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Reviewed by:
  • Kayaking Alone
  • Jeffrey McCarthy
Kayaking Alone. By Mike Barenti. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. 230 pages, $24.95.

This is a really good book, and my one complaint is that the title made me think it would be another clichéd tale of personal discovery through wilderness self-exploration. But Kayaking Alone turns out to be a meditation on salmon, on western rivers, and on American relations to the natural world. The prose is direct and provoking, and the book's pace moves as smartly as any healthy current—delivering us from landmark to new vista to [End Page 208] conclusions with steady force. So I'll say it again, this is a really good book; yet having echoed myself, I wonder… which readers of Western American Literature should read it? After all, my paddling friends desire more whitewater action, while my environmental studies colleagues already grasp our culture's contradictory relation to its rivers, and any environmental biologists in the house probably know these debates about salmon. I conclude that Kayaking Alone is a book for the western generalist—we curious souls attuned to wild places and inclined to know more about the rivers we pass and the salmon we hear about but, sadly, seldom see.

Barenti's book is, of course, not alone in the stream of texts describing solo water voyages and nature: one thinks of John Hildebrand's Yukon account Reading the River (1988), Kim Heacox's Glacier Bay chronicle The Only Kayak (2005), Rick Davis's new edition of R. M. Patterson's Nahanni Journals (2008), and Jon Waterman's adventurous Arctic Crossing (2001). What Barenti's book does better than any of these fine works is focus the reader's attention on salmon and dams. This focus works because it makes Barenti's physical journey an exploration of America's untenable mental tension between economics and wildness, between the West's rivers as machines for commerce and as incarnations of romantic nature. This journey takes us down the Northwest's biggest salmon rivers and through the Northwest's biggest dams—"I planned to follow the Salmon 400 miles from its headwaters to the Snake, then paddle 189 miles to the confluence with the Columbia River before kayaking another 325 miles to where the Columbia meets the pacific Ocean" (5). So Barenti will follow the same track as the region's endangered salmon, and his narrative becomes political and personal as he negotiates the dams and the competing economic and environmental interests that threaten those fish.

What is a river? Why does it matter? The Salmon River, the Snake River, and the Columbia River have been at the center of westward expansion since long before Lewis and Clark, and Barenti's examination of these rivers' place in modern America is a surprising cultural look in the mirror. His close-up engages the old myth of the inexhaustible West. If we take rivers to be self-cleaning, infinite resources, then maybe we need books like this to illuminate the precarious truth. And here is where salmon are so helpful to the story because in the coho and kokanee, the chinook and the sockeye, we have an objective correlative for human life on the reshaped river: "Salmon aren't the only species living in an altered environment. Maybe by learning to save the salmon, we are learning to save ourselves" (207).

Barenti tries admirably to present a balanced picture of the West's water wars and environmental standoffs while he travels from the Cascades' [End Page 209] rural, conservative east side to the urban, liberal west slope. He interviews ranchers and environmentalists, barge workers and biologists, to give us a living picture of the fish and the river that symbolize alternative visions of the same country. The kayaker is, you see, alone, but not in the sense of solitary, for this voyage is more like Thoreau in the woods of Concord, with many visitors and many welcome interruptions amidst the stream of natural stimulations that shape his thoughts.

In conclusion, a simple story of river exploration is impossible in the modern West, and this paddling tale is appropriately attentive to land use, wildlife biology...


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pp. 208-210
Launched on MUSE
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