Book details 50 great North American
rivers picked by top paddlers
two years Tyler Williams lived every kayaker’s dream.
While researching his latest book on North America’s
classic whitewater rivers, he crisscrossed the land, partaking
in 31 of the continent’s most storied runs, including
a 10-day solo odyssey on Alaska’s remote Alsek River.
But the end product, Whitewater Classics: Fifty North
American Rivers Picked by the Continent’s Leading
Paddlers, is hardly another run of the mill guide. Rather,
it reads like a historical who’s who of the river
running world, mixing engaging profiles and stories of
pioneering descents with colorful photos, river descriptions
In formatting the book, Williams, an author-paddler from
Flagstaff, Ariz., queried what he saw as 50 of the country’s
most influential paddlers on what their favorite runs
were. The result is everything from timeless favorites
such as West Virginia’s Gauley to lesser known creek
runs such as Washington’s Robe Canyon on the South
Fork of the Stillaguamish and Southwest Colorado’s
own Vallecito Creek.
Despite the originality of the book, Williams admits
the idea was not entirely his own.
“I pretty much took the idea from the climbing
book Fifty Classic Climbs, which was later released as
Fifty Favorite Climbs,” he said.
In compiling the list of paddlers for the book, Williams
said about 30 were “standard big names” in
the history of the sport (Roger Paris, Rob Lesser,
|Local boaters Lars Holbeck and Tony
Miely run the meat at Vallecito./Photo from Whitewater
Jesse Whittemore) while with the rest were a good cross
section of modern-day stars and new school up-and-comers
(Eric Jackson, Brad Ludden, Shannon Carroll).
The book is broken up into seven sections: Northeast,
Greater West Virginia, Southeast, Mexico, Rocky Mountains,
West Coast and North. Williams said in receiving the various
answers, he was surprised at the number of Colorado rivers
that made the book.
“There were more Colorado rivers that made the
book than I thought, that’s just the way it worked
out,” he said.
Williams also said he was surprised when he found that
several of the paddlers interviewed call Durango home.
In addition to hometown girl Nancy Wiley, the book also
features Durangoans Kent Ford, Lars Holbeck and sometimes-resident
and Durango Whitewater club product, Eric Southwick. Likewise,
the book also features the Animas River and Vallecito
Creek, north of town, as North American classics.
But for local paddlers who want to explore beyond the
scope of the San Juans, Whitewater Classics offers plenty
to choose from as well. While the book has more than its
fair share of hairball Class V (South Fork of the Merced,
Gore Canyon, Rio Embudo) it also includes several intermediate
runs including the Grand Canyon, Middle Fork of the Salmon,
Ocoee River and Washington State’s Green River Gorge,
to name a few.
However, if one reads Whitewater Classics only as a nuts
and bolts guide, he or she will be missing half, and arguably
the best part, of the book. While writing the book, Williams
said he began to realize the importance of also including
the paddlers’ stories. Thus, readers are treated
not only to the logistics of the Niagara Gorge, but also
the story of Chris Spelius’ and Ken Lagergren’s
harrowing and highly illegal 1977 run of the whitewater
below the famous falls, which boasts an average flow of
120,000 cfs. We also get to meet the famous brother duo
of Jim and Jeff Snyder, who cut their teeth paddling the
Class V Upper Youghiogheny and tackle many of their more
gnarly descents in inflatables. In fact, the younger of
the two, Jeff, can be credited with inventing the sport
of “striding,” aka stand-up duckying.
“Those guys are not constrained by any mainstream
experience,” Williams said. “I ran this tiny
creek with Jim, and he took an inflatable, and it really
was the best for it. It’s a little more stable and
you can see really well.”
Williams saved perhaps the most inspiring adventurer for
the end of the book: the late, great Walt Blackadar. Although
Blackadar, a doctor from Salmon, Idaho, died more than
25 years ago on the Payette River, Williams felt he deserved
a posthumous acknowledgment as a nod to all those who
have died doing what they love. Taking up the sport at
the age of 46 on the icy, swollen waters of the Salmon
River, Blackadar quickly became known as the greatest
big-water paddler of his time. His shining moment came
in 1971 when he soloed a first descent of the formidable
Class V-VI Turnback Canyon on Alaska’s Alsek River.
In researching the run, Williams also soloed the Alsek,
starting from its headwaters in northern Alaska, where
it is barely a trickle, to its mouth 160 miles to the
south, where it pumps into the Pacific at some 100,000
cfs. While Williams chose to portage Turnback (which he
described as “completely constricted and folding
over on itself”), he said the self-supported trip
provided no shortage of excitement.
“That was the biggest adventure in making the book,”
he said. “I was definitely not in my comfort zone.”
Fortunately, Williams’ book allows armchair adventurers
to remain in their comfort zone. Whether Whitewater Classics
is read purely on a vicarious level or actually sparks
a fire under that armchair is up to the individual, Williams
“There are already so many guide books out there,
so I knew I didn’t need to do that with this book,”
he said. “So I tried to do something that would
be more interesting and inspiring.”