EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains strong language that some readers may find objectionable.
Zach Kyle, who joined the Idaho Statesman in April, wrote this three-part series while working for the Post Register in Idaho Falls. The story ran in the Post Register May 31 through June 2. Read Part 1, about the accident that claimed Jon Boling's life, here.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. It is easy to look at Jon Boling as a statistic.
Last year, he was one of roughly 10,000 people from across the country and around the world to launch at Boundary Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Boling also was one of three boaters in the past three years to die on the "The River of No Return," a 100-mile plunge through the wild heart of Idaho.
Boling, 34, died June 3, 2012, just two hours into a five-day float. His heart stopped after he was tossed from his cataraft into the river's chilly waters.
He is a number, certainly, but he also was a person, a man formed by rivers, beer and the memory of a grandfather who died rafting.
LIFE OF THE PARTY
Boling is remembered by family and friends even acquaintances as a big man with a big personality.
A son of the South, he found a home in the West, where he pursued skiing, rafting and microbrews with equal gusto.
He fell in love with rafting in Colorado. The sport was his grandfather's passion, and his grandfather was the man Boling admired most.
Boling became adept enough to earn a living for awhile as a commercial rafting guide.
He also was able to turn his passion for microbrews into a career. When he left Mississippi, he walked away from the mortgage industry and went to work as sales manager for Colorado's Bristol Brewing Co.
Boling later moved to a job with the C.R. Goodman Distribution Co., a Colorado-based craft beer wholesaler.
He dreamed of opening his own brew pub. His obituary described him as a craft beer connoisseur.
Boling was everybody's best bud, the kind of guy who gave a lot of hugs and made sure to tell his friends they were loved.
"He was like a big teddy bear," said Sarah Turner, a friend from Colorado. "You just wanted to snuggle up next to him."
Turner was the passenger in Boling's raft when it plunged over Velvet Falls.
"JB was the nicest guy you'll ever meet," Chris Hendershot said. "He was the life of the party."
Hendershot, a Boise paramedic, was among those who performed CPR on Boling in an attempt to revive him.
CLASS IV CLOWN
Boling met his girlfriend, Karen Jensen, through an online dating website, though she said he'd never admit to that.
He told friends they met at TRiNiTY Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, the site of their first date.
He was a habitual jokester dating back to his days growing up in Jackson, Miss.
Today, nearly a year after Boling's death, Jensen, 33, wears the diamond from his mother's wedding ring as a pendant.
In February, Jensen sat in the Front Range BBQ in Colorado Springs to share her memories of the man she loved. This is where they hung out on football Saturdays to watch Boling's alma mater, Ole Miss.
Jensen opened an envelope of mementos and carefully thumbed through a collection of photos and writings from his memorial service until she found a note to make her point. It was a disciplinary statement Boling had to write while in elementary school.
She read it with a smile:
"I'm serving detention time because I looked out the window. ... I usually would not have got detention for such a little thing like looking out there, but, you know, we have the accreditation inspectors here. It would not look good for the first month of school to be looking out the window."
"Typical JB," Jensen said with tears in her eyes. "He was always a smartass."
Patty Pinkham, of Golden, Colo., was part of Boling's regular river crew but she was not along for last year's Middle Fork trip.
The pair became fast friends after meeting on a river trip years earlier. When they met, Pinkham recalled that she'd recently gained weight while recovering from surgery and was smarting from another paddler's comment that she looked a little big for her kayak.
Boling noticed her hurt feelings, pulled her aside and told her she had an advantage. Fat floats, he said, and he'd much rather float with her than a skinny girl.
Pinkham said she instantly took to him.
"He made a big joke over it," she said. "That was it for me. He was like the big brother I never had."
Boling switched from "Jon" to "JB" when he moved to Colorado. While he left many of his Southern accoutrements behind, he brought with him an appetite for southern BBQ and red beans and rice.
Pinkham said Boling's accent dimmed in his Colorado years but roared back after a few beers.
"He used (the drawl) in his humor, like that old redneck thing," she said. "He used it to make you feel better."
Typically gregarious, Boling was quiet at the Boundary Creek camp on the Middle Fork on the night before put-in.
He called Jensen back in Colorado Springs and said it was rainy and cold. He said he missed her.
He nursed a few beers with Robb Merritt and Turner, his traveling companions from Colorado.
Turner teased him about how he'd flipped his cataraft on a 2011 trip in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. It was a lighthearted poke, and Boiling took it as such.
The mood turned when he confided that his grandfather died rafting Cataract Canyon.
Boling's grandfather, Dr. Sam Johnson, was a father figure to Boling, who called him "Day-Day."
Johnson was 74 when he died May 12, 2000, after the raft he was floating in flipped at "Big Drop Two," the second in a series of three falls on the Colorado called "Satan's Gut."
After the raft flipped Johnson swam into "Big Drop Three" and by the time another rafter reached him, he was in cardiac arrest, according to an incident report from the Grand County, Utah, Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue team.
Boling took up rafting because it was his grandfather's passion, Jensen said. Boling floated Cataract Canyon because it killed Johnson, though Boling waited until his skill level was far above the river's difficulty, she said.
"I don't think JB would have ever thought to try rafting if his grandpa weren't into it," Jensen said. "He wanted to conquer that fear."
Turner, Hendershot and Pinkham were on Boling's Cataract Canyon trip. Boling handled the first drops of Satan's Gut, then prepared himself in an eddy before paddling toward Big Drop Three.
Pinkham didn't feel comfortable riding over the drop. She walked her kayak around it and watched from below.
Boaters have to find the sweet spot going over the drop, Pinkham said. That means looking where you want to go which means away from the large rock in the middle of the ledge.
But Boling was transfixed by the rock. The longer he stared, the more his boat fell off the safe line. Pinkham watched the cataraft plunge nose-first into the hydraulic churning at the bottom of the falls.
"I watched him flip, right where his grandfather died," she said. "The exact spot."
The Colorado isn't crystal-clear like the Middle Fork. The water is murky with silt. Pinkham, who has taken similar swims, said, "It's black as night under the surface. You can't see your bubbles."
Boling wasn't submerged for long, just long enough for Pinkham to start nervously counting.
He was fine when he popped up. The others helped him right his boat, and the group battled wind for 30 miles as they crossed Lake Powell before taking out after dark and making dinner.
Boling was uncharacteristically quiet that night, too, Pinkham said.
"Of course it messed with him," she said. "He didn't talk about it for quite some time. Weeks. When he did, he was finally like, 'Wow. That was pretty messed up, huh?'"