Anything Worth Doing
Writer Jo Deurbrouck explains her book about two men who lived by and for a river.
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. That was the motto by which a raft guide lived and died on Idaho’s Salmon River in 1996. Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award, Anything Worth Doing tells the true story of larger-than-life whitewater raft guides Clancy Reece and Jon Barker, two men who share a love of wild rivers and an unbending will to live life on their terms, no matter the cost. Author and former raft guide Jo Deurbrouck spent 10 years piecing together the story, and Canoe & Kayak Magazine got to learn about her process.
Canoe & Kayak Magazine: Why did you write this book?
Jo Deurbrouck: I believe every life, if examined thoughtfully, would generate a compelling book, but at the time I heard about Clancy and Jon, I was wrestling with the exact questions I saw at its heart: If you are willing to forego mainstream comfort and security, what can you gain? What will it cost? And at the end of the day, will you say it was worth it?
You were a raft guide for 12 years and knew the inside perspective on Clarence’s life. Why did you try to strike a balance between writing the book as a former raft guide and as an outsider?
There’s a long tradition in mountaineering literature of climbers writing for nonclimbers, for outsiders. The implication is that universal questions about what it means to be human can be sought at mountain summits. But most river literature, and especially most whitewater literature, is by insiders for other insiders. Either that or it’s by outsiders. The implication, it seems to me, is that rivers don’t generate universal questions, only sport-specific ones. I don’t buy that.
How long was your reporting and revising process?
The research was the easy part, only about 18 months to two years. Revisions felt like they went on forever. I worked on this book for 10 years off and on. It had at least 10 different conclusions and four or five different introductions. I would read and reread, each time trying to be the reader I would like to see love this book. That person might or might not have been a boater but didn’t have to be, and definitely did expect to find universal questions in a story about two men, a river, and a handmade dory.
The structure of your book is different from most, in that the death of the hero is not at the end. What was your reasoning for the book’s organization?
Every river I care about is a mountain river. It starts small but it grows bigger and more powerful as, one by one, it swallows its tributaries. That’s the outline of the book, too — it’s a little stream that grows as it picks up side stories. Except that there’s this Viking Funeral that begins Section II, in which the tiny town of Riggins, Idaho, mourns its fallen hero. That chapter is like a midstream boulder that momentarily — but only momentarily — disrupts the downstream flow.
That’s the part I’m probably most proud of: I didn’t succumb to the temptation to write the adventure sob story, in which Clancy would have died at the end, and his friends would have struggled with what his death meant. Vy putting all that at the end, I’d have been creating the implication that that whole voyeuristic bit was somehow the payoff for reading. I kept wrestling with the fact that I think it’s cheap and wrong to turn a man’s entire life into an exciting and sensational story about his death, and yet there’s no denying that this man’s death is the reason there’s a book. Then in one of the rewrites, a friend said, “Well just don’t put “that thing” at the end,” and I thought oh!!
You mention early in your book that there are career guides and non-career guides—and that you were the latter. Did you struggle to explain that?
I still struggle with that. I mean, the question isn’t really about guiding. It’s this: Was Clancy basically a different kind of person from me, from most of us, someone who couldn’t have lived away from the river, and so the choices that led him to a life of poverty and an early, river death weren’t actually the expressions of freedom they appeared to be? If you value freedom, you admire people who appear more free than you, right? But what if they aren’t? What if their choices are just as proscribed as yours?