Seymour River in British Columbia

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.

Last year, Shel­don Neill and Col­in Dele­han­ty put togeth­er an amaz­ing edit of Yosemite Nation­al Park. We were blown away by the mes­mer­iz­ing time-lapse footage that trans­port­ed you to a world where nature pre­vails above all else, and is dic­tat­ed by noth­ing but the pas­sage of time. 

Once again, the duo has cre­at­ed a film so riv­et­ing and gor­geous in scope that its vision seems sur­re­al. Let Yosemite HD II take you even fur­ther into the depths of one of the most spec­tac­u­lar play­grounds on earth. 

From the source to the mouth, rivers bring life to the land­scapes and their inhab­i­tants. Lyri­cists and musi­cians hap­pen upon them using these bod­ies of water as metaphors to describe love, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the tem­po­rari­ness of it all. For the trou­bled, they offer a place to shed their grief.  Oth­ers, mean­while, see them as obsta­cles to over­come both phys­i­cal­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. What­ev­er your rela­tion­ship with rivers, the fol­low­ing list of songs will have you pon­der­ing the nature of them.

My Love is a Riv­er by Girls
It begins with Christo­pher Owens ten­der­ly declar­ing “my love is like a riv­er.” Dur­ing the song’s first half, our nar­ra­tor floats steadi­ly on the sounds of gui­tars and har­mon­i­cas towards rec­og­niz­ing the nature of the girl he adores. He put­ters about idol­iz­ing her as “free as heav­en on a breeze,” beyond pos­ses­sion. But just as he begins to accept the girl’s free-spirit­ed­ness and pre­pares to lie “his bur­den down by the river’s edge,” the gui­tar turns into a whirlpool speed­ing up the tem­po and ampli­fy­ing the des­per­a­tion in the vocals. The song con­cludes with the begin­ning line recit­ed but sound­ing a lit­tle more bruised and exhaust­ed than before. Lis­ten near the river­side while try­ing to under­stand the fleet­ing­ness of love. 🙁 

Moon Riv­er by Manci­ni and Mer­cer
Com­posed for the film Break­fast at Tiffany’s, this theme for dream­ers has trick­led into the cat­a­logs of artists such as Louis Arm­strong, Andy Williams, and REM. The music wan­ders sleep­i­ly around the Mercer’s lyrics about moon riv­er which, like him, con­tin­u­ous­ly roams. Their natures are to drift, seek­ing “the same rainbow’s end.” Ohhh, it’s just so dreamy. Lis­ten to when trav­el­ling with your huck­le­ber­ry friend.

Riv­er of Dreams by Bil­ly Joel
Keep one eye open at night, guys. Appar­ent­ly, Bil­ly Joel has been walk­ing in his sleep again “search­ing for some­thing tak­en out of his soul” and who knows whose doorstep he’ll appear on next demand­ing answers. Through­out the song, Joel maps out the land­scapes of our dreams singing about “moun­tains of faith” and the “desert of truth.” Images of rivers occur fre­quent­ly since they serve as the life blood for these struc­tures, and also the obsta­cles pre­vent­ing Joel from reach­ing his truth. Con­sid­er­ing this track func­tions as a gate­way for Bil­ly Joel to enter your dreams as a guide, lis­ten to it while you fall asleep. 

Rock Bot­tom Ris­er by Smog
A brood­ing telling of the narrator’s death, “Rock Bot­tom Ris­er” deals with desire and loss. It begins with an arpeg­gio that haunts Callahan’s bari­tone through­out the song. We hear his vocals waver, drift­ing over the ris­es and falls of notes as he recalls div­ing for “a gold ring at the bot­tom of the riv­er glinting/At my fool­ish heart.” Caught in the abyss, he strug­gles, but the body slack­ens. Per­haps Calla­han want­ed to con­vey how lost one can become while seek­ing the desired. Remem­ber rivers can be destruc­tive forces for those dar­ing enough to pur­sue their trea­sures.  Lis­ten before jump­ing into the “riv­er” for some change.

Riv­er Sings by Enya
Whoa, it’s prob­a­bly been awhile since you played some Enya by a riv­er, but maybe you’re over­due for a lis­ten. Gael­ic vocals sung over a gal­lop­ing rhythm take lis­ten­ers on a mys­te­ri­ous jour­ney that con­tem­plates the nature of these watery pas­sages. Thank­ful­ly for those unfa­mil­iar with Gael­ic, Eng­lish trans­la­tions pro­vide us with lines like “the riv­er holds the lost road of the sky/the shape of eter­ni­ty?” and “the riv­er sings the end­less­ness.” That’s some heavy mate­r­i­al, Enya. Such lyrics give rivers depth beyond what for­mal mea­sure­ment allows. Lis­ten when that sus­pi­cion that the water flow­ing near you knows more about the eter­nal than its word­less­ness suggests.

