River Adventure Books

I don’t remember how old I was when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I’m pretty sure it was a kind of follow-up read to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At any rate, I was a student in elementary school at the time and the book stirred my imagination about river travel. We lived next to the Boulder River, which runs into the Yellowstone River just two miles downstream from our place. The Yellowstone runs into the Missouri near the Montana-North Dakota border and the Missouri runs into the Mississippi near the border of Kansas and Missouri. I knew these facts. We floated on the Boulder in our own makeshift rafts, usually with a few inner tubes as the primary flotation. We tried to make rafts of logs and sticks, but were usually unsuccessful. Although the Lewis and Clark expedition made dugout canoes from cottonwood trees felled near our town, which got its name, Big Timber, from that expedition, cottonwood logs are heavy and were too unwieldy for us as children.

So I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a story about a momentous river trip. I think that many of the discussions between Huck and Jim that explore Huck’s racism and his struggles with whether or not to turn in Jim escaped my attention. I do remember a conversation with my mother over the frequent use of the “N” word in the book. She said that it was kind of like cursing. There are words that other people use and that you might hear in a conversation that you should never use yourself. The “N” word was one such word. In fact, I’m not sure that I saw it as different than a vulgar curse word at the time. I had to grow up a bit and learn more about the world before I began to understand the dynamics of racism.

If you take the book as a river adventure, it has got to be the most popular river story of all time. The book has sold an estimated 20 million copies since first published in 1885. I pay attention to stories of river adventures. I have had a few river adventures of my own and I own a stable of canoes, mostly hand-built. I also have a collection of books about canoeing and canoe adventures. I even own a copy of Steve Chapple’s Kayaking the Full Moon. It is a story of paddling the length of the Yellowstone River from the border of Yellowstone National Park to the confluence with the Missouri. It has received a bit of popular acclaim, but there is a particular story, about the shooting of a camper, that is retold in the book from only one perspective. Since I knew the victim of the shooting, I felt that Chapple’s handling of it was very poorly researched and did not tell the real story. It made me suspicious of other tales told in the book. I think that the truth might have been stretched in the story. It did, however, sort of make me want to make the journey myself. I’ve paddled quite a bit of the Yellowstone in short sections, always day trips, but that was how Chappel did it also.

So I like river adventure stories. In that light, Eddy Harris’ 1988 book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest, can be read as a paddling book. It is often sold as travel writing. It chronicles weeks of paddling, adventures with barges and wild dogs and an encounter with a couple of shotgun-toting and very dangerous bigots.

Eddy Harris’ book, however, is not only a book about a river adventure. Like Huckleberry Finn, it is a book about racism in America. Harris is a black man traveling alone from “where there ain’t no black folks to where they still don’t like us much.” The book was republished by Macmillan a decade after it was initially published and it was the Macmillan edition that caught my eye. The book came back to my attention this year when I read an article in Paddling Magazine that reported that a documentary film, River to the Heart, is being made about Harris’ river adventure.

It is a good time for Americans to be having conversations about race and racism. The rise of white nationalism in our country is truly alarming and dangerous. I have not seen the movie, but it might be a good catalyst for important conversations.

Thinking about the book, however, brought to mind another book that might be called a paddling book that isn’t really about river travel, James Dickey’s Deliverance. The movie based on the novel was a box office hit and is still available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play. For around $3 you can watch it again and listen to the famous dueling banjos, which is about the most that folks remember of the movie. As a paddler, I’d prefer movies about the adventures of paddling rather than violence erupting between backwoods locals and river travelers.

The truth is that wilderness travel by canoe or kayak has dangers, but the dangers don’t come from the people who live in the wilderness. They come from the challenges of reading rivers and handling rapids. They come from paddlers who are unprepared or untrained in river rescue. Stories of wild-eyed and murderous locals don’t hold my interest for long.

Like other adventures, however, paddling reflects that realities of the people who undertake the adventure. We are flawed human beings. We reflect the society in which we live. A river adventure can be a tale of racism in America. It can be an opportunity to discuss the prejudices we carry and how we might change those prejudices and form a better society for all people. A true adventure, properly undertaken can bring out the best in humans. I’ve seen young people whose lives were transformed by waterspouts adventures. An encounter with wilderness can teach us about what is most important and who we really are.

It is probably time for me to re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite its use of inappropriate language, it may still have some lessons to teach me.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!