As the mercury dips and cold winds start to blow through much of North America, many paddlers find themselves channel surfing more often than plying their favorite waterway for entertainment. Don’t despair, we’ve put together a list of some of the last century’s greatest boating tales in which to immerse yourself while curled up by a crackling fire or traveling for the holidays. Books that gripped us like a swift current or stiff tailwind. We looked for works that inspire and engage–and, yes, entertain–over ones that mostly inform or, worse, preach. For this reason we’ve excluded guidebooks and instructional tomes, as well as, for the most part, scholarly and historical works.
The works listed below vary in genre, era of publication, type of watercraft and water described. In terms of setting, they are quite literally all over the map. Each, in its own way, is ultimately about a journey, whether metaphorical or literal, and usually it’s both. The research for this article has also been a journey of sorts; digging through the shelves at home, surfing the Net, prowling libraries and bookstores. One book on this list, found in a used bookstore, revealed a series of small yellow wildflowers tucked between its pages. Another had pages tattooed with insects. A third, found in a library, had pages that were wrinkled in a way that could only have occurred from a thorough dousing in a body of water-sure, it could have been a bathtub, but we suspect otherwise. And we suspect the librarian was none too pleased.
But we’re pleased. Pleased that books, such as the ones submitted for your consideration below, aren’t just lifeless objects that take up space on a shelf, but well-thumbed companions that are often toted on the trail. So here’s a few more potential companions which, if you haven’t already packed them along, and even if you have, you might want to tuck into your drybag next time out.
1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)
Huck himself didn’t have much time for books–”It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study”–but we’re mighty glad that Twain gave us this timeless classic. We’re not sure it’s the best American novel ever written, as some, including none other than Papa Hemingway, have attested–Moby Dick anyone?–but we certainly didn’t have much trouble putting it at the top of this list as the archetypal river adventure. The novel, of course, operates on many levels–as an attack against slavery and Christian hypocrisy, and as a sweeping social portrait of the antebellum South–but above all it’s a ripping good yarn about a trip down a river. As Huck and Jim float surreptitiously down the Mississippi, lazing by day and dodging steamboats in the dark, we share in their sense of liberation and subterfuge. And when they periodically sneak ashore, in a succession of stolen canoes, we understand why they are so relieved to get back out on the river again. The river equals freedom, a clean break from the entanglements of civilization. “Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t,” notes Huck. “You feel mighty free and comfortable on a raft.”
We agree. But would only add: in canoes and kayaks too.
2. Deliverance, James Dickey (1970)
Unlike the hit Hollywood movie, you won’t find any porcine ululations in the pages of this novel. What you will find is a dark, swift, haunting story that grabs you from page one. Or, if not then, certainly by the top of page 73: “A slow force took hold of us; the bank began to go backward. I felt the complicated urgency of the current, like a thing made of many threads being pulled, and with this came the feeling I always had at the moment of losing consciousness at night, going toward something unknown that I could not avoid, but from which I would return. I dipped the paddle in.” What’s often forgotten, in the general myth that has grown around Deliverance, mostly as a result of the film, is that Dickey was a serious and acclaimed poet before turning his hand to the novel form. Did he sell out? We don’t think so. The book obviously sought a wider audience than the author’s previous works of poetry, and got one, but we think it’s a deserved bestseller, in the same way Into Thin Air and On The Road are deserved bestsellers.
The fact is, Deliverance is a damn fine novel, written in taut, muscular, poetic prose, and if a fine and haunting film hadn’t also been made from it, all but eclipsing the work on which it was based, we wouldn’t be laboring here to justify this as our number two choice. Two words: Read it.
View a video clip of the Dueling Banjo Scene from the movie
- Billy Redden, who played the banjo playing boy, could not really play the banjo. Another young banjo player knelt behind him and reached around Redden’s chest to reach the banjo, with Redden wearing a specially made shirt that made the man’s arms appear to be Redden’s. Additionally, the shot was filmed from angles that made it impossible to see the musician behind Redden on the porch.
