River Tales 

Author celebrates the lives of two of Idaho's legendary river guides

English author Alan Alexander Milne wrote, "Rivers know this. There is no hurry. We shall get there some day."

And while some rivers seem to agree, lazily winding between their banks and disturbing no one, others rush and churn, creating walls of whitewater in an undeniable hurry. Both kinds of rivers are extensively explored in Jo Deurbrouck's new adventure story, Anything Worth Doing.

An Idaho native and longtime career river guide, Deurbrouck tells the tale of two near-mythic river guides: Clancy Reece and Jon Barker. The story is carefully researched and richly written, offering readers a seat in the raft with these two men and allowing them to get to know and love the true stories of their adventures.

The narrative travels both on and off the river, from Reece's dilapidated house and the cinderblock shed behind it in which he lived to the map-covered walls of Barker's home. Deurbrouck offers her readers Barker's "head full of projects," a series of more than 200 hikes to be completed in a single canyon. Readers discover with her that Reece--who lost his life on the Salmon River trying to set a speed record in 1996--filled his yellowed notebooks with poetry he may never have shared with anyone.

Deurbrouck's quiet but insightful writing lends readers a picture of the Reece who few seemed to know during his lifetime, as she "tried to picture the big man in his ascetic's shack above the Clearwater--passionate, frustrated, blissful, perhaps lonely but certainly free--explaining himself to paper instead of people."

Anything Worth Doing is full of similarly rich passages. Every page creates a vision of the lifestyle of the river guides and clearly expresses what it is that keeps them on the rivers they love. Deurbrouck intersperses adventure tales with lavishly detailed passages describing the rivers, their beauty and their danger. One without a certain reverence for the water could not have written Reece and Barker's tale, and Deurbrouck reveals her own passion when she speaks of her first time rafting.

"The river supplied everything," she said. "It was the mode of transportation, it was the entertainment, it was the beauty, it was the soundtrack. It was the everything."

With 12 seasons as a professional river guide behind her, Deurbrouck set out to tell this story that she calls "odd and beautiful." Her reverence for the river is nearly matched by her respect for the men whose story she tells, and she is humble knowing that the tale isn't hers, but theirs.

"When I first heard that Clancy had died, it got into me kind of like a burr and it just stuck there, the fact of this particular man's death," she said. "He was a hero to many and a hero of mine. I thought about it for a long time, and I finally tracked down John Barker and I called him and I was pacing back and forth, listening to that man talk, and he was incredibly bright and incredibly articulate and introspective. And I knew that he would be an amazing source for any story, but this is his story. I didn't create that stuff; it was there. I want to write fiction, but it seems like I never do. I always write about real people that are so much more interesting than what's in my head."

Deurbrouck is equally adept at relaying tales of fast-paced adventure and delicately offering insight while describing the tragic end at her subjects' journey. She describes Reece's funeral in beautiful prose ending with a picture of his burning boat on the river that claimed him as "a startling, magical thing, a boatful of fire. This is not gentle magic: Flames claw upward into the air, fanned by a stiff upstream wind. At first people howl and whistle in appreciation, but the noise dies fast. Destruction is a hard thing to celebrate."

And indeed, destruction warrants no celebration, but Deurbrouck celebrates instead the full and vibrant lives of two men who lived by rivers. Barker died in 2011 after a battle with cancer. The end is tragic, but as Deurbrouck states, borrowed from Hemingway, "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you."

The river culture is rife with storytellers, but many of their tales are only shared on the banks of the rivers they inhabit. Deurbrouck offers a glimpse inside that life, which will awaken a spirit of adventure within any reader, familiar with the water or not. For one without river experience, it is still a story of life, beauty, passion and loss. That was what Deurbrouck wanted.

"For this book, the person I was writing for [is] someone was not familiar with whitewater," she said. "That was very important to me because there's a long, kind of interesting tradition of raft guides writing books about rivers and whitewater and they almost always are writing for their own. So it's this little circle, right? The story gets told right back to the storytellers. I wanted to write a book that could go outside the circle."

Editors Note: This story inadvertently mentions the death of John “AK” Barker, father of Jon Barker, who is featured in the book. While John “AK” Barker is mentioned in the book, it is his son Jon who is most prominently featured. Jon Barker is still alive and well.

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