On the afternoon of Aug. 1, a client of a local guiding outfit was floating the Teton River between South Bates and Bates and saw something startling: a man with a fishing rod sitting atop the roof of a Hummer that was mostly submerged in the river.
The client took a couple photos and sent them to the owner of the guiding outfit, who contacted the sheriff’s office, Idaho Fish & Game, and the Teton Valley News. Deputies were unable to respond to a call mid-river, and none of the IDF&G conservation officers were in the valley at that time, but the TVN posted the photos on Facebook and asked for help identifying the errant motorist.
As a result, the sheriff’s office, as well as local branches of state and federal agencies, started getting calls from individuals concerned about the legality (or wisdom) of driving a car into the river.
The man himself, John Cushman, soon called the sheriff’s office to reveal his identity. He had accessed the Teton River from his own property and said he was checking his fence line when the Hummer got stuck. He had been awaiting a friend’s assistance when the incriminating photos were taken.
Deputies responded to Cushman’s property, where he was back on dry land, having managed to extricate his vehicle.
Because of a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision, they were unable to cite him for misdemeanor public nuisance without a warrant because the incident had not occurred in the presence of law enforcement. The county prosecutor was also unaware of any state statutes under which Cushman could be charged.
However, the sheriff’s office did forward the information to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality office in Boise, where they will determine if Cushman could be cited for pollution or for damaging the bank or stream bed.
Cushman told the TVN during a phone call on Friday that he owns both land on both sides of the river and that the property title shows a right-of-way across the river. He has “driven across the river 120 times,” to check on the fence line, but this was the first time his Hummer had an engine malfunction and got stuck.
General Motors states that stock Hummers can ford up to 27 inches of water. In the photos it is clear that Cushman’s Hummer has an aftermarket snorkel installed in front of the windshield. The snorkel supplies air for the engine while submerged as long as all air intake parts inside the engine bay are sealed.
“People usually clap when they see me cross,” Cushman said. He added that with a sealed engine, his vehicle is designed to not leak fluids into the river, and that people off-loading boats at ramps do environmental damage by putting pollutants into the water.
The Hummer did not appear to have an Invasive Species Sticker, which is required on all watercraft by the Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation.
TCSO public information officer Mitch Golden is approaching his ten-year mark at the sheriff’s office, and he said he’s never seen an incident like this before.
“This one is a first for me,” Golden said with a laugh.
Andy Asadorian, the president of the Teton Valley branch of Trout Unlimited, said he has seen Cushman drive across the river before, and is concerned that other people might follow his example.
“So many great nonprofits and groups have put forth so many resources and work to get the Teton back to the glory days,” Asadorian said. “The fish numbers and sizes are better than ever. This is a really special place and I think the whole community treasures and is respectful of the river and what we have here.”
Cushman told the TVN that he is very supportive of local nonprofits. He put the Two Forks property, which has ample wetlands, cultivated pastures, and riparian corridors, into a conservation easement with Teton Regional Land Trust in 2005 because of its value to fish and water fowl. According to the easement contract, the owner retains the right to use off-road vehicles for agricultural purposes and maintenance of property fences.