It's unlikely that anyone in Montana has logged more miles in a canoe than Bozeman's Alan Kesselheim. He's a veteran of two year-long cross-Canada paddles, and countless excursions on American rivers far and wide across three decades.
And it would be a rare Montanan who's written more words on the subject. He's the author on nine previous books about wetlands, rivers, camp cooking and canoeing, and a longtime regular contributor to Canoe & Kayak magazine.
Put him in a cotton campfire tent and you've got Montana's own Bill Mason. (For readers who aren't into this kind of stuff, Bill Mason, now deceased, was a Canadian sort of canoeing celebrity, if you can imagine such a thing.)
Kesselheim's emeritus status shows in the practiced flow of Let Them Paddle. It's a book written in the rhythms of moving water, and it's worth reading for the sustainedand sustainingrhythm alone. This isn't just a stylistic preference for Kesselheim; it's the point: "This placethe mantra of my strokes, the canoe tearing through the satin tension of river, the wordless rhythm with a partneris as close to meditation as I ever get. The other boats recede. The life I will return to recedes. ... We hum downstream together, strong and sleek and practiced."
The framework beneath the book's flow is as simple as it is specific. Each of Kesselheim's three childrenEli, Sawyer and Rubyexperienced his or her first river trip prenatally, bobbing down wilderness rivers in the womb of Kesselheim's wife, Marypat. In their teens, crossing the cusp from childhood to maturity, the family revisits these rivers as rites of passage.
They're big trips. Eldest Eli's is Canada's Kazan River, six weeks and 550 miles from a float-plane put-in to Hudson Bay. Middle kid Sawyer gets the month-long length of the Yellowstone into North Dakota. Daughter Ruby gets a combo platter of Manitoba's Seal River and the Rio Grande as it winds through the canyons of Big Bend National Park.
The trips give Kesselheim the latitude to perform skillful natural histories on the Inuits of the Canadian tundra, the civilizing depredations of the Yellowstone, and the borderland culture of "the basement of the desert."
Along the way you get to know Kesselheim and his family, and they seem very much like the kind of people you'd like to find sharing your next downriver campsite. They might not be as happy to see you, though. A burr of misanthropy, recognizable to any long-distance river runner, sometimes works its way under Kesselheim's saddle. "I hate the intersections with civilization during a trip," he writes. He's happiest putting such intersections behind him. "The sounds of town fade. The anglers are concentrated upstream. We see no one the rest of the afternoon. ... Weekend warriors, Saturday drunks shuttered in their houses, kids who won't open the gate, all slip into that dimension we recognize less and less as having much to do with us."
Kesselheim is a writer who's used to keeping his balance and finding smooth tongues through rough water, but it's these occasional irritations that spark some of his most fun, and least gentle, writing. Jet Skis, for instance, push him over the edge: "Give me blackflies as thick as fur, howling headwinds, maddening mosquitoes, a week of rain, anything but these exhaust-belching, fuel-spewing, noise-polluting water pigs."
Still, most of Let Them Paddle's conflict is of a quieter sort, tracking the kids' transitions to adulthood, the parents' transition into reproductive obsolescence and the bumpy transitions that frame any river trip of length: "... it doesn't feel like a trip until the familiar fades away and river time asserts itself," he writes. "The first days out always have that edge to them, the stalled period of transition."
Adventure writing, as Tim Cahill has ably demonstrated, usually works best when everything goes wrong. By that measure, Kesselheim's book falls short. He mines encounters with beluga whales, musk ox and a ponderous polar bear for tension, but there are no genuine emergencies in Let Them Paddle, and Kesselheim seems happily suspicious of melodrama. "You could make too much of a thing like that," he writes of the auspicious visit from the musk ox, "or of this eagle flying overhead. You could read deeper meaning into it, make it more portentous than necessary. But it would be worse to not make enough of it." Kesselheim writes thoughtfully, sincerely, appreciatively, of the things on a river that go right.
Balance, not conflict, is Kesselheim's narrative compass, and watching him map a route through parenthood is one of his book's quiet pleasures. "We'll be damned if having kids is going to change our lifestyle," Kesselheim writes of his transition, with Marypat, to family life. But if the Kesselheims do an admirable job of juggling dry bags and cloth diapers, there's no stopping a river's one-way march to its sea. Bodies age, kids grow, time passes. Let Them Paddle celebrates that inevitable flow. You can revisit a river, but you can never wade into the same life twice.