Review: ‘Paddling America’ inspires exploration of Wild & Scenic Rivers

In 2017, Susan and Adam Elliott hit the road in Gilly, their 24-foot RV with a wave-curling logo and “Wild River Life” stenciled on the side. Their goal was not just to paddle 50 of the “most beautiful, most wild, most scenic, and most beloved rivers across the country” but to inspire other paddlers to do the same. The discoveries from their hands-on paddling project were recently published by Falcon Guides in an impressive color guidebook. In about 300 pages, the Elliott’s cover 50 rivers across 26 states with great detail and stunning color photography that will have many readers planning their own wild and scenic river trips.

The book is divided into 50 chapters, each covering a segment of Wild & Scenic river selected for exceptional paddling opportunities. These runs are organized into seven geographic regions across the U.S.: Pacific Northwest, California, Southwest, Intermountain West, Midwest, East, and Far North (Alaska). A total of 21 runs are located in Oregon, California, and Washington. Meanwhile, 12 runs are spread across Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. When you toss in four runs from the Southwest, about 75 percent of the chapters cover the western third of the U.S. That suggests this book is probably best-suited for paddlers focused on Wild & Scenic opportunities in the American West with aspirations for a few choice explorations across the rest of the country. One particularly unexpected (and welcome!) inclusion: The Niobrara River of Nebraska, which they describe as a Class I-II float through a tropical Eden with “tributary waterfalls galore.”

The Elliotts launched their paddling tour from home in White Salmon, Wash., and 37 chapters clustered in the West are some of the most captivating, portraying deeply personal connections and intimate knowledge about many runs they’ve visited countless times. The clear and detailed river descriptions and paddler’s notes about rapids and on-river highlights are among the best found in any paddling guidebook. About one Arizona run, the authors write: “Floating under cottonwood canopies, watching schools of native roundtail chub and Sonoran sucker swim in deep pools, or curving down a travertine chute to boof a small ledge makes paddling Fossil Creek worth every second.” (Where do we sign up?!) A series of practical and informative sidebars round out the mix, with topics on dam removal, river science, taking dogs on the river, new opportunities in Yosemite, and more.

Overall, there’s a nice balance among selections, with roughly half the runs being Class I-II and half being Class III or IV, with a few Vs for variety. Everyone from whitewater kayakers and rafters to flatwater floaters and distance canoers will find multiple runs to enjoy. Classics like the Deschutes (II), Middle Fork Salmon (III-IV), and Chattooga (III-IV+) share a binding with hidden gems that are probably lesser-known to paddlers from afar, like Wyoming’s Granite Creek (II-III), Minnesota’s Wolf (III), and Missouri’s Eleven Point (I-II). Similarly, there’s a nice mix of day-trips—such as the Lower American—and longer multidays, which range from a single night to a week or more, including the Jarbidge into the Bruneau. One issue that does arise is that readers must search through the detailed chapter summaries to learn essential characteristics. While the summaries are well-organized and thoroughlyresearched, some type of trip finder or summarizing table in the introductory chapters would have been a nice inclusion for planning purposes.

A real strength here is the basic information about the history and features of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the somewhat complex designation process is simply explained: to receive classification as Wild, Scenic, and/or Recreational, each nominated river must have one or more Outstanding Remarkable Values, such as water quality, wildlife, fisheries, scenery, culture, and more. Many designated rivers have multiple qualities and classifications. The Elliotts provide that information, plus relevant designation history, for every chapter, suggesting that readers use this information to find the rivers best suited to their interests.

While the two-thirds of the country west of the Rockies seems a bit thinly covered for a book titled Paddling America, the 13 rivers included are all worth exploring. The Alleghany and Delaware rivers (I-II) offer historic float trips, while North Carolina’s Wilson Creek (IV) is a favorite creeking run among Southeast kayakers. But none of Michigan’s 16 Wild & Scenic Rivers are included, nor are any of Arkansas’ eight designations. Of Alaska’s 25 options, only two—the Alatna and Noatak—are represented. As the authors point out, since the highest density of Wild & Scenic Rivers is found in the continental west, it makes sense to organize the book this way.

The Elliotts explain they were inspired to embark on their wild river life by Tim Palmer, a staunch advocate of the Wild & Scenic Rivers system. For his part, Palmer—who lived out of a van for 22 years while authoring and photographing many books about river conservation—is quoted regularly and contributes to several expertly-written chapters for the eastern U.S. As the Elliotts tell it, they started their tour in 2017 “with very little understanding of what it meant for a river to be designated as Wild and Scenic.” Halfway through the project, the Elliotts gave birth to a daughter, which expanded their perspective to considering the legacy of America’s Wild & Scenic rivers. Thus, they’ve included three chapters on rivers proposed for future designation. And the book is dedicated to their daughter with the hope that she “will see more wild places than” her parents.

Paddling America is the Elliotts’ effort to share what they learned, to help people learn more about the Wild & Scenic system, and to encourage the future protection of the country’s free-flowing rivers. With remarkable photography, excellent field and book research, and interesting quotes from relevant authorities, this is a highly successful guide. A book that will bring to paddlers a thorough understanding of an essential river conservation system, and a book that will bring paddlers to 50 of America’s top choices for paddling adventure.

— Buy ‘Paddling America’ on Amazon now.
— More C&K contributions from Adam and Susan Elliott: Scene: Paddle Oregon // The Party that Saved the Gauley // Paddler’s Coal-Export Protest on the Columbia
— RELATED: Paddlers Protecting Rivers Now // River Advocates Look Ahead to the Next 50 Years

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!