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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho company shut down after stranding rafters reopened under new name

Michelle Visser’s 2010 Chevy Tahoe sits in the Salmon River in Idaho on Sept. 17, 2023. Visser’s family hired Whitewater River Shuttle to move the vehicle from Salmon to Carey Creek, but the driver crashed the car shortly outside Salmon.  (Courtesy Photo )
By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

BOISE – “WILL NOT RETURN CARS.” “HORRIBLE EXPERIENCE.” “Worst shuttle company ever.”

Michelle Visser said her husband, Nick, and four of their friends read the scathing online reviews, news articles and forum posts about Wild River Shuttles, a Salmon, Idaho, rafting shuttle company that last year left rafters stranded.

It also damaged and lost customers’ vehicles .

The Idaho Statesman reported on the complaints and an investigation from the Idaho attorney general’s office against the business.

Five months later, the Idaho attorney general banned owners Tammy Nelson and her wife, Michelle, from owning or operating a shuttle company in the state, pending the repayment of $8,700 in restitution to customers.

The Vissers and their friends knew exactly who to avoid for a September rafting trip along the Salmon River. Instead, the Wyoming group hired Whitewater River Shuttle to move two vehicles from their put-in point at Corn Creek to their takeout at Carey Creek, roughly 400 miles away. Michelle Visser said in an interview that Whitewater’s website looked professional, and the group thought they were “avoiding the problem” that many rafters had with Wild River Shuttles last year.

What they didn’t realize: Whitewater was owned by Nelson, the same person who ran the business at the heart of last year’s numerous complaints. Nelson had registered Whitewater in late June under the name Cristina Tammy Nelson.

Visser and members of the local river community, many of whom pitched in to aid stranded rafters last year, questioned how Nelson was able to relaunch her business. Had the attorney general’s ban actually prevented Nelson from opening a new shuttle business, Visser said she would’ve saved time, money and heartache.

She said her family and friends learned the hard way that Nelson ran Whitewater – after a driver employed by the company crashed the Vissers’ Chevy Tahoe into the Salmon River.

Nelson did not respond to a request for comment.

Crash connects Wild River, Whitewater shuttle companies

Visser said she stayed home in Laramie, Wyoming, while her husband and their friends were on their river trip.

The group paid Whitewater River Shuttle to transport a pickup truck and the Vissers’ Tahoe, which was pulling a trailer. Shortly after the group’s trip began, Visser said Nelson told her that the truck had been transported, but the Tahoe had a flat tire.

Visser said she confirmed with a local Les Schwab store that Nelson brought the Tahoe in to have a valve stem replaced. On Sept. 17, a Whitewater employee was scheduled to drive the Tahoe to Carey Creek Boat Ramp near Riggins. The vehicle never arrived.

About 30 miles outside of Salmon near Elk Horn Road, the Tahoe went off the road, through thick brush and into the Salmon River.

Visser said she first learned about the crash around 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 – about four hours after the incident – when Nelson called her. A Salmon Police Department accident report attributed the single-vehicle crash to inattentive and drug-impaired driving. Visser said police told her there were “absolutely no skid marks” on the highway, suggesting the driver didn’t brake or accelerate before the accident.

“The policeman said it looked like (the driver) was trying to plow a new highway through the forest,” Visser said.

No charges have been filed against the driver, according to court documents. The Tahoe was towed to a Salmon salvage yard. Visser said her insurance company has deemed the vehicle a total loss.

Visser said she spoke to Nelson twice on the night of the crash and initially assumed Nelson would work with her to help the group still on the river and address the vehicle damage. Visser said that didn’t happen.

Instead, Visser said, Nelson urgently requested that Visser authorize the salvage yard to release the Tahoe to Nelson. Visser refused.

By then, she had spoken to police and the owner of Lemhi Auto Repair and Recycle, who informed her of Nelson’s connection to Wild River Shuttles.

Visser said an employee at the auto salvage yard “was clearly very familiar with this woman and was aghast that we had been working with her.” Visser said Nelson told her she wanted to retrieve personal items from the Tahoe to deliver them to Carey Creek before the group left the river two days later on Sept. 19.

“At the time, she claimed she was going to personally drive to Carey Creek when my husband and friends got off the river to tell them what happened,” Visser said. “Based on the conversations I had and articles I read, I had no reason to believe she would actually show up there.”

Nelson planned to prove herself

Visser enlisted a friend – Jill Walford, whose husband was also on the river trip – to help coordinate a solution for the rafters. While the group’s other vehicle had made it to Carey Creek, without the Tahoe and its trailer, it wouldn’t hold enough room for their gear. The trailer had survived the crash intact, and Visser hoped it could be transported to Carey Creek, which would allow the group to return home after their trip.

