COEUR d'ALENE - Outdoor writer and recovering raft guide Jo Deurbrouck has been thinking about rivers much of her life.
And writing about them, too.
Her latest book, "Anything Worth Doing" concerns the storyworthy lives of two raft guides who decide that "anything worth doing is worth overdoing," and spend 10 years trying to prove it on the loveliest rivers in the West.
Their adventures start out beautifully but end in tragedy on the river they love best, the wilderness Salmon.
Deurbrouck is an Idaho resident whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Paddler Magazine and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
She was recently awarded a 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for "Anything Worth Doing" (Sundog), a true story that celebrates wild rivers via the lives and adventures of two raft guides named Jon Barker and Clancy Reece.
More information about "Anything Worth Doing," including links to the book's press kit and high resolution photography can be found at www.anythingworthdoing.com.
Could you share a bit about your background, particularly rafting:
I was raised in towns, but the mountains was where we played and where everything beautiful resided. I knew nothing about rivers until, 20-some years ago, not long after I moved to Idaho, I got invited on a trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. During that trip I fell in love with the beauty of rivers, the excitement and challenge of whitewater, and the many paces of life on a river. The next spring I sent resumes to outfitters around Idaho. One (a company called Northwest Voyageurs based in Riggins, now defunct I believe) agreed to train me if I'd work for free while I was learning. I spent the next 12 summer seasons working as a wilderness raft guide, mostly for an Idaho company based in Coeur d'Alene called ROW. I picked ROW because although the company did some single day trips, they were mostly a multi-day, wilderness river company. They also held more permits on more rivers than any other outfitter in Idaho at the time (and I think that's still true).
Who are the two folks the book focuses on?
Clarence "Clancy" Reece, a Clarkston, Wash., native who at the time of his death had been a guide, mostly in Idaho, for 27 seasons. He was 50 years old and known for his physical strength, his problem-solving abilities, his intelligence, his understated, laconic humor and his fishing mojo. At the time of his death he lived in Lenore.
Jon Barker, son of John A.K. Barker, who was a community leader in Lewiston and a theater professor at LCSC, the college in Lewiston. A.K. and his family owned a river company called Barker River Trips, which the family still runs although John died a little over a year ago at, I think, the age of 71.
Son Jon, as they call him, practically grew up on rivers in summer and on skis in winter. He owns his own rafting company, called Barker River Expeditions. It specializes in the challenging desert rivers of southern Idaho and northern Nevada, the Bruneau, Jarbidge and Owyhee. He also works as a hunting guide. His specialty is trophy bighorn sheep. He's 49 now. He wasn't born in Lewiston (can't remember where he's from...) but he grew up there. He's known as an extreme, but extremely competent river adventurer. Some who know him call him crazy, but they mean it as a compliment...or most of them do. He's also an extreme skier who worked for many years as a ski patroller and in professional avalanche control.
How did you come to write this book?
Near the end of my guiding career I heard that one of the best boatmen I knew of, a Clarkston native named Clancy Reece, a guy who'd grown nearly legendary in Idaho rafting circles at the time, had died of hypothermia on the Salmon River. That's how the inexperienced die on rivers, not how a consummate oarsman is supposed to die. In fact, I guess I would have said at the time that a consummate oarsman like Clancy Reece was not supposed to die on a river he knew and loved, period.
So the news troubled me, as it did many, maybe most, in Idaho guiding circles of the day.
Years later, having just finished writing a book, casting around for something worth writing about, I tracked down Jon Barker, the guy who had been with Clancy when he died. On the phone, Jon was remarkably articulate, careful with his words in the way of people who value accuracy. The story he told me was both more disturbing than what I'd heard ... and very beautiful. The day Clancy died he, Jon and a third man who joined them at the last second, a guy named Craig Plummer, had been trying to set a 24-hour speed record on the flood stage Salmon. Clancy was rowing the dory he'd built by hand for a journey with Jon Barker nearly a decade before.
That first journey had been a source to sea voyage on the Salmon and, since half the journey was to be on reservoir, Clancy had built his dory to sail. That long, slim dory must have been a lovely craft for the source to sea voyage, but for a single-boat, high water trip down the wilderness Salmon, it was not. If it flipped it would be hard to right. It would be prone to swamping in big waves since it was not self-bailing. It was narrow and unusually long for a whitewater dory (a compromise that had aided it as a sailboat). Yet Clancy had insisted on bringing his dory ... and then refused to wear the thermal protection that any reasonable boater would WANT to wear in the situation into which these guys intended to put themselves.
The men were on hour 17 of their 24-hour journey, just exiting the wilderness at a place called Vinegar Creek, when the dory did in fact flip.
That alone, that 10-year arc and the troubling fact that Clancy had chosen not to wear thermal protection, might have cinched the story as bookworthy for me, but then Jon told me what the town of Riggins and other friends of Clancy did for their 'boatman river king' after his death: They burned his dory, illegally, with his ashes aboard, in the Salmon River. The hyperbole of that got me.
