I’ve got a bone to pick and a paddle to break. Over the years, I have read well over 100 adventure narratives, contemporary and historical. In the genre of paddling books, it seems there is an increasing number of grunt trips topping the list of bestsellers, with all the associated radio interviews and eyeballs following online. These tales focus on vast distances covered at speed, with little room for the inclusion of place, history or culture. In this genre, every page reads the same: blood-sucking bugs, crotch-deep in mud, boils on the feet, blisters on the hands.
A couple of bestselling paddling authors may come to mind.
It isn’t the journey itself I take issue with—it’s the not-so-hidden, look-at-me you-can’t-do-this message in the retelling. Friend and veteran paddler Bert Horwood calls this genre of man-against-river writing paddling porn. I call it the bravado-grunt narrative.
These endurance-focused stories tend to focus around categories of first, fastest or longest. Being the first to do something, the fastest to do it, or traveling the farthest distance. One problem for canoeists today is there aren’t many objective firsts remaining.
“I am the first person to do X!” someone might proclaim. They might well be. However, firsts achieved nowadays tend to be obscure and artificial—like being the first to solo circumnavigate the Great Lakes paddling backward. They’re challenges that seem, well, a little pointless.
A recent canoe expedition sponsored by the Royal Canadian Geographic Society paddled south to north in Labrador. On their first day, the group traveled 51 kilometers. The trip was billed a first. And it might well have been, especially given the lay of the land and that water runs mostly west to east. Traveling against the flow of the rivers and landforms has no historical context or purpose, other than that it’s a first.
“I revel in the punishment,” one paddling author writes. Pardon me if I’ve missed some philosophical insight into self-imposed suffering. To each his or her own, of course, but there are implications. Is punishment some expedition benchmark to strive for?
Paddlers claiming new routes are often proclaimed explorers—by themselves or media—and sometimes even claim discoveries made along the way, like new rivers or waterfalls, for example. That raises cultural concerns. Such findings tend to overlook the much-traveled nature of our waterways. After all, people have lived on this continent for millennia. More than likely, rivers-without-chroniclers were common routes for Indigenous peoples in a planned trade rendezvous network, or part of food gathering, fur trade and trapping travel. A little humility, please.
My friend, Phil Mullins, and many outdoor educators these days, will wisely tell us that we paddle in peopled and contested landscapes, not untouched wilderness. Show me a new route discovered, and with the right observational skills, someone else can show you tent rings, ax blaze marks on faint trails and the remnants of campfires.
Speed travel is another hallmark of the bravado-grunt narrative. When asked how long a particular trip should take, respected guide and co-owner of Saskatchewan’s Churchill River Canoe Outfitters, Ric Driediger, likes to reply, “It should take as long as possible.” Similarly, when Bill Mason was asked why he paddled those “slow wood-canvas Prospector canoes,” he liked to respond, “Why would I want to go fast?”
Many spend a great deal of time prepping for a trip and perhaps traveling a far distance to get there, only to arrive and do it as fast as possible. No time to fish, hike to a prominent viewpoint, stop for a great campsite, swim in a waterfall pool, jump off a cliff, chat with a passerby canoeist or visit a historical cabin or pictograph site. You know, the spice of paddling life.
Years ago, I paddled the Yukon’s Wind River. Many make this trip in about 10 to 12 days. With three full days of fog, our group stayed put and enjoyed our immediate surroundings until the fog lifted and we could see the famous river corridor of mountains we’d come to paddle amongst once more. We made the trip over 18 luxurious days and never missed the view.
I wonder what the fastest known time is for some of the rivers I have paddled with friends. I can imagine the conversation: “You were 26 days on the Horton? Man, I can do that river in 12 days.”
It’s much the same for distance. Paddling all day, every day, undoubtedly adds up to lots of miles. Are there not more meaningful things to count than miles? Over 36 days, my summer camp tripping group tried to visit as many pictograph sites as possible. Another group tried to sleep by as many waterfalls as they could.
On the page, mile counting and speed attempts read like ego-centered, man-against-nature travels.
There’s no shortage of things to count. On the page, mile counting and speed attempts read like ego-centered, man-against-nature travels. And there’s never much of a story because the journey is fixated on the destination.
I’ll repeat myself: It isn’t the trip that’s the issue. Grunt away, I say. Go for the firsts if that’s what turns your crank. Instead, I take issue with the messaging in the story told on return. The bravado-grunt trip narrative is a story that too often fails to honor the land, Indigenous roots, the animals and the countless stories of all those who traveled before us in these places.
And there is another problem.
Authorship goes hand in hand with sponsorship and speaking gigs. And those who paddle for eyeballs may be inclined to embellish their circumstances.
This is why, in certain paddling bestsellers, every bear appears rearing up on hind legs and ready to charge—though, from my experience, this doesn’t happen often. It’s why the rapid always has waves that almost send the paddler packing for heaven—even though there is a wide inside bend all the other canoe travelers take uneventfully. And the headwind is mind-numbing, sure, but if someone had planned a more sensible timeline, they could be sipping coffee under a tarp waiting it out.
Obviously, grunt narratives sell. But the outdoor educator in me can’t help but see the lost potential for storytelling about people and places. I want something more significant: Cultivating ecological consciousness or a sustainable, relational mindset through the canoe trip. Not role-playing a Star Trek fantasy, supposedly going where no man has gone before.
It is easy to grasp the bravado-grunt narrative. There is a long history of this type of storytelling in our colonial past and present. But what message is mentored when we guide a trip or write a book from this perspective? What sort of relationship with land, water and peoples is being normalized by nature as a sparring partner? These have been concerns for thoughtful travel writing and guides for decades. We need to widen our adventure narratives. We need change.
The opposite of the “look-at-me, you-can’t-do-this” narrative is a look-at-this-place-through me. Stories that deepen a connection. Authors like P.G. Downes, Herb Pohl and Max Finkelstein.
The trip isn’t the problem. My concern is that many who read these stories won’t go at all, because all bears are about to charge and all rapids are dangerous.
Grunt narratives pit the hero—and therefore the reader—against a hostile natural world in a manufactured quest. Man-versus-nature narratives don’t deepen our understanding of the natural world. How could they? The paddler just sped on through.
This article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 64. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or download the Paddling Magazine app and browse the digital archives here.