Walford said she began contacting other shuttle companies along the Main Salmon, eventually connecting with Mi’Chelle McNamee, who owns All Rivers Shuttle in White Bird. Last summer, McNamee was one of several other shuttle company owners who pitched in to help pick up rafters stranded by Wild River and locate missing vehicles. She said last year that she also moved a truck Nelson had delivered to a boat ramp, after heavy rain caused a surge in the river’s water level and threatened to sweep the vehicle away.

“Mi’Chelle went into overdrive,” Walford said. McNamee connected Walford with “Cowboy Ken” Price, a local who was on his way from Salmon to the Carey Creek area.

Price retrieved personal items from the Tahoe and transported the trailer to the takeout area, where he hooked it up to the group’s pickup truck, left the items from the other vehicle and wrote a note explaining “in very gentle terms” that the Tahoe had been in an accident, Visser said.

The group piled into the pickup, spent a night in Boise and made it home to Laramie. In the meantime, Visser was handling insurance and trying to communicate with Nelson. Visser said she spoke to Nelson the day after the crash and informed the shuttle company owner that she and Walford had found another solution to help the rafting group. Visser said Nelson asked what she should do with the $100 cash left in the Tahoe as gas money. Visser asked Nelson to mail it to her. Visser said she hasn’t received the cash.

Visser said Nelson didn’t offer any kind of insurance or other compensation after the crash. Nelson disputed that.

In a post shared on a Lemhi County Facebook group and MountainBuzz, an online forum for rafting, Nelson said she offered to pay the full deductible for the Vissers’ insurance and refunded the cost of the shuttle service for the Tahoe. She said she planned to prove herself through the new shuttle business before revealing to the river community that she was behind Whitewater River Shuttle.

“It is disheartening to see my business and my personal integrity being smeared by these claims,” Nelson wrote. “I have made a conscious effort to learn from past mistakes and have strived to create a business that prioritizes professionalism, transparency and exceptional customer service.”

New business violated attorney general ban

Last summer, five customers said they paid Wild River Shuttles to drive their vehicles from rafting put-ins near Salmon to various takeout sites farther downriver. Customers said they spent days and hundreds of dollars trying to track down missing vehicles. Online reviews and reports to the attorney general’s office showed other customers’ vehicles were damaged, including a van that was crashed and abandoned on the highway, according to a consumer protection complaint.

At the time, Nelson said Wild River Shuttles had problems with drivers, had overbooked customers and had paid at least $14,000 in refunds and planned to permanently shutter.

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

The attorney general’s office opened an investigation into the company in August 2022. The investigation concluded with a settlement agreement in January that forbid Nelson and her wife, Michelle Nelson, from “owning, operating, or managing a vehicle shuttle or transport business in Idaho.” According to the settlement, obtained through a public records request, the Nelsons owed more than $8,000 to customers.

Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Guyon sent letters in February to each of the customers who complained to the state agency about Wild River, informing them of the outcome of the investigation, including the business ban, and noting that the couple lacked the funds to pay restitution.

On Sept. 19, one of those customers informed Guyon that Nelson had started a new shuttle business. Two days later, Guyon sent Tammy Nelson a letter informing her she needed to dissolve Whitewater River Shuttle immediately, prove it was not a river shuttle business or pay the $8,783 in outstanding restitution, along with $11,000 in civil penalties and $4,000 in fees for violating her agreement with the state.

Emily Kleinworth, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said the agency has not received a response from Nelson. A Google listing for the business shows it is “temporarily closed.”

Businesses are registered through the Idaho secretary of state’s office, and spokesperson Chelsea Carattini wrote in an email that the agency’s duties for business registration are “ministerial,” meaning they only document the registrations instead of regulating them.

“We do not have the authority to regulate or flag businesses with ‘bad behavior,’ ” she said.

McNamee, the White Bird shuttle operator who helped Visser and Walford, said she was “very, very frustrated and alarmed” upon learning that Nelson was running a new shuttle company.

McNamee, Visser and some customers impacted by Wild River questioned how Nelson slipped through the cracks to run Whitewater River Shuttle for nearly three months before authorities took notice.

Visser said she was shocked that city, police and U.S. Forest Service officials, all of whom were informed of Wild River’s issues last year, told her they had no recourse to keep Nelson from operating.

Visser said her friends thoroughly researched shuttle companies. “But because she changed the name of the business, people are being blindsided.”