Photo: Coppper Chadwick / Copperfoto

The Founders

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Joe and Fran Tonsmeire

Joe and Fran were longtime whitewater rafting outfitters and ranchers from Lemhi, Idaho.  They founded River Discovery in October 2006, envisioning river-based programming where young participants can address the emotional and physical challenges faced by cancer survivors. Both Tonsmeires experienced cancer personally.  Fran battled the disease 3 times.  In the end, no amount of grit, strength, or perseverance was enough to overcome the terrible disease. Joe died in March of  2007 and Fran in November of 2014. 

Joe lived life to the fullest. He loved the land and rivers deeply and was truly an adventurer. His days were spent outdoors running rivers, working the ranch, climbing mountains, riding the range or chasing elk. Before his death in 2007, he helped plan the first year of River Discovery adventures.  This fulfilled his long-time dream of taking children with cancer down the river.
Joe left his family and friends with countless treasured memories of the adventures they shared and how he always seemed to have the most fun of all.


Fran wore many hats; Joe's wife, Amy & Seth's mom, sister, sister-in-law, rancher, river enthusiast, land preservationist, River Discovery Founder and board member. She never grew tired of wearing all of them at the same time and always did so with an ear to ear smile. Fran fought a courageous fight with a third diagnosis of cancer in 2 years. She passed away in November 2014 with her family and friends by her side. She was our rock and River Discovery's greatest cheerleader.  She is and always will be in our hearts.  We are privileged to keep her dream alive.


The Spirit of Adventure Award 

Joe and Fran Tonsmeire created an award long ago in order to honor those among us that truly exemplified a heart for adventure, an enthusiasm for each day and opportunity and joy in sharing these experiences on rivers with others. A spirit of adventure has always been about really appreciating the beauty of a canyon, the river and the small gifts that go with it. It's also personal growth and taking new opportunities to challenge ourselves. Often we find that we are capable of so much more than we originally thought, and through testing our own limits we have found new friendships, joys and confidence that forever change our lives. This is now a way for us to honor our parents by continuing their tradition.


We are honored to share the following poems about Joe and Fran, written by their loving daughter Amy:

With the pace of a mountain goat and the heart of Lion,
he never stopped living - he'd rather die trying;
From the top of McKinley or thru raging falls,
he's riding the range and shooting the stars;
The River it called and the trail it began
and the wind always whispered to this special man;
A figure of love, and passion and grace,
blue dancing eyes and a smile on his face;
I wonder now what we should do or should say,
I'll follow his tracks and cherish each day;
Well the River it called and the trail it began
and the wind always whispered to this special man.

Your grace is in the blue heron.
Your watch is the red-tail hawk....
Your breath is the warm wind in the aspens,
and you follow wherever I walk.

Your love seeps out of campfires,
and nourishes me at night in my dreams.
You sooth me in the waves of the river
and show me the way not the means.

Your gifts are now so transparent.
Your kindness is in the eyes of our friends.
Your strength is in the shoes I put on tomorrow.
Your memory is my rose colored lens.

I will travel the canyons and get tired
and lose track of the trail in the dark.
but I know I'm never without you,
when your spirit resides in my heart.

Love you Mom.

History of River Discovery

River Discovery is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and was founded in October 2006 by Joe and Fran Tonsmeire, longtime whitewater rafting outfitters and ranchers from Lemhi, Idaho.  

The Steele-Reese Foundation awarded River Discovery a $50,000 start-up grant in 2007. The first programs offered that summer included ranch-based adventures where youth cancer and hemophilia survivors spent a week rafting, hiking, horseback riding, swimming and fishing.  

In 2008, the Board and Executive Director of River Discovery reviewed its vision, mission and objectives and made the decision to focus exclusively on river adventures for cancer survivors.  In 2009, a new youth program invited teen cancer survivors to attend without an accompanying parent. Taking teens on a wilderness river gave them a chance to grow and learn on their own and proved to be a very empowering experience. Since 2009, River Discovery has offered an annual 6-day Salmon River trip to adult survivors and included teen trips when possible.

In early 2012 River Discovery moved its administration office to Boise, Idaho.  This move provided the opportunity for increased exposure and collaboration with Idaho's largest hospitals and communities.  Later that year, River Discovery introduced their first 1-day river adventure for youth cancer survivors and their families. While in the Treasure Valley, River Discovery has become entrenched in the community programs for cancer survivors and continues to grow relationships with local business and foundations.  These new relationships have sponsored increased fundraising events and supported new and innovative adventure programs for survivors and their families that include a camp-based weekend retreat for survivors and co-survivors as well as stand up paddle board sessions throughout the summer.  

In addition to the adventure programs, River Discovery has teamed with Mosaic Essentials and St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital  to offer individual mosaic kits for young patients to create while staying at the hospital in Boise. When Joe Tonsmeire was receiving treatment at St. Luke’s, his family spent a lot of time there.  On an outing around the city they found a mosaic shop full of laughter and fun. That afternoon escape from the hospital evolved into an expressive art program that Joe brought to the hospital.  With the help of local mosaic artist Reham Aarti and River Discovery donors, all children at the hospital in treatment can create a mosaic art piece either in a group setting or individually in their rooms.