Bill Johnston at the Lower Youghiogheny takeout, October, 2006. Photo by Jeff Moag
By Jeff Moag
When you sit down to make a list of something so arbitrary as the heroes of paddling, you end up asking a lot of questions. Like, 'what is a hero?' As I plumbed the rich lore of our sport looking for answers, my mind kept wandering back to the warm fall day on the Lower Yough when I met Bill Johnston.
I was there to paddle with Team River Runner, a program that uses paddling to help heal the physical and spiritual wounds of war. Our group that day included six veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, another man who had lost his right leg to cancer, and Bill, who lost both of his to a hand grenade in South Vietnam. He was nearly 30 years older than the next oldest boater, and by far the most profoundly disabled.
He swam in Entrance, a nondescript Class II less than a quarter mile from the put-in. When Jason Beakes swooped in to pick up the pieces, Bill pulled his entire body onto the stern of the kayak, revealing the ﬂesh-colored rubber caps covering the ends of his thighs, about 10 inches below his hips. He still had his paddle.
Later that day, Jason gathered the group in the big eddy above Double Hydraulic. This is one of the more consequential rapids on the Lower Yough, and Jason kept the beta simple: Avoid the slot on the left. So when I saw Bill drifting left I charged after him. He had already flushed through the slot and was upside down against a boulder when I boofed through. To my surprise, he came up on his third or fourth roll attempt, then careened sideways into a hard eddyline and flipped again.
Rolling a kayak is a lower-body exercise; you drive with your knees to right the hull, and the weight of your legs serves as a counterbalance, drawing your body and head upright. Bill had no knees with which to drive, but he kept his cool and kept trying. After four more tries he finally nailed his second roll. I was a boat's length away, shouting at him to square up and paddle hard through the last crease. Instead he ﬂoated into it, caught an edge and capsized again.
I positioned myself for a T-rescue, waiting with blade planted so I could deliver my bow into his hands. He carped, and we looked eyes. He knew I was there but didn't tap his hull for a rescue. Finally, after five more failed attempts, he came up and stayed up. I yelled in triumph and told him, with all the sincerity in the world, that he was the toughest son of a bitch I had ever met. He sat there silently, looking tired and a little pleased.
I've often asked myself why Bill didn't reach for my bow, and why he didn't swim. I think it comes down to this: A man who has had his legs blown off by a hand grenade is different than the rest of us. It's not so much that he's seen his own death; it's that he’s lived the 40 years since. Nothing would have been easier than to lay in that hospital bed, take drugs, wait to die. But Bill Johnston chose to live. Ultimately, he chose to paddle, and that day on the Lower Yough he chose not to swim. For that, he's an inspiration. He’s a hero.
This Editor's Letter first appeared in the March 2009 'Heroes' issue of Canoe & Kayak, under the title “Need a Hero?”
Richard Bangs // Greg Barton // Tao Berman // Paul Caffyn // Graham Charles // Serge Corbin // Nigel Dennis // Dubside // Steve Fisher // Bob Foote // Dan Gavere // Alan Hamilton // Freya Hoffmeister // Mick Hopkinson // Nikki Kelly // Payson Kennedy // Rob Lesser // Anna Levesque // Martin Litton // Brad Ludden // The LVM/T-Dub Connection // Sean Morely // Nappy Napoleon // Michael Peake // Scott Shipley // Jim Snyder // Rush Sturges //