Our All-Time Favorite River Reads

Good books are like rivers. They have many twists and turns. Inevitably, they take you some­where dif­fer­ent from where you start­ed. They have thrilling rapids and peace­ful sec­tions. The jour­ney mat­ters more than the des­ti­na­tion. Before you know it, the cur­rent has swept you along. Here are eight riv­er nar­ra­tives for the mod­ern era.

The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Bril­liant White­wa­ter Career of Buzz Holm­strom, by Vince Welch, Curt Con­ley and Brad Dimock
Buzz Holm­strom was a unique char­ac­ter: an intu­itive boat­man who built his own boats in his base­ment in Coquille, Ore­gon where he worked as a gas sta­tion atten­dant. In the sum­mers he’d do pio­neer­ing riv­er descents, often solo. Then he’d return to his day job pump­ing gas. He ran many of the west’s icon­ic rivers includ­ing a solo descent of the Grand Canyon and a going across the con­ti­nent via riv­er. He was also a lon­er and brood­er who strug­gled to make sense of the con­trast between the tran­scen­den­tal joy of riv­er jour­neys and rou­tine exis­tence in Coquille. You won’t for­get Buzz Holm­strom for a very long time.

The Heart of Dark­ness, by Joseph Conrad
Conrad’s clas­sic reminds us that most riv­er jour­neys are inward as much as they are actu­al phys­i­cal jour­neys. Whether they lead to dark­ness or light is up to us. Retold in film as Apoc­a­lypse Now, The Heart of Dark­ness shows us how explo­rations to wild places strip humans down to our most basic state and reveal what­ev­er we are…good, bad, or both. Some­times it’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence. If you had to read it in high school or col­lege, read it again now that you don’t have to write a report about it…you’ll dis­cov­er it anew.

The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West, by Vince Welch
Amos Burg isn’t a house­hold name, but it should be. He ran many of the rivers of the west and far north, played a major hand in pio­neer­ing the use of inflat­able rafts, explored Alas­ka and Patag­o­nia by boat, and was one of the first adven­ture film­mak­ers. His sto­ry is worth know­ing and Welch tells it very well indeed.

Let Them Pad­dle: Com­ing of Age on the Water, by Alan Kesselheim
Kessel­heim and his wife Mary­pat have been adven­tur­ing on rivers all their lives. Many great jour­neys are doc­u­ment­ed in Kessel­heim’s books. In Let Them Pad­dle, the Kessel­heim’s bring their chil­dren to the var­i­ous rivers of their con­cep­tion as rites of pas­sage as they enter their teenage years and begin to devel­op adult iden­ti­ties. It’s a deep, touch­ing, and thought­ful explo­ration of fam­i­ly, nature, upbring­ing and how we pass on the her­itage of rivers to the next generation.

Pad­dlenorth: Adven­ture, Resilience, and Renew­al in the Arc­tic Wild, by Jen­nifer Kingsley
Adven­tures aren’t total­ly fun—and even when they are, the deep expe­ri­ences change the bonds between adven­tur­ers. Kingsley’s descrip­tion of run­ning the Back Riv­er in the Cana­di­an Arc­tic deals unabashed­ly with group dynam­ic strains, tough emo­tions, and recov­ery from loss as a group of 20-some­things chart their course in life as well as down the riv­er. You’ll feel the expanse of sweep­ing Arc­tic land­scapes, the ache of sore mus­cles, and the stress of jour­ney­ing through the unknown together.

A Riv­er Runs Through It, by Nor­man Maclean
For­get the movie that launched Brad Pitt’s career. The book is far, far bet­ter. In A Riv­er Runs Through It, Maclean weaves a rich sto­ry of grow­ing up in Mon­tana where the riv­er and his fam­i­ly both flow through his life. The cur­rents and eddies of his rela­tion­ship with his father, his bril­liant but trou­bled broth­er, his wife, the Big Black­foot Riv­er, and his own aging are time­less. The way he writes is bet­ter than any film can ever capture.

The Riv­er Why, by David James Duncan
Gus Orviston—a stand-in for both Dun­can and all of us—is a riv­er-obsessed kid try­ing to find his way in the world between two very dif­fer­ent yet riv­er-obsessed par­ents. This hilar­i­ous, touch­ing, some­times dark, and deeply human sto­ry speaks about the love, joy, fam­i­ly strain and what it’s like to live obsessed by rivers when not every­one else around you is. The book launch­es with one of the most cap­ti­vat­ing first sen­tences since “Call me Ish­mael”. It gets bet­ter as you read along.

Sunk With­out a Sound: The Trag­ic Col­orado Riv­er Hon­ey­moon of Glen and Bessie Hyde, by Brad Dimock
Glen and Bessie Hyde planned a spec­tac­u­lar hon­ey­moon: float­ing the Col­orado in 192. They van­ished some­where in the depths of the Grand Canyon. Dimock tries to solve the mystery…by rebuild­ing a repli­ca of their sweep boat on a drunk­en whim and fol­low­ing their path. In a com­bi­na­tion of a riv­er jour­ney, foren­sic detec­tive nov­el, ele­gy, and love affair with the Col­orado Riv­er, Dimock seeks to answer an 80-year old cold case. He, and the majesty and mys­tery of the Grand Canyon, take you along.

As Grou­cho Marx once said, “Out­side of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Enjoy.