What paddler doesn’t enjoy a well-told tale of high adventure – of raging rapids conquered, of seas crossed, of storms endured? Good writers have met a rigorous standard: Adventure occurs when you – and no one else – are forced to solve a problem for which the wrong move can have disastrous consequences.
Determining the 10 best adventure paddling books ever written is a presumptuous task – but one has to start somewhere. So here we go, with all the normal caveats (i.e., “this is a highly subjective list,” “the preceding does not reflect the official views of this magazine,” and so on). The following are my personal recommendations. My hope is that this list will start a lively discussion about your own favorite stories.
1. Courting the Diamond Sow: A Whitewater Expedition on Tibet’s Forbidden River, by Wickliffe W. Walker
The Tsangpo River in Tibet, framed as it is by snowcapped 25,000-foot Himalayan giants, has been called the Everest of rivers. Its legendary whitewater flows through the deepest canyon on earth, where the river drops some 10,000 feet in just 140 miles. An expedition of four world-class kayakers attempted to navigate these remote rapids, and one of them, Doug Gordon, was drowned while running a waterfall. This narrative makes for compelling reading.
By noon the shoreline became steeper, and the river funneled into an unrunnable rapid. We saw huge holes followed by a train of mammoth waves, flanked on either side by eddies, feeding down to where the rocketing current slammed into a cliff along the left-hand shore several hundred yards below. In this treacherous zone of sheer rock and impacting water, explosion waves shot geysers of spume 20 feet into the air. From a safe crossing spot above, the paddlers split into pairs and began to scout on foot for a way around this monster.
2. On Celtic Tides: One Man’s Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak, by Chris Duff
A 1,200-mile circumnavigation of Ireland by kayak is bound to convince anyone of the island’s captivating beauty and majesty, and this paddling memoir does a fine job of capturing the sights, culture, history, and people of the Irish coast. The range of experience is great, from fighting violent seas off the western coast to having tea with the locals in old stone cottages. This one will inspire you to start packing your bags.
Another wave from the left arched overhead. I snapped the paddle into a low brace, tucked into the wave, and felt its cold weight collapse on my back. Seawater flooded my eyes and filled my sinuses. I straightened, spitting and blowing. The rear wave and the sideward slam of the second one had twisted the boat seaward. I was being pushed sideways into the waves, which were getting bigger and steeper the closer I got to the headland. I backpaddled on the right. Another wave tossed the boat high, almost out of the water. When it slammed into the waves again, I was suddenly back on course.
3. Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni, by R. M. Patterson
Nahanni – even the word evokes mystery and intrigue – is a river in Canada’s Northwest Territories that is shrouded in the legends of those who have disappeared exploring it. A banker by trade, R. M. Patterson set off in 1927 to explore the river’s remote reaches, living off the land and exploring for gold. His marvelous tale of paddling, poling, and tracking the rapids in these vast and lonely canyons strikes deep within the soul of the canoeist.
The passage through the Lower Canyons was the sort of thing that comes to a man perhaps once in a lifetime – if he’s lucky. The scenery is the finest on the Nahanni, and the weather was perfect – clear, with cold nights and blazing hot days. And it was all strange and new: rounding a bend was like turning a page in a book of pictures; what would one see this time, and would this next reach hold, perhaps, some insuperable obstacle? But it never did, and always one found some way around by means of some new trick with the line or the pole.
4. Keep Australia on Your Left: A True Story of an Attempt to Circumnavigate Australia by Kayak, by Eric Stiller
This account of two men – one a kayak salesman from Manhattan, the other a fashion model from Sydney – trying to paddle around Australia is irresistible in its description of harrowing sea conditions, crocodiles, and endless hours at the paddle. And then there is the magnificent coastal scenery and the friendly, but often quirky, natives they meet along the way. The pair separates before completing the trip, but the story of their journey is simply unforgettable.
Every ache, pain, and malady in my body that had been so effectively anesthetized in my dream state returned with a vengeance. I suddenly felt a rash running a ring around my torso and I noticed that my hands were extremely puffy and dotted with septic sores all over them and in between all of my fingers. My hands felt hot, but a splash of water gave me instant chills. The sea had become more confused and “splashy” as we reached shallower water. Seawater slapped my burning hands over and over, sending shivers through me. Spasms fired rapidly through all my major muscle groups, lurching the boat with each ignition.
5. Where Rivers Run: A 6,000-Mile Exploration of Canada by Canoe, by Joanie and Gary McGuffin
Crossing Canada by canoe is not your typical honeymoon destination, but for the McGuffins it seemed a reasonable way to start a marriage. The couple packed a wide range of scenery and human interest into their two-year expedition from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a great clockwise sweep along the rivers and lakes of Canada to the Arctic on the Beaufort Sea. This remarkable account lends credence to the adage that life is an adventure only for the adventurous.
The bow of the canoe sliced through a moonlit path of sparkling silver, while overhead the Northern Lights glowed and glimmered in undulating curtains of viridescent waves. For three tireless hours, we swept through this dreamland. Then the sky began to melt from deep velvet blue through purple to soft pink until finally a fiery orange sun burst over the horizon. The moon faded quickly with the brightening sky. It was daytime again on Lake Winnipeg.
