I picked up this attractive book and was taken aback by its weighty mass. It was heavy enough that I brought out the kitchen food scale and weighed half a dozen similar sized volumes—all were lighter. In anticipation, I dropped myself into a cozy arm chair palming my Canadian Canoe Museum mug. With the warmth of tea in my hand, I cracked open the official handbook Trans Canada Trail: Northwest Territories.
Withers, Pam. (2011). First Descent. 272 pages. Tundra Books, $15.00 hardcover.
"When the shot rang out, I leapt from my bed, lifted a corner of the bedroom curtain and looked down at the river bend. A fresh crack in the hump-backed ice jam glistened in the morning sunlight; like a wet wound. I squinted at it carefully, feeling my pulse rise. My mind flashed back to other rivers and other springs, reminding me that spring breakup can sound like gunfire."
So begins First Descent, a tale of wild adventure which starts with our hero, Rex, kayak-rescuing a child from a runaway ice floe before breakfast on day one. His grandfather, impressed by the boy's prowess, funds the 17 year-old's attempt at a first descent of Colombia's fictional Furioso River. Complete with level V rapids, a waterfall, an underground tunnel section and the infamous Dead Man's Canyon, paramilitary soldiers off to the right, guerillas and land mines to the left, and killer rapids dead ahead. Soon Rex is swept into the boiling turbulence of the river and of the politics. His paddling companions jump ship and his native guide leaves. The young man confronts the decision of continuing his epic paddle solo.
Despite its compelling suspense, First Descent holds the reader at arms length. Switching between Rex's perspective and an impersonal narrator representing the indigenous peoples, First Descent is annoyingly disjointed. Withers thriller writing style is best employed while describing the river sections. When telling the story of the indigenous peoples, the sense of place and the sensation that you are there dissipates.
Safety-conscious paddlers will be horrified at the risks Rex takes, from solo paddling a frigid river during breakup with no drysuit to attempting the first descent on a river with world-class risks. However, as Frank Wolf said, "A true adventure never really starts until you mess up really badly." Kayak-mad young teens may be willing to overlook the book's flaws for its undeniable adventure.
Pamela Stagg is a freelance writer, painter and Paddle Canada instructor in eastern Ontario.