. Sometimes they were in tears, just giving us bad information on where our cars were.”

A Wild River driver eventually drove into Riggins in Beckford’s vehicle, but three others were still missing. Beckford and other members of his group headed to Salmon – a 6½-hour drive – where Wild River had said they’d find their cars. One car “looked like it had been used to haul rocks,” Beckford said, while another had a pack of cigarettes, a stranger’s towel and was missing a set of keys.

The last car they finally tracked down at Corn Creek – the spot where they’d started their rafting trip a week earlier.

Like Rubicon, other Idaho shuttle companies began trying to help track down missing vehicles and transport people. Mi’Chelle McNamee, who owns All Rivers Shuttle in White Bird, Idaho, told the Statesman in late July that she delivered water to stranded rafters and offered her company’s vans to help people get off the river.

McNamee said that in early June, she came across a truck Wild River Shuttles had delivered to a boat ramp. The vehicle was in danger of being swept away as heavy rain caused the river to surge.

McNamee said she contacted Tammy Nelson and had to break into the truck to move it away from the water. She assumed it was a one-time mistake until she began seeing Facebook posts from rafters who couldn’t find their vehicles or get in touch with the Nelsons’ company. McNamee started using All Rivers’ Facebook page to crowdsource information on missing vehicles and warn the community about the issues people were reporting with Wild River.

“I did it for the river,” McNamee said. “A lot of these people are people I’ve dealt with for the past 16 years. They’re like my family.”

McNamee estimated that she spent about $700 helping people affected by Wild River.

Several groups told the Statesman of experiences similar to Beckford’s.

Jennifer Gleason’s group paid Wild River to shuttle four vehicles from Cache Bar to Carey Creek, a nearly 9-hour drive. Only one of their vehicles was at the take-out when they arrived on July 8. The group whose vehicle was there headed home, and the rest of the party – including teenagers and two 82-year-olds – waited by the river as temperatures rose into the 80s.

“Everybody cleared out,” Gleason told the Statesman in a phone interview. “Carey Creek was empty except us. It was eerie.”

Gleason said her group camped overnight, optimistic that things would work out. After making as many as 80 calls – to Wild River, the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office, tow truck operators and more – Gleason finally located the other three vehicles. One was in Stanley, about halfway between the put-in and take-out, while the other two were in a parking lot off of Idaho 21 about 20 miles west of Stanley.

Gleason said Wild River told her one of the vehicles wouldn’t start, but she had no trouble starting it once it was located.

“I can honestly say our situation was better than what some people’s situations have been,” Gleason said.

Jeff Grebe, of Colorado, told the Statesman he was stranded more than once by Wild River. Like Beckford, he was invited on a trip by a friend who won a permit. His group put in on June 25 and ended its trip five days later at Cache Creek, where members found two of their four vehicles.

“It’s not unheard of that maybe a vehicle doesn’t make it for whatever reason – mechanical problems or something,” said Grebe, who has rafted the Salmon four times.

Typically, companies will leave a note in another vehicle to notify the owners of the problem, he said. Wild River didn’t do that.

“If your vehicle’s not there and you have no note, you really have no idea what’s going to happen,” Grebe said.

Without his cellphone or wallet, Grebe headed into the small town of North Fork with the rest of his group. They contacted Tammy Nelson, who told them Grebe’s truck was still at Cache Creek after failing to start. The other missing vehicle was about 20 miles away. Grebe said Nelson told him a shuttle on the way through town would pick him up at 6 a.m. the next day if he waited in Salmon overnight. So Grebe booked a hotel, and the rest of his group began their trips home.

The next morning, Grebe waited for his ride. By 7:30, with no shuttle and no response to his texts and phone calls to Wild River, Grebe said he began hitchhiking. He made it 170 miles back to the spot where his group put in. He found his truck, which started up right away.

“These are very, very remote places they’re shuttling to,” Grebe said. “If you don’t have things to get by with, there’s not a whole lot you can do except stick out your thumb.”

Some rafters went to local police for help. Scott Dent, who rafted from Boundary Creek to Corn Creek in early July, said his group found just one of six vehicles when it left the river. After trying to contact the company for several hours, the group filed missing vehicle reports with the Salmon Police Department, and their vehicles were eventually found.

One driver used a GPS app to locate his van, which officials found in Challis with a woman, her child and dog in the vehicle, Dent said in an email. Dent’s truck was found at a Salmon gas station where a Wild River employee was fueling up.

Jenn Ford told the Statesman that her group was stuck at its take-out point without their vehicles for 24 hours before “someone took pity” and drove them into Riggins. After paying for a 2-hour ride to Lewiston, Ford said, she rented a moving truck to get her boats and herself home to Jackson, Wyoming, for a prior obligation.

Ford said her group contacted Salmon police, too, and was told their missing vehicles were “a civil matter.” She later went to the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office and the Forest Service, and said those agencies located her truck.

The Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office told the Statesman it had forwarded all its information on the shuttle company to the Salmon Police Department. Salmon police did not respond to Statesman inquiries about the number or type of complaints made about the company.

The Statesman filed records requests with the sheriff’s office and Salmon Police Department but did not receive a response. The Salmon Police Department could not be reached by phone, and the police chief did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

After receiving complaints from four consumers who alleged that Wild River Shuttles accepted payment for unfulfilled services, the Idaho attorney general’s office last month opened an investigation.

In late July and early August, the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office served Michelle and Tammy Nelson an “investigative demand” penned by Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Guyon. The document – obtained by the Statesman through a public records request – demanded that by Aug. 19, the Nelsons hand over a list of their assets along with details about their company’s unfulfilled contracts and verbal agreements between June 1 and July 31.

The attorney general’s office enforces the Idaho Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits businesses from engaging in unfair competition and deceptive acts.

On Aug. 12, Tammy Nelson requested a deadline extension to fulfill the AG’s request. The attorney general’s office granted an extension that ended Thursday.

“We are doing our best to give you the information you’re asking for and we are willing to do whatever is asked of us,” Nelson wrote in an email to Guyon.

In a now-deleted post on the Wild River Facebook page, Tammy Nelson attributed the chaos to a death in the family and said the company “is doing everything we can to right our wrong.”

Beckford told the Statesman he was able to cancel the shuttle charges on his credit card, but said the refund didn’t make up for what he spent on lodging, food, gas and more while tracking down his vehicle.

Gleason said she also got a refund for the shuttle service, as well as money for gas used to find her vehicle.

Grebe said Wild River tried to keep his $350 shuttle fee despite leaving his vehicle at the put-in. When he said he’d file charges with police, Nelson offered to send him a check. He said he didn’t expect that check to be delivered, but when it finally arrived, it bounced.

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