Author releases Whitewater Classics
Book details 50 great North American rivers picked by top paddlers

For 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 and maps.

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 Classics.

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.”

However, 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 said.

“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.”







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