Monday, 11 November 2013

The Last River by Todd Balf

These kind of wilderness/extreme sport survival tales of death and striving slightly baffle me. I dip my toe into the genre every once in a while, as one pops up on one of my lists, but I have to confess that I don't get the urge throw yourself into harm's way again and again. I'm not one to advocate for comfort and no challenge in life, but I'm pretty sure I don't need that kind of challenge. Isn't life hard enough already?

I'm not condemning those who do, but as I say, I just find it a little baffling. I believe the sweet spot in life is in balancing comfort with challenge, and not falling too far to one side or the other. Too much comfort, and life is boring and complacent. Too much challenge, and all is stress. And the areas I tend to challenge myself in have to do with both my work as an aspiring academic, and in my hobbies. (Which reminds me that I should post at some point about the podcast my husband, a friend of ours, and I launched last week. But that's definitely a digression for another time.)

But physically? I don't know. Maybe my lungs have had enough trouble in my life for me to romanticize the possibility of having breath taken away. Maybe the two times I came eerily close to dying make me think that risking that life unnecessarily is a fool's game - I know too well that it could be snatched away without courting that possibility. (Once was when I was born, far too early, and the second time is more an "if that explosion had happened five minutes later..." sort of thing.)

But in The Last River, we're smack in the middle of whitewater kayaking, and not just any whitewater kayaking, but exploratory river-running, down a river no one has yet successfully navigated by boat, at least as of the time of the writing of the book. One member of the expedition died on the trip. This author, in his notes at the end, relates his worry about being just another author who wants to write about these extreme adventures to cash in on someone having died. But isn't he? This is the trip he chose to write about, after all.

That being said, this book doesn't feel overly exploitative. The mere fact that it was written about this particular expedition does say something, but not everything. The author does not come down as completely condemnatory, and does genuinely seem to be seeking answers. In the end, though, even the team who were there are slightly baffled. The river was dangerous, absolutely. But the place where the kayaker died was the sort of rapid he'd run before many, many times. It does seem to have been one of those occasions where everything goes wrong and the outcome is the worst possible.

But the book is also about sponsored expeditions, and some of the pitfalls. It is mostly, however, about the four men who were trying to run the Yarlung Tsangpo river in Tibet and China. It's interesting, but not gripping, if that makes sense. If this is your type of genre, you'd probably enjoy it. I found it serviceable as a read, but not spectacular.

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts about life and where this book fits into it. I love the down-to-earthiness of your approach.

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