The Naming of Johnson's Squeeze (on East Fork of the Little Buffalo)

Written by Jon Johnson


Okay, here it is.  Keep in mind that I remember the situation only from
the river-level perspective, inasmuch as I wasn't too keen on walking
back up to analyze in detail every stupid thing I did.  Come to think of
it, that still doesn't sound too appealing...

Some context first: beautiful day, sunny and spring-time warmish. River was at lowish-medium flow. I had been practicing a lot in the C-1 beforehand, had a killer eskimo roll and could even paddle in a relatively straight line for at least 20 yards without breaking down into a cursing frenzy or into tears. That notwithstanding, I had not actually run a river in a C-1 to that point, and in retrospect, a first descent was probably not the ideal situation for making a maiden voyage in a boat designed to maximize pain and suffering and the threat o' death and all that. Didn't occur to me at the time, however. One skill all good C-1 paddlers learn _while running actual rivers_ is to pole, especially in shallow, swift water. Had I learned that particular skill, Johnson's Squeeze would be called some other original name, like "crack in the rock" or something. Thanks to the official namer of rapids, by the way, for not calling it "Johnson's Crack"; the ignominy of the event is ignominy enough without sophomoric references to my butt. Ironically, the paddle I was using at the time was good for poling only; Perception's canoe paddles merit a class action lawsuit in my opinion, but that's another matter.

So there we were, having just beat through the bush to get to a funnish part of the river, and we were all feeling just a little frisky (or some more macho derivation thereof, for those so inclined). We arrive at the head of the rapid, and the other members of the party dutifully paddle to the left bank to scout the oh-so-blind drop. Not me, cause I was feeling especially stupid for some reason, and you gotta go with your gut. You'll recall that the head of the rapid begins with a dog-leg, and at the time there was an eddy on the outside of the dogleg (river right) that seemingly allowed for eddy-hopping/scouting. I meandered on down to said eddy, and looked downstream for the next line. What I saw was so bewildering, my stupidity-quotient was immediately trebled. In that state, my interpretation of the situation was that the river narrowed to about two feet wide, slammed into a terminal rock wall, and disappeared, apparently to the right, but who knew? The obvious thing to do was try to catch a make-or-die eddy on river left, of questionable quality. Climbing out of the eddy I was in would entail getting dirty and possibly scratched up, both intolerable.

So... I peel out to catch the eddy on river left, which a reasonably competent C-1 paddler (or kayaker, like, oh... Ted Colwell, who did; in one of his less cogent moments, Ted followed me into the funnel o' death, but as mentioned, he was competent) could have caught had he run a few rivers and learned to pole. Actually, I caught the eddy, but ole man ribber just kept rolling, and was dragging me out the tail of the eddy. I flailed about for awhile, tried grabbing the rock wall to my immediate right, flailed some more, etc., all the while losing ground.

In what turned out to be an unintended good move, I decided to do a monster reverse sweep, on the theory that if I was gonna go through the crack, I was going to at least SEE it. The result was the very unique pin, perpendicular to the current with the front of the boat against the right wall on river right, the stern on the rock wall on river left. At this point, I laid on a low brace and tried to figure out what to do. The only reasonable thought that came to mind was to holler out something to my colleagues with ropes. "Help!" I think it was. So they collectively said "Oh shit" and got their ropes and gathered on the rock flat above my location, and discussed what they might do. It had been awhile since I had begun the low brace of eternity, and I grew impatient, so I yelled out the next thing that came to mind, to wit: "Throw me the rope" (expletive understood). They hadn't come up with a better alternative in the interim, so they threw the rope (something like five feet), which I grabbed with both hands after abandoning my despised paddle. I immediately leaned upstream, clutching the rope. The boat was immediately ripped off of me, leaving the most unique thigh-strap shaped bruises on both thighs, and (according to my saviours, I being thrashed about under water) hit the squeeze and folded in two in a split second. I was eventually jostled free of the rope -- something like, "oh what the hell, you only live once, you might as well die" going through my mind -- and was spit through the squeeze in a very, very brief moment in time. Hit the bed rock at the bottom of the falls hard enough to hurt my rear-end, got flushed through the hole below, which was exploding at the time, and washed out into the most placid of pools.

I floated about for awhile, got on my boat (which didn't suffer any at all from its earlier fold), gathered the despised, despicable, actionable paddle, and sat on the bank for a bit to reflect on the meaning of life and whatnot. The guys-with-ropes gathered on the edge of the rock to look for my body, and were somewhat relieved to find they wouldn't have to drag it out.

Now, to dispell some rather unfortunate rumors (one, actually) resulting from the event (and the next time you see Wade Colwell, whack him upside the head and tell him to quit spreading vicious lies). No, the trauma was not so great that I gave up paddling, even C-1ing, completely. I DID learn how to pole, etc., and have been heard to tell neophytes that no, a bombproof roll is not all you need to run rivers. It also gave me pause to reconsider my philosophy of river-running, which did change a bit. Also, the event had very little to do with me ending up in Indiana, which thus far been a trauma that will likely have much longer lasting effects.

later. jon