Many Rivers to Cross by Jim­my Cliff
A weari­some, yet spir­it­ed song, “Many Rivers to Cross” is about over­com­ing life’s hard­ships. The organ that starts the track cre­ates a gospel sound that keeps Cliff’s vocals about los­ing his path, part­ner, and pur­pose above the water. It con­cludes with the singer acknowl­edg­ing some exis­ten­tial truth that “Yes, I’ve got many rivers to cross/And I mere­ly sur­vive because of my will.” Lis­ten when you stag­ger through those rivers as fatigue hounds your being, but you continue…one…step…at …a …time.

Riv­er Euphrates by The Pix­ies
The song bursts open with gui­tar notes aflame, pierc­ing through any shred of silence. As the fit sub­sides, the notes set­tle beside the drum beat where they chap­er­on the chants of “ride” into Black Fran­cis’ tale of being strand­ed on the Gaza Strip. And then the cho­rus explodes. It sounds as though the entire band was thrash­ing with­in Riv­er Euphrates, scream­ing for some wave to expel them. Lis­ten when raft­ing through those cur­rents that near­ly dis­lodge every­one dur­ing a sing-along.

Sit­ting by the River­side by The Kinks
A song full of charm and craze, “Sit­ting by the River­side” sug­gests a con­nec­tion between the fluc­tu­a­tions in the human psy­che and the flow of the river’s waters. It begins casu­al enough with piano notes jaunt­ing around Ray Davies vocals about relax­ing beside a riv­er. But once he declares “now I’m con­tent and my life is complete/I can close my eyes” the calm­ness dis­solves as the vol­ume increas­es and the piano seems to chase itself, dizzy­ing the lis­ten­er. Such dis­rup­tions con­flict with pop­u­lar depic­tions of relax­ation, which sug­gests that either the uncon­scious is under­min­ing the will to sleep, or the singer’s men­tal restraints have final­ly snapped. Like the psy­che, the river’s pas­sive drift can have hid­den cur­rents which break into tumul­tuous waters unex­pect­ed­ly. Lis­ten by the river­side at your own risk.

Proud Mary by CCR
Ever want­ed to quit the day job and trav­el down a riv­er? Well, “Proud Mary” may be your anthem. This song, writ­ten by John Foger­ty, chan­nels the pow­er and deter­mi­na­tion of rivers through a chug­ging riff, and depend­ing on the per­former, a cho­rus that’s “rollin’” The singer tells of aban­don­ing the city life where under­priv­i­leged work­ers “nev­er see the good side of the city” and join­ing a riv­er-based com­mu­ni­ty whose val­ues are more akin with nature’s give-and-take-as-nec­es­sary atti­tude. Lis­ten before, dur­ing and after giv­ing your two weeks, leav­ing town, and find­ing work in the trav­el industry.

Take Me to the Riv­er by Al Green
Sim­i­lar to “My Love is a Riv­er,” Al Green’s “Take Me to the Riv­er” deals with a strained romance. The lady in his life uses him for mon­ey and cig­a­rettes, leav­ing him throb­bing with lust and ques­tion­ing his love. How­ev­er, rather than relat­ing this indi­vid­ual and a riv­er by metaphor, the nar­ra­tor wants to use the riv­er as an awak­en­ing and cleans­ing expe­ri­ence. When the Talk­ing Heads released their ver­sion of the song, they altered the arrange­ment and tweaked some lyrics, remov­ing direct men­tion­ing of bap­tism. Regard­less, it seems all the artists who have played this song want to be tak­en to the riv­er. Lis­ten when you want to get clean. 

This amaz­ing video pulls at your heart­strings and cap­ti­vates your eye while beau­ti­ful words writ­ten by pod­cast leg­end Fitz Cahall are read by a child.

When the Ira Glass of the out­door indus­try tells you go out­side and huck your­self, you bet­ter lis­ten. Cre­ator of The Dirt­bag Diaries, Fitz Cahall is a true dirt­bag in every sense of the word, and his work with cre­ative media gives us a glimpse of what it could be like if we left our jobs, went out­side, and fol­lowed our pas­sions. Check out more of his work here.

If you like this video, make sure to watch this inspir­ing video as well.