3. The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee (1975)
Is there a better writer of non-fiction working in the English language today? Here, in this relatively obscure and slender volume of 1975, McPhee turns his considerable powers of insight and description to the subject of the indigenous bark-sheathed canoe, a craft that even in those days of disco was on the verge of extinction. Old canoes. Vanishing artifacts. We hear you yawning already. But don’t—this really is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the evolution of the craft, and even if you’re not all that interested, you will be helplessly tugged along by McPhee’s superior story-telling skill. For this is no mere overview of the birch-bark tradition, but a dramatic–and frequently hilarious–account of a canoe trip through the Maine wilderness with Henri Vaillancourt, one of the few living practitioners of this fast-fading form of canoe construction.
Got to Henri Vaillancourt’s website on Traditional Bark Canoes and view the gorgeous works of art he produces.
We had some debate, by the way, about whether to pick this work of McPhee’s or the more sprawling and widely acknowledged Coming Into the Country, his opus about Alaska, as seen from the bow of a canoe. We recommend both, but Bark Canoe is not only a great introduction to McPhee, but an introduction to the very beginnings of the craft we love so much, so why not start here.
4. Dangerous River, R.M. Patterson (1954)
The nominal aim of Patterson’s 1927 foray down Northern Canada’s remote and treacherous South Nahanni River was to find gold, but the real lure was always the paddling, not the prospecting. Patterson wasn’t too disappointed when he came back empty-handed, nor would we expect him to be. This was a guy, after all, who fled a comfortable position with the Bank of England for a life of adventuring in the Canadian wilds. What Patterson did find on the Nahanni was a motherlode of raw, primordial beauty. “Never in my wildest dreams had I hoped to see anything like this,” he wrote. “Away in the distance, at the foot of the island, the tiny flame of the campfire could be seen, flickering and winking: wreaths of blue wood smoke from it were drifting away down the canyon. Somewhere I had seen something for which this wild scene might have been the prototype: it was a fantastic engraving of the last survivor of the human race cowering in the dusk beside his puny fire at the bottom of some vast, shadowy canyon–a monstrous gash into the heart of a dead world. This place was it, as near as any man would ever see it.”
5. The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, Paul Theroux (1992)
With his marriage on the rocks and a potentially cancerous growth freshly excavated from his arm, the world’s best travel writer, bruised but unbeaten, sets out with a collapsible kayak to explore the islands of the South Pacific. As prickly and provocative as ever, Theroux doesn’t hesitate to shred a few myths, whether it’s the paradisiacal reputation of certain islands or Thor Heyerdahl’s theories about Polynesian settlement, but the book is not without moments of optimism, even unalloyed glee. “As long as there is wilderness there is hope,” Theroux proclaims early on, and while much of the text is devoted to his encounters with islanders and other travelers, the author seems most happy–and hopeful–when alone in his folding boat. After an encounter with dolphins off the coast of Kau’i, he experiences a moment of “pure joy” and understands why some Hawaiians—”the luckiest—the most noble”—were often “buried in their canoes.” Later, he finds himself paddling just for pleasure, his research long completed. “Paddling had taken the place of writing. I thought about my book and then muttered, ‘Oh, never mind.’” Yes, we understand, but we’re glad he finally exchanged his paddle for his pen.
6. The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower (1978)
The latter half of the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the watercraft described in this fascinating work of non-fiction is not a canoe at all, properly speaking, but a kayak. To be more specific, it’s a baidarka—a big sea-going kayak developed by the Aleutian Eskimos, and all but forgotten until George Dyson came along. Dyson is an interesting character–when he’s not breathing new life into this forgotten form of kayak, test-driving a version he’s built through the coastal waters of British Columbia and Alaska, he’s swaying in the wind in a tiny tree fort–his home–atop a giant, 100-foot Douglas Fir. The guy’s a nut, but a fascinating and talented one. And his father, an astrophysicist who designed spaceships in the 1950s–the “starship” of the title being one particularly ambitious scheme that never, well, got off the ground–is pretty intriguing too. Brower deftly weaves together the stories of father and son, showing that however opposite their respective undertakings may seem at first glance–Dyson senior wants to fly to the stars; his son wants to revive an ancient form of earthbound travel–the two share more in common than either of them cares to think.
7. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, H.D. Thoreau (1849)
The grandaddy of nature writing ships out with his brother aboard a hand-built 15-foot boat equipped with sail and oars that best, in his own words, resembles a “dory.” Interestingly, it is this book, not Walden, that Thoreau wrote while holed up at the famous pond. The book takes the form of a journal, with a chapter for each day the siblings spent on their 1839 river journey. (In 1853 and 1857, Thoreau again took to the water, this time in bark canoes with Indian guides, as described in his posthumously published The Maine Woods.) There are many fine descriptions of the terrain they encounter, and a few references to their campsites and meals (they seem to have subsisted largely on hot cocoa and watermelons), but Thoreau digresses often and at length, holding forth on such wide-ranging subjects as religion, commerce, dreams, friendship, and ancient history. But it’s the water that stitches this odd, rambling work together, and the subject for which Thoreau reserves his greatest admiration. Of rivers, he effuses: “They are the natural highways of all nations, not only leveling the ground and removing obstacles from the path of the traveler, quenching his thirst and bearing him upon their bosoms, but conducting him through the most interesting scenery … where the animal and vegetable kingdoms attain their greatest perfection.” And in a rabble-rousing moment that anticipates Edward Abbey by well over a century, he mischievously eyes a certain man-made obstruction and speculates: “who knows what may avail a crowbar against Billerca dam.”
8.The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey (1975)
Seldom Seen Smith, a river guide and one fourth of the titular gang, bobs near the gates of the Grand Canyon and pines for an earlier, purer time: “He remembered the real Colorado, before damnation, when the river flowed unchained and unchanneled in the joyous floods of May and June, swollen with snow melt. Boulders crunching and clacking and grumbling, tumbling along the river’s bedrock bed, the noise like that of grinding molars in a giant jaw. That was a river.” Abbey’s cult classic is often noted for its subversive satire, its madcap plot, and its role in inspiring a generation of ecosaboteurs. But it’s also a genuine, even tender, lament for lost wilderness. The motley gang of monkey wrenchers comes together during a raft trip on the Colorado, fused by a common desire to light a fuse under the Glen Canyon Dam. Not everyone who reads this novel will immediately rush out to buy dynamite, but we can all share its sense of outrage at ecological travesties, its sincere longing for an unharnessed river.
9. Running the Amazon, Joe Kane (1989)
“Had we paused to think about it–and several of us did–we might have appreciated the splendid idiocy of what we were about to do.” So writes Kane of his party’s impending date with the Apurimac River’s dreaded Acobamba Abyss, where falling rocks represent nearly as much of a hazard as the souse holes and sieves. Kane is a neophyte paddler, as are half the other members of the group. Hence the splendid idiocy. The team’s passage through this vicious canyon–”pinball country,” Kane calls it–is the most dramatic and detailed part of the book, but only a small part, geographically speaking. The team sets out in late August, from the source of the Amazon River high in the Andes, and six months and 4,200 miles later, they reach its mouth at the Atlantic. Or rather, four do, the author being one. The only American member of the team and a self-described “outsider” to begin with, Kane quickly becomes immersed in the dynamics (often factious) of the multinational group, not to mention, periodically, in the water. But he retains enough distance and sanity to report intelligently and wryly on the increasingly tense and absurd situations the expedition winds up in. In one memorable scene, the author looks on with disbelief as one of his fellow paddlers haggles with gun-toting members of the Shining Path over how many tins of food, exactly, should be paid to the guerrillas as a toll. “I thought I would faint,” writes Kane. “I could not see the wisdom of getting shot over a can of tuna.”
10. Wild to the Heart, Rick Bass (1987)
Crossing Open Ground, Barry Lopez (1989)
Why group these two together? And why choose them at all, given that neither is primarily about paddling? Because both are collections by contemporary masters of outdoors writing, and the pieces that do address paddling–two in each book–are gems of observation and language. Both Bass and Lopez are writers of fiction as well as non-fiction, and these essays vibrate with the sort of intimacy and lyricism usually found only in the former. Describing a calm section of the Chattooga River in “River People,” Bass writes: “We are almost cautious on this quiet stretch of river; it is almost like entering a cathedral, it is so beautiful. Is it all right? Can we come in? Yes the river answers.” In “Gone Back into the Earth,” Lopez’s account of a raft trip on the Colorado, he muses: “I do not know, really, how we will survive without places like the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon to visit. Once in a lifetime, even, is enough. To feel the stripping down, an ebb of the press of conventional time, a radical change of proportion, an unspoken respect for others that elicits keen emotional pleasure, a quick, intimate pounding of the heart.”