“I wanted to write about lives balanced between freedom and risk,” says Jo Deurbrouck in the preface to 2012′s National Outdoor Book Award winner Anything Worth Doing ($15), a story about one of Idaho’s legendary boaters who lived and died on wild rivers. With storytelling reminiscent of Krakauer, Deurbrouck creates from her narrative a structure on which hangs deep exploration of the Idaho wilderness and the untamed psyche of the old west which drove the people who inhabit it and still drives a few today.
Anything’s primary characters are three: boaters Clancy Reece and Jon Barker, and Idaho’s Salmon River. Each live on the page in a culture that “threw (itself) at that wild river every day,” and, like so much of the West, felt itself “exempt in some way from rules that bind other lives.” The Salmon River, as one of Idaho’s last undammed rivers, is character as well as literal and metaphorical journey, the free-flowing wild water representing both wilderness and the western spirit.
After guiding Idaho rivers for more than a decade, Deurbrouck’s expertise makes her material live. She knows the terrain. Mountains are muscular, and rivers have skin. The physical world of Clancy Reece and Jon Barker breathes, murmurs, crashes and roils. To enter this wilderness requires audacity leading to uncommon daring and unimaginable adventure, sometimes demanding the ultimate payment.
The outcome of the fateful trip which drives the story is known from the beginning. Legendary guide Clancy Reece will die on the Salmon River. It is an event that forced Deurbrouck to consider for herself the price that rivers and the culture of freedom surrounding those that work on them can exact. After sharing what will turn out to be calamity, Deurbrouck recounts Barker’s and Reece’s adventures over decades on rivers and their many year alliance of skill and ambition, not missing a chance to share the history of the region and the sport.
The final story of the fateful speed run down the Salmon river at flood stage should come with a warning; it is impossible to put down. The strength of Deurbrouck’s storytelling is clear when after eddying out into a chapter describing Reece’s funeral, she pushes forcefully back into the current of narrating his final adventure. She’s already shared the ending more than once, reflected on it even, and yet the final section of Anything Worth Doing leaves the reader desperate for a different outcome just as Clancy’s companions must have been, just as anyone who has lived through tragedy replays it again and again trying to find and change the one thing that might somehow turn back the clock. The vitality of her narrative is in this understanding, in the mirroring of the experience by the tiny community who shared it with the whole of humanity which must reckon with tragedy and make sense of it in the context of a life worth living.
That Deurbrouck accomplishes all this while conveying the Western spirit is all the more compelling, probing a mythic drive so rarely manifested in its purest form, but accessing the universal desire to live life fully and with integrity. The power of Deurbrouck’s prose, combined with impeccable research and a heart for the rugged landscape of Idaho succeeds in not only sharing a story which might otherwise have been lost, but in delivering the fierce beauty of Idaho’s deepest wilderness and the depths of the human spirit.
Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of North of Hope. You can read more from her at aborderlife.com.