On Sunday, June 15, 1997, a Father’s Day whitewater raft trip took a turn for the nightmarish.
A Great Northern Whitewater Inc. raft charter on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River went perilously wrong when a 100-foot cottonwood tree fell from the bank and crashed into the back of the raft, knocking two guests into the river and trapping the rest.
Lewis Brown Griggs, a speaker and producer from San Francisco, suffered a severe skull fracture and left frontal lobe damage. He was literally dead from his brain injuries and spent eight days in a coma at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Griggs’s son Ian, then 10 years old, also experienced severe head trauma, and his 15-year-old daughter Ashley carried the emotional burden of seeing her father dead and her brother knocked out, drowned, and possibly dying.
Both Griggs and his son were declared stable in Kalispell before returning home to San Francisco. A year later, in July 1998, they visited the spot where the accident occurred before returning to Great Northern Resort for a celebration of thanks.
Griggs had managed to track down everyone “who had a piece of saving (his) life,” he said, and got them all together on the deck of the resort. He had called 911 to track down the emergency responders, then contacted the hospital nurses and surgeons, the helicopter crew, and others.
Before the accident, Griggs and his ex-wife cofounded the first training company in the United States to teach cultural diversity.
“I teach straight white men who don’t get it, how to get it,” he explained.
And the Middle Fork accident has aided his work, as he described in a 2012 TED talk and in a recent interview. The experience of being in a coma and forgetting how to read, write, talk, walk, and remember his family’s names was transformative. He likened it to being in the center of a tornado, where it’s “totally still” and there’s no “chaotic energy.”
Now he’s using the spiritual lessons he learned about human oneness and differences to conduct small group training instead.
“What I have is more of what I’ve always had – sensitivity and consciousness for why I have to do my work,” he noted. “Every crisis has the opportunity for learnings without which you wouldn’t have been able to learn that.”
And 20 years later, Griggs and his family have a new learning opportunity.
On Sunday, June 18, Father’s Day, they will take another Middle Fork raft trip with Great Northern. They plan to stop at the site where the tree fell and “listen to what happened,” Griggs said.
Neither Griggs nor his son has any memory of what occurred. The last thing Griggs remembers is when they were about to hit the whitewater and telling his son, “Trust me, you’re gonna love this.”
Griggs’ daughter and Kevin Brockbank – their guide 20 years ago, whom Griggs has pulled from Spokane to lead this trip – will tell the story of the accident to Griggs and his son on Sunday.
Brockbank noted, “That accident meant a lot to all the guides who worked the trip that day. It was an important moment in all our lives. We all feel really fortunate on how things turned out.”
For the Griggs family, this trip will be a healing experience, allowing them to move past the site of the accident and “continue successfully,” literally on the river and figuratively with their lives.