As a raft guide, what are some of the best rivers you've been on?
My favorite river to work on was the wilderness Lower Salmon. The combination of big, mostly friendly whitewater, huge sand beaches to camp on, and landscapes that alternated between sheer, polished canyon walls and long, rolling grassy hills, day after day, never got old to my eyes. The summer weather was almost always hot and dry, which is how I like it on a river. The entire river is undammed, so it doesn't have those weird man-made variations in water level that a dammed river has, the bathtub lines along the shore that develop when water levels are held for extended periods of time, the oddly cold or oddly warm water that comes out of reservoirs, etc. Those wonderful beach camps are also a direct result of the Salmon being undammed.
My second favorite river to work on was the Salmon's opposite: the Lochsa. It's a North Idaho river that runs in the late spring and early summer. It rains and rains there. The whitewater is huge, chaotic and technical. We ran it mostly as a day trip river, so you seldom got to camp on the water. But I loved working on my lines through those huge rapids. I used to drive up in the evenings to study any rapid that had stomped my paddle boat that day because yes, there's even a road alongside it. Like I said, the lower Salmon's exact opposite! There is one quality the Lochsa shares with the Salmon: it too is undammed. Idaho is very lucky that way. Not only are we the self-billed whitewater state, we're the state (besides Alaska) with significant UNDAMMED whitewater rivers.
My third favorite river I never got to work on: it's the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. I've been there three times. I hope I go again before I'm done. The first time we ran it in 14 days. The next two trips were 18 each. That's a lot of what I loved about it, so many days of wilderness and water before you, and so many more behind you, and only river to link it all together.
Can you share an experience that made rafting so exciting and dangerous, too?
I don't think rafting is nearly as dangerous as it looks from outside the sport, if approached with appropriate training, gear and respect. But of course there is risk. An old aphorism still runs through my head in rapids: 'Miss it by an inch, and you've missed it.' The point of the aphorism is that once you learn to read water you can be utterly certain that you are in current that will take you around some dangerous obstacle, and, knowing that you will not hit the obstacle, it's better to miss it by only a small margin than to expend energy and waste time creating a larger buffer just to make yourself feel better when you SHOULD trust your water reading ability and already be focusing past this obstacle toward the next one.
That's the other thing that's so exciting about whitewater (rafting or kayaking) for me: it's a dynamic sport. A fluid sport, no pun intended. The obstacles change shape as you approach. The field you play in is in flux. Your body and boat are part of a dance. You CAN stop, but not anywhere. Stopping is planned in motion. Everything is planned in motion and everything, you, the river, your craft, the obstacles, are in motion. Imagine BMX racing or bump skiing or skateboarding if the ground undulated like a snake.
Are there any rivers you've been on in North Idaho and if so, what did you think?
In addition to the Lochsa, which is north for me but might seem like Central Idaho to someone from Coeur d'Alene, I've run the St. Joe and Moyie. I particularly liked the St. Joe. I remember it as narrow, sharp-turning, green-pooled, glass-clear, fast. It looked eminently fishable. I meant to come back with my flyrod but I never did. That's one bad thing about being a raft guide: There you are in the middle of some of the loveliest country anywhere and you're generally too busy to hike it, fish it, or even just contemplate it. You do what you are being paid to do on it, and no more.
If someone reads this book, what will they learn? What will they come away with?
I hope they'll gain a window into the people who created a culture nearly unique to Idaho: Wilderness whitewater raft guiding. The only other place in the country you can work long wilderness rivers is in southern Utah and in Arizona on the Grand. An odd and, to my eye, beautiful breed is drawn to that life.
I also hope people will come away thinking hard about the costs as well as the rewards of reaching hard for big dreams ... and also the costs of NOT reaching for them.
You mention you are a recovering raft guide? Why recovering? Do you still get out there?
Oh, I'm kind of joking. Not completely, though. Above I said that there are costs to not reaching. I know they exist because these days I pay them. They range from things that sound small, like the fact that, since I live indoors year-round, I don't automatically know the phase of the moon; to the fact that if I want to stay in shape these days I have to lift weights; to the fact that I fear I could forget how to work as hard as my body can, or ignore discomfort, or embrace risk.
I still raft and kayak, but every year my skills decline because I'm out there 10 or 15 days a year instead of 50 to 70. I miss being reflexively good at something so beautiful. I miss the illusion that I had some claim or stake in our wilderness rivers because I knew them so well and spent so much time on them.
Anything else you'd like to mention about yourself.
The thing about me is that, compared to Jon Barker and Clancy Reece, I was and am a hack as an oarsman. Competent at best. For me AWD is partly a love letter about the kind of boatman I was not equipped to be ... the kind of person I was not equipped to be, truth be told. I'm a good writer, but I'm not a good risk taker or athlete or even a good dreamer: I hedge my bets. I like to be comfortable. I like having a plan B. I like having medical insurance. Compromise is "smart," but it doesn't get a person where these guys went.