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Book Review – The River Chasers


The River Chasers: A History of American Whitewater Paddling

Wildwater. Swiftwater. Whitewater. Canoes & Kayaks. River Running. Squirt. Rodeo.

Did you know that in the old days paddlers deliberately navigated rapids slower than the river speed? Ever heard about ‘poling’? Who was the first hardcore female whitewater paddler? How did freestyle kayaking start? What was the whole ‘Deliverance’ hype all about?

Few people realise that the running of rivers has a rich history behind it, and I’m not only talking about the original Native Americans who gave birth to the original technology with birchbark canoes and skinclad kayaks.

In her book “The River Chasers” veteran paddler Susan Taft takes us on a journey of the development of American Whitewater Paddling. Using the apt metaphor of a river, she starts us out at the headwaters with the Native Americans. She takes us to the confluences with the first colonial trappers, the original paddling clubs of the early 1900’s and through to more recent diversions like slalom, squirtboating, rodeo, freestyle and extreme river racing.

Susan Taft’s intensive research shines throughout the book, and its clear that she made every effort to be as inclusive as possible. She divided the 362+ page book into bite sized era specific chapters and covers the technical development of both kayaks and canoes per chapter. She does the same for clubs and organizations, industry development, the evolution of whitewater safety and commercial guiding operations and many other topics. Her in-depth research on the pioneers of the sport, including the French Voyageurs, Hugh Caldwell, Fritz Orr, Ramone Eaton (1920-30’s), Alexander Forbes’s change from canoe to kayak (1914), Blackadar’s controversial and extreme expeditions, and through to the start of Eric Jackson’s domination at the turn of the millennium.

One of her topics is the involvement of women in the sport, and it was an epiphany for me to realise that almost from the beginning women were involved and actively participating shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, making paddling a pioneer in women’s liberation and equal opportunities.

Is this book for you?

Make no mistake, much of it is hard reading history, but if you are interested in your paddling roots, this book is a must read. River guides will find interesting anecdotes and bits to share with their clients, adding value to the trip. River rescue technicians will find valuable statistics, and background on the evolution of swiftwater rescue techniques. Anyone running American rivers will gain new respect for their playgrounds. Conservationists will realize that whitewater paddlers were pioneers in keeping our rivers flowing. Even a  non-American (like me) can learn a lot in this book about the evolution of the paddling world we live in today.

Being published in 2001, there are a few recent developments not included, and maybe its time for a second edition. This is however a history book, and as such its content will remain valid for eternity.

How to read this book

Rivers are paddled in many ways. Some start at the top and go straight down to the bottom, expedition style. Others just like to hang out at their favorite hole.

If you are a source-to-sea expeditioner, or multiday tripper you want to start at page one and read the whole story. If your attention span prevents you from reading that way, no problem: Look at the index, jump to a chapter that you relate to and enrich yourself for a few minutes over your favorite beverage.

With the book intentionally written to simulate the flow of a river, my suggestion is to approach it the way you paddle.

Where to I get it?

For the first time ever, I went the cheap-ass route, and did the free e-book download, which you can find here: http://www.theriverchasers.com/ This is probably the last time I will ever read an electronic book for relaxation (I hated the electronic format), but if e-books is your cup of tea, go get the free download. Personally I think the touch of feel and paper belongs to book reading.

My personal recommendation is that you get your hands on a printed copy. Maybe your local library, a specialist bookstore, or steal the one on your friend’s coffee table. You can also check out the link below, and buy it off amazon.com (clicking the link can earn me commission, towards that new paddle I’m saving for, without costing you anything extra):

The River Chasers: A History of American Whitewater Paddling


Paperback: 384 pages

Publisher: Alpen Books Press; First Edition edition (September 4, 2001)

ISBN-10: 0966979516

ISBN-13: 978-0966979510


About Franz Fuls

Adventurer Freelance Journalist Photographer Bunny Hugger Engineer January 2014 I depart on a 2,500km eco-expedition called Triwaters Tour. The website link is in my profile. Go check it out.

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