River of no return: Dream trip turned deadly on the Salmon

Post RegisterJune 12, 2013 

  • About this series

    Zach Kyle joined the Idaho Statesman in April. He wrote this series while working at the Post Register in Idaho Falls. The Post Register ran the series May 31 to June 2.

    Part 2, which follows the rafting group's ongoing struggles after Jon Boling's death, will appear in Friday's Idaho Statesman.

This story contains strong language that some readers may find objectionable.

Jon Boling sang as he steered his cataraft down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River on June 3, 2012.

His little ditty parodied the tune of an old Toys-R-Us jingle: "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Middle Fork kid!"

He was giddy.

These were the moments he lived for - a beautiful river, a cooler full of good beer, the company of friends.

Life doesn't get any better.

As a southerner who migrated west in pursuit of a life lived to the fullest, Boling relished the moment.

But less than two hours into a five-day trip, Boling's boat flipped in a rapid. His hulking frame was no match for the icy waters. His heart gave out.

Boling was 34 years old.

This is the story of his final voyage.

LIKE A DUCK TO WATER

A Mississippi native, Boling - "JB" to his friends - moved to Colorado Springs in 2004 to ski, but also in search of new challenges.

He found rafting. He immersed himself in the sport, becoming a longtime commercial guide in Brown's Canyon on the Arkansas River in Colorado.

By the time he launched on the Middle Fork trip, Boling's days of running rapids for pay were largely behind him. But he still ran them for the joy of it. He jumped on any river trip with a spot for him.

He counted many kayakers among his friends. Kayakers tend to find room for the owner of a 16-foot cataraft with plenty of extra space for their gear.

Boling was invited on many trips, but the Middle Fork is special. Only the Grand Canyon and Selway River permits are more treasured.

This year, 387 Middle Fork permits were awarded via lottery on Feb. 5. Nearly 10,000 applications were submitted.

Boling's fellow Colorado paddler, Patty Pinkham, calls Feb. 5 "Christmas for boaters."

Disappointed rafters chat up their friends and troll whitewater message boards to see whether any lucky permit holders need help filling out their trip.

The Middle Fork drew Boling with its clear water and unblemished valleys, and with its mix of angry rapids and serenity.

But more than anything, Boling and all whitewater boaters crave its remoteness.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness lives up to the hype. The only ways in are to float, hike or go on horseback.

Boling jumped at the chance to float the Middle Fork even though he'd never met 10 of the 13 other boaters on the trip.

He took turns behind the wheel with friends Sarah Turner of Durango, Colo., and Robb Merritt of Denver as they rallied the 635 miles from Grand Junction, Colo., to Stanley.

NO TURNING BACK

Boling wasn't about to turn back from the Middle Fork even though the river's height crept further outside his comfort zone each time he checked his smartphone.

He'd turned back from a Middle Fork trip two years prior when the water reached 9 feet, which most rafters without a death wish will avoid.

The river was high but runable this time around. He, Turner and Merritt decided they'd put in if the water was at or less than 7 feet.

If he had fears, he masked them with his goofy song. He was on the water and he was happy.

Turner sat in the bow of the cataraft, grinning and holding onto the river straps Boling placed there for her. Boaters teased Turner on similar trips, calling her a hood ornament.

Boling liked to have fun, but he knew the river was serious business. Like a big brother or a drawling teddy bear, he issued her one order: "Stay on the effing boat!"

She remembers chatting with Boling about her new gloves. She remembers the pretty landscape and she remembers his song.

"I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Middle Fork kid!"

The river was high (6 1/2 feet), cold (38 degrees) and fast (flowing about 8 mph).

It swept them toward Velvet Falls, a tricky drop masked by a flat horizon line and the eerie quiet that earned Velvet its name.

Turner and Boling had talked about Velvet. They'd studied photos of it. They had a plan.

But the water was higher than in the plan. The river was faster.

"I don't think he realized that it was already Velvet," Turner said. "Rafting is hours where you float, float, float and then something happens. We were having some of those floating moments. He's singing. I'm talking about my gloves. Then all of a sudden he said, 'Hang on,' and then, 'Oh, shit!' And then there was no more JB."

GONE IN AN INSTANT

Most in the group were Middle Fork veterans with more than a decade of whitewater experience under their belts.

Christina King of Woodland Park, Colo., was the permit holder and group leader. She's a kayaker with 20 notches on her Middle Fork belt.

According to plan, Chris Hendershot was running safety in the back of the group with his father-in-law and fellow Boisean Kevin Johnson.

Worried about the size of the group and the high water, Hendershot and Johnson decided to leave anything they could in their truck so they could remain light and quick on the water in their 13-foot catarafts.

Hendershot, 34, is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and looks it - tall and brawny with a square jaw.

When he left the military, he turned to working as a paramedic to achieve something close to the urgency he felt overseas. He also turned to rafting.

Sitting in Bier: Thirty in Boise's Bown Crossing in April, Hendershot took a sip of his beer and described the chaos at Velvet.

The group planned to hug the left bank and take the "sneak," a more gentle, gradual route than the falls.

But a large rock had fallen off the left bank, blocking the way.

Hendershot had a GPS device and knew the group had reached Velvet. He yelled that the sneak was blocked, but Boling either couldn't hear or couldn't adjust in time.

The rafts, kayaks and catarafts plunged over Velvet, one by one.

The leader's raft was tossed.

One of the safety man's catarafts flipped - for the first time in 20 years.

Hendershot said he watched Boling go over.

He saw the cataraft shoot nearly perfectly vertical.

He saw Turner clutching the river straps.

The cataraft hit the hole at the base of the falls and pitched up.

Boling tumbled backward into the water before the rig settled right-side up; Turner clung to the straps for dear life.

"When I turned around and he wasn't there, it was sheer panic," Turner said. "I stayed in the effing boat. Why didn't you stay in the boat?"

A LOST CAUSE

Turner took the oars of Boling's boat but struggled to guide the craft laden with diamond plating, gear and beer.

Merritt angled his cataraft toward Boling as he quickly bobbed to the surface and raised his hand.

Then, in the frigid water, Boling's heart gave out.

Turner peeled off sunglasses she never saw again. She jumped to Merritt's boat. They labored together to pull Boling, a former college rugby player, out of the water.

A health care professional with emergency room and trauma experience, Turner began compressions. Merritt steered toward an eddy.

Turner, who is slight, lunged her elbows and knees into Boling's chest as she tired. The words of a CPR instructor echoed in her ears: "If you're not breaking ribs, you're not doing it right."

Boling was unresponsive.

Hendershot was around a slight corner helping Johnson flip his boat right-side up when he heard screams for help.

The paramedic converged on Boling with others and started CPR. Soon, a rotation of five boaters rotated through cycles.

No response.

Somebody scrounged up a first-aid kit and found an intubation kit. Hendershot inserted the tube into Boling's windpipe and kept pumping his chest.

No response.

Someone found two epinephrine syringes while another boater knifed open an arm of Boling's dry suit and plunged the needles into his bicep.

Nothing.

Hendershot and the others continued pumping for more than an hour before giving up.

King was downriver, having swam after her flipped boat. She draped over it, exhausted, before another boater caught up and helped her and her rig to shore.

The party was split into three groups spread over several miles of the most remote river in the United States, just hours into a five-day trip.

The downriver boaters didn't know Boling was dead when they saw his empty boat glide past in silence.

Read more about the life of Jon Boling here.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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