Book Review: Reading the River


By Conor Mihell
Published: December 10, 2010

Laurel Archer has made a living going where almost no canoes have gone before. She takes 17-foot trippers down the wild rivers of northern British Columbia like the Stikine and Tatshenshini—rivers typically reserved for creekboats and rafts. Archer cut her teeth paddling the big, historic fur-trade rivers of northern Saskatchewan. When she moved west, she became smitten by Rocky Mountain whitewater and learned that, to her chagrin, many of her newfound favorite rivers like the Spatzizi were threatened by mineral and oil and gas exploration. For pushing the open-boat frontier and conservation efforts, she was inducted to the Canadian Chapter of the prestigious Explorers Club in 2007.


Archer’s ambition to paddle big water in awkward, over-sized canoes begs the question: Why? “The physics of the shape of the canoe make for precise angles in ferries and eddy turns,” Archer says in an interview with C&K. “You’re working with all the forces of nature. Gravity, centrifugal force, speed are all so immediate in a canoe. You’re not squishing around like a big marshmallow, making things easier but less satisfying. You need to be on it, skilled—and sometimes very skilled.”



Archer’s latest guidebook, Northern British Columbia Canoe Trips, Volume Two (Rocky Mountain Books, $29.95, November 2010), resonates with passion and experience. This chunky 370-page book covers seven river trips in exhaustive detail. While a tad overwhelming at first, a clever “River Routes at a Glance” table gives key details like length, access logistics, season, difficulty and various attributes. From there, the prospective paddler can decide between the relatively easy, wildlife-rich Spatsizi River and the expert-only, whitewater-intensive Tatshenshini, and everything in between.


The book begins with an overview of the northern British Columbia landscape, which is a patchwork of lush rainforest mountains, interior coniferous forests and alpine plateaus that have been nicknamed the “Serengeti of the North” for their biological diversity. River routes are divided into chapters, combining effective prose and detailed, topographical map-referenced bullet points indicating highlights along the way like campsites, rapids and portages. Only overview maps of the particular rivers are provided; it’s expected that once readers choose a route they’ll acquire the topos and work from Archer’s notes from there.


Be forewarned that Northern British Columbia Canoe Trips is text-heavy and sparsely illustrated. Perhaps the idea is that readers will glean Archer’s knowledge and come back with their own photographs, and Archer’s enthusiasm more than makes up the for the omission. “Maybe I’m a little bit like George Mallory,” she says. “Why run the Tat in a canoe? ‘Because it is there.’”

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