The Best New Paddling Books, from the Amazon to the Rivers of the West

Book review

“A river is greater than its name.” So begins The Amazon from Source to Sea ($41.50, BUY NOW in print; $17.22, BUY NOW on Kindle), West Hansen’s epic account of his 2012 journey on the Amazon River, completing — at the time — the first source-to-sea descent of the greatest river in the Americas. In this short sentence, Hansen, a Texas native, long-distance canoe racer and social worker, who also bid for a Democratic seat in Congress in 2018 (he lost in the primaries), captures the gist of a controversy to redefine history. 

Amazon Source to Sea

Hansen’s quest drew the attention of the paddling world when he learned that contemporary cartographers had actually misplaced the source of the Amazon River in the Andean hinterlands of Peru. He garnered the support of the National Geographic Society and, with a support team of whitewater and logistics experts, mapped out a 4,200-mile expedition to the sea. Nearly a decade later, he has produced an impressively large, literary account of his adventure, drawing on field notes and recollections laced with self-deprecating humor and dry wit.

Hansen summoned the expertise of former C&K editor-in-chief Jeff Moag to whittle down his daily journal entries into a highly readable tome. Moag knows the subject of Hansen’s book intimately: He penned a long-form feature exploring the debate between Hansen and fellow paddler James “Rocky” Contos in determining and tracing the Amazon’s “true” source. Moag describes the story as “a controversy as old as [Scottish adventurer David] Livingstone’s quest for the source of the Nile.” 

Hansen’s narrative is fast-paced, weaving real-time descriptions of his adventures on the river (clashes in personalities, unknown whitewater, pirates and bureaucratic hurdles) with history and geography. It’s the type of story that could easily degrade into the stuff of reality television, but Hansen takes the high road and tells one of humility, awe and quiet confidence. In the end, Hansen graciously extends an olive branch to the men with whom he butts heads in the book. “Perhaps in time the accepted definition of a river’s source will migrate towards the objective and universal,” Hansen writes, “thus ending the rifts.”

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Canoe & Kayak Editor-at-Large Zak Podmore earned a 2018 Eddie Folio award for his op-ed about President Donald Trump’s attack on public lands. It wasn’t his first memorable C&K feature: His initial assignment for the magazine documented a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the delta of the Colorado River; and in 2015 he explored the legacy of one of the largest dam-removal projects in American history on Washington’s Elwha River. Podmore ventures far deeper into the thorny politics of western rivers in Confluence ($18.95, BUY NOW), a new collection of essays tracing the manifold waterways that crisscross the landscape of the American West, often like “severed umbilical cords.”

Confluence

With the leisure of a book-length project, Podmore’s stories reveal the author’s passion for philosophy and history. In “The Delta” he introduces Georges Bataille’s economic theory that waste — as in, the monumental water release on the Colorado River the moistened the great river’s delta for the first time since the 1960s — is just as important as production. Normally, the Colorado’s water is reused for profit (turning hydroelectric turbines and irrigating crops) some 17 times. Yet the 2014 release — a “waste,” in some estimations — yielded massive benefits to endangered bird populations near the river’s mouth. Excessive wealth, Podmore contends, is often destabilizing.

In another piece. Podmore compares Southwest literary legend Edward Abbey to philosopher Immanuel Kant, as he rides “a hungry wall of foam” on the Little Colorado River in 2015 and examines a proposed mega development on the Grand Canyon rim. Later, he exposes the parallels between Abbey’s anti-immigrant rhetoric with that of Donald Trump, documenting the plight of asylum seekers on Texas’s Rio Grande. Podmore’s writing is as personal as it is hard-hitting, leaving an impact with its thoughtfulness and depth of reporting — marking the arrival of a new voice in the rich literary history of the West.

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As Podmore notes, water is the greatest controversy in the American West. Journalist, raft guide, and frequent ASN Contributing Writer Heather Hansman wades into the debate in Downriver, ($17.50, BUY NOW) a story that’s as much a deep-dive into the politics of agriculture, energy, recreation and more as it is an account of the author’s 700-mile journey on the Green River. 

Downriver

Hansman paddles a packraft into the deep, red-rock canyons of the Green, examining the issues and debates at each juncture of the river, focusing “from bank level” on the uncertain future of water in the country’s driest states. “We’re operating at a loss, and using more water than we have, because of embedded, decades-old policies and overstated ambitions,” Hansman writes. “…At some point, the inflow and the amount we’re using will have to be balanced, and right now no one quite knows how that will work out.” 

The author considers each user group: In Wyoming, she meets with ranchers and examines of the wildly out-of-touch Homestead Act; she explores the impact of water-hungry cities (“the land of not green”) on rivers’ flow; and recreationalists, who impose their own demands and impacts on waterways. Hansman tackles emerging issues like energy, tribal sovereignty, climate change, fish, and the “fraught future” of dams. “So many people I’ve talked to feel like their livelihoods, or the things they hold important, could easily slip away,” she concludes.

If only all river travellers could take the same broad, multifaceted view of the politics of the environment as Hansman. Finally, nearing journey’s end, she achieves a special mindset. “I’m floating in my own singular kind of avoidance,” she writes. “Life on the river becomes increasingly simple; all I have to do is get myself downstream each day…I’ve found a sort of stasis where I can control all the variables, and it feels good.” 

– Exclusive Book Excerpt: , detailing Ed Gillet’s 1987 sea kayak voyage to Hawaii

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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