6. Travels with a Kayak, by Whit Deschner
Whit Deschner is a paddler possessed of an irreverent and outrageous sense of humor. Some would say he’s just possessed, period. His unusual travels around the world with a kayak have thrown him into all manner of strange encounters. Much of this cross-cultural hilarity is so ludicrous that you know it has to be true. But Deschner is even-handed, and no one is spared – least of all himself.
At least now we had the comforting knowledge that from here on down Dave had run the river, and in our possession was his detailed account. However, turning to it for the first time, we discovered that his advice was written on a single piece of paper and that it revealed two unexplained numbers, a 2 and a 5. Considerable discussion ensued as to the interpretation of these numbers. Someone said the river must be a class 2 except for the 5s. Someone else claimed that the class 5 would take 2 hours to portage. Another thought there were 2 class 5s. And I said that if you multiply 2 times 5 and divide it by the number of members in the party, add to this all the loose change in everybody’s pockets, and multiply this by the amount of beers in Pakistan, you’ll arrive at the average IQ of the group. My point of view, however, was discounted as being sarcastic.
7. The Lonely Land, by Sigurd F. Olson
This is the memorable and moving description of a 500-mile trip on the Churchill River in eastern Saskatchewan by six friends in 1955 in three wood-and-canvas canoes. Naturalist Sigurd Olson does a fine job of recounting the memories and journals of the early voyageurs, and he is pleased to note that not much has changed in the intervening centuries. Most poignant is how intensely this jovial band of paddlers adapts to the magnificent wilderness that unfurls before them.
There are few places left on the North American continent where men can still see the country as it was before Europeans came and know some of the challenges and freedoms of those who saw it first, but in the Canadian Northwest it can still be done. A thousand miles northwest of Lake Superior are great free rivers, lakes whose horizons disappear, countless unnamed waterways, and ridges and forested valleys still unknown. Most of it is part of the Canadian Shield, an enormous outpouring of granitic lava that extends from the bleak coasts of Labrador in the east, almost to the Mackenzie River valley in the west, and then on into the Arctic North.
8. Paddle to the Arctic, by Don Starkell
Don Starkell’s window of opportunity was small – he had only the months between June and September to cover the 3,000 miles from Churchill, Manitoba, to Tuktoyaktuk, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, before the winter freeze set in. The challenges were extreme: ice storms, capsizes, even polar bears. He was forced to drag his kayak over impassable ice floes and nearly died of starvation. This is a harrowing account by a truly driven individual.
I was so tired, and so unsure of my actual location, and in such fear of making another error by paddling to the west and getting trapped somewhere out in the freezing waters, that I believed it would be suicidal to carry on blindly. The temperature was dropping fast, the shores were freezing and “slushing” up, and I was afraid of camping on the nearby mainland shore facing north or northwest, because I could be trapped there by freezing shore slush and not be able to get back to the sea. So against my knowledge and intuition, I decided to camp out at sea on the bar’s southwest end. I really didn’t have any choice, and I hoped I wouldn’t regret it.
9. Alone at Sea, by Hannes Lindemann
In 1957, Dr. Hannes Lindemann took 72 days to paddle across the 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean in a 17-foot Klepper folding kayak. If it looked familiar, it was because the previous summer he had done the same thing in a dugout canoe. This detailed diary of the arduous crossing and its obvious perils is a tribute, at times frightening, to the perseverance of the human spirit.
This was my thirty-second day at sea. The night was restless, but the wind had weakened. I decided to replace the rudder. With the wick of the rudder between my teeth and the blade tied to my right wrist, I slipped, fully dressed, into the water. The waves were 15 to 20 feet high, the temperature of the water lukewarm. With difficulty I swam to the stern. One moment I was under the stern, then the boat hit my head, and the next instant the stern was before me. So I took the stern firmly under my left arm, changed the rudder blade into my left hand, when suddenly a big wave tore it away. I cannot describe the shock. I reached quickly, grabbed for the blade and luckily caught hold of the string attached to it. I could feel the sweat of delayed fright coming up inside me.
10. Canoeing with the Cree, by Eric Sevareid
In 1930 two teenagers – Walter Port and Eric Sevareid, who would later go on to become a famous journalist – shoved their canvas canoe into the Minnesota River to begin the long journey to Hudson Bay. With crude maps in hand, they spent the next 14 weeks paddling and portaging 2,250 miles of rivers and lakes before winter freeze-up. Their simple, unpretentious passage is a classic account of a way of life long lost to the annals of time.
As we entered the harbor, filled with islands and rocks, we drew up alongside a big boat in which an Indian was fishing. He was short and stocky, dressed in black trousers and moccasins, covered with rubbers, as was the summer custom. He looked astonishingly like a white man and spoke almost perfect English. His name was Willie Everett and, we later learned, he was pure Cree. He knew English because his father as well as himself had been a “Hudson Bay Indian” or a “tripper,” an Indian who works solely for the company, on the trail most of the time.