What the river says 

Jo Deurbrouck transports us to wild waters

In his little-known classic Under the Influence of Water, poet Michael Delp writes, "This river could kill you, but it won't. It will confuse you. When you think you are riding the flow east, you will really be going west. When you try to take a compass reading, you will be wrong." Anyone who's ever stood knee-deep in a Western river during runoff or floated through a valley's meandering bottomlands can attest to such powerful and disorienting qualities of moving water; and anyone who's ever spent more than a minute trying to navigate a raft or kayak through a raucous wave-train would agree that water falling at a fairly steep pitch is one of the strongest, most dangerous, least discriminating muscles on earth. Not only can the river kill you, it just might.

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  • Anything Worth DoingJo Deurbrouckpaperback, Sundog Book Publishing212 pages, $15 paperback

I'm not divulging too much plot-wise to say that former whitewater rafting guide and Idaho authorJo Deurbrouck's Salmon River nonfiction adventure narrative Anything Worth Doing ends in tragedy—as Deurbrouck points out by way of Hemingway, "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death." Fluvial, compact and efficient, Anything Worth Doing is the tale of two near-mythic Salmon River whitewater guides, Jon Barker and Clancy Reece, who share an unparalleled intimacy with the West's last great wild river. Their credo, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," empowers their renegade journeys, which include a 900-mile, 30-day "source to sea" trip from the headwaters to the mouth of the Columbia, an all-in, five-day, 500-mile relay down Idaho's biggest rivers and, finally, ultimately for Reece, an attempt at a 24-hour solo float-speed record through the heart of the Idaho wilderness. Rendered valiantly by Deurbrouck, Reece's life burns like pure blue flame, his bullheaded enthusiasm for river-running chiding the reader's daily to-do lists and postmodern ennui. Why worry when you can row, right? The book doesn't answer that question, but instead implies another rhetorical question: Is the intensely committed, full-hearted, headlong pursuit of freedom always a touch suicidal? Do the most skilled adrenaline seekers inevitably seek that which is just beyond their mortal reach?

Jim Harrison once said that editors in the New York publishing world consider anything west of New York's East River "regional literature." Such an assertion explains, but does not excuse, the fact that a book like Anything Worth Doing wasn't gobbled up by a big New York publishing house. This is an intricately researched, tension-filled, riveting tale that is told in spare but luminous prose. Flip literally anywhere in the book to find such glinting lines as: "Below me, the river glowed bottle-green as it does in late summer. On the far bank, the tiny town of Riggins was visible mostly as trees, their well-watered riot as alien as jungle against the canyon's clean, stark, straw-colored slope." Or: "The West is so thirsty that it has been considered reasonable to capture entire rivers and transport them hundreds of miles—allowing their native drainages to die—in the name of human thirst." On many pages, Deurbrouck rivals Jon Krakauer and Susan Casey for tension and depth, but the subculture her story details is not as romantic (read: marketable) as sherpas or surfers. Instead, this is sandal tans and six-packs around the bankside hot springs and bonfires; this is river towns like Riggins and Stanley, complete with transient paddlers who know what eddies and tongues and thalwegs are.

And yet the appeal of Deurbrouck's story is as wide as the horizon where the Columbia meets the Pacific. Anyone who's ever sung along buzzed to the Old Crow Medicine Show line "If I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free" will love this story, as will anyone who has ever known and been quickened by the feral spirits of wild people in love with wild places, and anyone who has ever sat beside a river and pondered the water's beauty and brute strength, and anyone who wants to be transported by a landscape and a story rooted in the physical world.

Roughly midway through Anything Worth Doing, Deurbrouck offers a dram of foreshadowing by way of Reece's journal, in an entry dated June, 23, 1988, from part of the Oregon leg of the "source to sea" expedition. Recounting a conversation with Barker, Reece writes: "'This is foolish,' I said. 'We'll never know if we don't try,' he said. So we tried. It was foolish. Now we know." Deurbrouck's move to momentarily turn the story over to Reece's journals is a deft one. It helps shift the narrative perspective from borderline voyeuristic to utterly participatory. And in the end, as Deurbrouck implies, the story doesn't belong to her—it doesn't even belong to Reece and Barker. The story belongs to the river, and Deurbrouck gives it radiant return.

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