Will Johnson, co-author of the book The Ballad of Shuswap Joe, stands next to his painting of Shuswap Joe, whose stories Johnson has shared with Adams River rafters. (Will Johnson photo)

Will Johnson, co-author of the book The Ballad of Shuswap Joe, stands next to his painting of Shuswap Joe, whose stories Johnson has shared with Adams River rafters. (Will Johnson photo)

Rafting guide revels in recounting the tall tales of Shuswap Joe

Book combines co-author’s interests in history, local geography and a compelling character

By Barb Brouwer


Whitewater rafting is exciting!

So are the stories Adams River Rafting guides tell guests as they ride the river.

Some are based on Shuswap geography and history. Others introduce intriguing characters, weave a tale of mystical eels that are said to inhabit the river or animals that live on the shore. And some are quite simply tall tales designed to bemuse and entertain.

Guides Will Johnson and Ronan Redel have collaborated on one of their favourite tales in The Ballad of Shuswap Joe, a book that will drop in June.

Who was he, where did he come from and what did he do?

The North Shuswap Historical Society says there is no information to support his exploits or even his existence, but Johnson and Redel believe otherwise.

“The Ballad of Shuswap Joe is based on real a character, real events and real geography,” said Johnson, noting the book covers five chapters of the life of the giant who operated a distillery on what was then known as Salmon Creek. “The fifth chapter is almost like a gangster movie, with a big altercation.”

Johnson, the author of the book, relied on Redel for historical research and graphic design.

Based on oral storytelling, Redel says he followed up and found FBI evidence that in 1927, an angry agent was determined to find the source of the tainted liquor that had taken the life of a family member in Chicago. The trail led directly to Joe’s distillery, which he blew to pieces with a gatling gun.

They said Shuswap Joe escaped the explosion and capture by riding an empty hooch barrel downstream. Blown out by the blast, scotch-filled barrels rode along with him and became the impetus for changing the name of the stream to Scotch Creek.

“That was the day white water rafting was invented,” laughed Johnson. “Shuswap Joe became a lumberjack, gained notoriety and grew to become a character almost as well-known as Paul Bunyan.”

Johnson’s love of white water rafting developed during his teen years when he grew to love the stories guides told as much as the experience of hurtling downriver.

His dream of becoming a guide became reality in 2018 when he attended a two-week certification course at Kumsheen White Water Rafting in Lytton. He has worked with Adams River Rafting for two years and is looking forward to the season opening in June.

Read more: Have you heard the legend of Shuswaggi, the Shuswap Lake monster?

Read more: History mystery: Mammoth-sized cave discovered at Shuswap Lake

Johnson holds a masters in creative writing and has been a reporter for several newspapers, including the Nelson Star. He is currently working on various fiction and non-fiction projects and is a reporter for the Squamish Chief.

“The Ballad of Shuswap Joe is my biggest and most immersive project to date,” he said, noting the project would not have been possible without Redel’s input. “It marries my interest in history, Shuswap geography and I find the character to be really compelling.”

Whether Shuswap Joe is factual, a tall tale, or elaborate imagination will be up to the reader.

“I like to keep things ambiguous with the reader like Robert Service did with The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Johnson added. “I’m using real names and real geography to tell a mythical tall tale.”

Johnson and Redel will host a book-signing at Bookingham Palace Bookstore in the Mall at Piccadilly from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 18. The Ballad of Shuswap Joe will also be available at Adams River Rafting at 1251 Morgan Dr. in Scotch Creek.

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