Book
review

Rebecca
Lawton is an author and natural scientist whose passion is exploring
and writing about the natural West, according to her Web site. In her
book Reading Water, Lessons from the River, she shares her
experience boating and guiding on western rivers including Idaho’s
Selway and Salmon Rivers, the Yampa in Colorado, the Green River in
Utah and Colorado, and California’s Stanislaus before construction
of the New Melones the late 1970’s. She writes about her first
river trip in 1972 and how she was taken by the beauty of the canyons
sloping to the river. She was one of the first female raft guides on
the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River.

Lawton’s
descriptions of the western rivers and wild areas describe a world
very different compared to my familiar southeastern rivers. Her vivid
descriptions of eddy fences that guard swirling back currents
refusing to let large rafts out are few and far between on the rivers
that I frequent. Lawton’s descriptions of eddies covers a full
chapter and includes:

On
the Colorado, eddies reign supreme. They’re fierce, enormous,
greedy—they could suck the Queen Elizabeth off course. Currents on
their eddy fences boil so high, you need a stepladder to see over
them.[…]once you’ve bagged an eddy— or it has bagged you—you’re
said to be eddied out.

Her
story includes how she began her professional guiding career by
showing up “uninvited to spring training in California.” Lawton
describes the swollen spring river as a “beast gone mad” with
waves that “rise to the sky like unmapped mountains.” She handled
the oars of her raft as well as the male veterans; however, she was
not hired for that first season. Lawton was determined to work on a
river and hitchhiked to Utah to guide on the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Lawton
attended the University of Utah, studying geology and natural
history. The book contains her insights into the geomorphology of the
land and river systems. She writes about reading the water and follow
the thalwaeg, or line of maximum depth and current as it meanders
down the river. “Let the river pull you to the best channel. In
flat water it will carry a boat downstream faster than rowing. In
rapids, it will find a way between boulders or through the deepest
safest channel nine times out of ten.”

Her
paddling stories are interspersed personal stories. Not sure why
Lawton included stories that have nothing to do with rivers, I soon
realized that we all come to the river for different reason
influenced by our personal stories.

Reading
Water
is much more than a series of trip reports and river
reading tips. Lawton weaves stories around her love for rivers and
the outdoors. I came away from reading the book with a deeper
appreciation of river systems and protecting what is left of our free
flowing rivers. When I am on the river I look at it somewhat
differently now. I look for the thalweg and deeply appreciate the
free flowing water.

by
Mark Holmberg
From The Eddy Line, November/December 2009