It's tough to write a book about river rafting. Rivers are both the setting for and main character in any rafting trip, and guides often ascribe both human and supernatural aspects to the rivers they run. Guides themselves can be incredible storytellers, but those stories don't necessarily translate from around the campfire to the page.
Jo Deurbrouck makes an admirable attempt to bring one of these incredible stories to life in her book, Anything Worth Doing. She follows two men, professional raft guides Jon Barker and Clancy Reece, as they run some of the wildest stretches of river in the Pacific Northwest. Barker and Reece meet on the campus of Lewis-Clark State College, where Barker is a theater professor and Reece his favorite student. Barker takes Reece under his wing and teaches him to guide the Snake River through Idaho's Hell's Canyon. Years later, they plan a rafting trip that traces the Salmon River from its source in the Sawtooth Wilderness all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They also plan to run the entire 912 miles in a metal dory.
Many authors could write an entire book on this eccentric adventure. You've got a gorgeous wilderness setting, two brave and slightly crazy characters, and the ever-changing, often threatening river. But unfortunately, Deurbrouck can't seem to pump enough information from her subjects to flesh out the story. Barker isn't much of a talker in his brief interviews with the author. And (spoiler alert) Reece can only speak through old journal entries and letters.
The month-long journey, which crosses three states and includes several near death experiences, reads like the Cliff Note's version -- it's over in 40 pages -- of the epic adventure. During those 40 pages, the reader gains little insight into the inner lives of Barker or Reece. Instead, the story whips ahead at a manic pace, gliding along the surface of the rafters' subsequent river trips. Finally, Barker and Reece find themselves back on the Salmon at its peak high water. This time, they will test themselves to see how far they can row in a 24-hour period.
Ironically, as the rafters pick up the pace, Deurbrouck slows hers. In her last 60 pages, she details every curve of the Salmon's rapids and every instinctive decision the rafters make (some genius and others tragic). It feels as if Deurbrouck has been holding back, waiting until this last run to unleash her storytelling. In her last chapters, Anything Worth Doing finally translates from the campfire to the page.
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