Rafters work to regroup after a deadly tragedy at Velvet Falls on the Salmon River

POST REGISTERJune 14, 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 1, which chronicles the start of the trip and Boling's death, ran in Thursday's Idaho Statesman. You can read it and a profile of Boling at IdahoStatesman.com.

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

The 13 boaters on Jon Boling's Middle Fork trip were in disarray in the moments after his death on June 3, 2012.

Two boats had flipped going over Velvet Falls. Boling didn't flip, but was pitched out of his boat and died of a heart attack in the 38-degree water.

The carnage shattered the party, splitting it into three groups spanning several miles of the upper river, which twists and turns through a thick forest. No help was on the way, at least not right away. Decisions had to be made. Nerves had to be soothed.

The river lay ahead. Thirteen people - largely strangers - had to regroup, physically and mentally.

They had to get down the river to the Indian Creek airstrip.

Until then, they had to survive, isolated from the outside world in one of the most remote stretches in the contiguous 48 states.

TAKING STOCK

The largest of the three groups included Sarah Turner, who for nearly an hour had performed CPR on Boling with four others who remained near the body. Turner was riding on Boling's cataraft as it plunged over Velvet, but she managed to stay on the boat.

Five boaters stopped to assist Boling, but the rest of the party was scattered by the currents.

Team leader and permit holder Christina King swam several miles after her boat flipped. She later was picked up by another boater who chased after her.

David Christiansen of Greeley, Colo., was somewhere downstream, having paddled after Boling's rig after Turner abandoned it to help get Boling out of the water.

One boat was badly damaged.

Of those in the larger group, only Turner and Boise's Chris Hendershot knew Boling before embarking on the trip. They said that lack of intimacy actually helped the others keep their heads in the aftermath of Velvet Falls.

The party reassembled over the course of several hours, after some members of the party ran up and down a trail to find others.

They decided to set up camp outside a normal spot so the damaged boat could be patched.

The group was somber but collected.

Turner's gear was in Boling's boat, which was several miles downstream.

Together they scrounged supplies to get her through the night. Shoes. Clothes and tent space. A sleeping bag. A contact case. A few glasses of wine.

They made a plan for the next day. The river was still running high. Its flows were fast enough for them to reach Indian Creek, roughly 16 miles downriver, within the day. That's where they could rendezvous with the ranger and where an airplane could fly out the body.

KEEPING BUSY

The group was subdued at dinner. The rafters recounted the day's events over and over. As much as they wanted to blame themselves, they realized they did all they could for Boling.

"People were able to cope with it," Hendershot said. "There's only one way to go on the river, and that's down."

Turner doesn't remember what they ate for dinner, just that she tried to keep busy cooking and washing dishes. Anything to distract her thoughts from the body wrapped in a poncho and strapped to the back of Robb Merritt's boat.

She especially didn't want to think about getting back on the water.

Nobody else was in any hurry to launch the next morning. The river was high, fast and cold. Boling was dead.

They seemed to be stalling. "Getting back on the water was horrifying," Turner said.

They eventually packed up camp, assembled at the bank and shoved off.

ON THE WATER AGAIN

Trouble found the group at Powerhouse, the first big rapid after Velvet Falls.

The boat carrying Turner skated through.

"For the first time, I felt like something went OK," Turner said. "That's when I turned around to check upriver and we saw Robb's boat was upside down. JB's strapped to the bottom of it. And I thought, 'Really? How much more do we have to deal with?' "

Merritt was retrieved from the water and was fine.

Then another boater banged into the rock wall and punctured a tube.

Worse, Merritt's flipped boat banged against a gravel bar covered with small trees in the middle of the river. The boat was stuck and taking a beating. So, presumably, was Boling's body.

The group went ashore. One of the boaters asked the women to walk downstream as the men worked to right the boat.

"I was concerned that the body would be exposed or be decapitated because of the brutal boat rescue," the boater, whose name was redacted, wrote in the report to the coroner.

The boat wasn't going to flip or shake free from the gravel bar without some major torque. The group needed to use a Z-drag, which employed pulleys, a rope and a tree to gain leverage.

But somebody had to attach the rope to the boat.

Hendershot, a strapping combat veteran, figured he was the guy for the job. He asked one boater to paddle him out so he could jump onto the overturned boat. The scared boater declined.

Another boater told him to hop on board.

Once he was close enough, Hendershot leapt onto the overturned boat, rope in hand.

The front of the boat bucked in the current as he tied knots. The back was weighted down by the weight of the two men - him and Boling.

"I kept thinking, if JB were here, he'd be laughing at (me)," Hendershot said. "Because this is horrible."

It took more than two hours to flip the boat.

Boling's body "was pretty beat up," Hendershot said. "It wasn't a very good scene."

Drained, the group sat quietly for an hour in rain and hail.

"That was the low point of the trip," Hendershot said. "Everybody was like, 'This is stupid. We shouldn't be here. Let's get off the river. Let's get to Indian Creek and fly out.' "

That wasn't in the cards.

Two boats needed extensive repairs.

The group reluctantly packed up and limped around the bend to the campsite at Sheepeater to stay the night.

HELP IS ON THE WAY

Two professional kayakers pulled into camp in the early morning. Other rafters had sent word of the fatality to Custer County Sheriff Stu Lumpkin, who commissioned the kayakers to escort the party to Indian Creek.

The kayakers sized up the situation and decided it was best if they packed up Boling on a cataraft and put in ahead of the group.

"It was a good separation point," Hendershot said.

Turner said she felt a weight melt off her shoulders throughout the day. It came right back when they approached Indian Creek and she saw the wrapped body at the ramp's bottom.

"That was the hardest part," Turner said. "Seeing that epitomized everything. It was real."

The ranger, who knew the group was coming, showered them with hospitality. He let them email loved ones, some of whom had heard rumors on rafting message boards that there had been a death.

They ate heartily and slept in bunkhouses used for wildland firefighter teams.

The clouds cleared the next morning, allowing Challis pilot Pete Nelson of Middle Fork Aviation to angle his single-propeller plane down the steep canyon and onto the dirt runway.

Some men loaded Boling into the plane, much like Hendershot had loaded dead soldiers on helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You have this weird, morbid connection, because they are still with you," Hendershot said. "But when you put somebody in a grave or in an airplane, that's when it hits you. Oh, shit. They are actually dead. They are actually gone."

Turner flew out with the body.

"I had a nice conversation with JB on the plane. It was good closure," she said. "There I was, saying my goodbyes to a body bag."

The trip was supposed to be six days of unhurried rafting from Boundary Creek to Corn Creek, but Boling had died two hours in.

The group had reached Indian Creek on the third day, more than a day later than scheduled. The rest of the party had boats to tend to now. They left Indian Creek and finished the route on the seventh day.

A YEAR LATER

Boling's girlfriend, Karen Jensen, remains heartbroken. Boling stands smiling beside brewery vats in the cover photo on her Facebook page. She still lists herself as "in a relationship" with him. She hasn't moved his belongings in their Colorado Springs home.

Turner didn't look through her photos of the trip for months. She found an Indian Creek shot. The boaters look worn. Their smiles were forced. But the worst was over.

"We were all posing in that picture," Turner said. "But now, when I look back at it, we were all still smiling, still upright, still breathing."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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