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.