Every year thousands of people come to Idaho for its free-running rivers and tumbling white waters where nature still has the upper hand.Fueled by adventure and risk, whitewater rafting is an extreme sport. No one knows this better than the guides who make a living leading others through the intersections of life and death. “Anything Worth Doing,” by Jo Deurbrouck, tells the true story of two of these guides, Clancy Reece and Jon Barker, who tested the sport to extreme limits and a fatal end.
Deurbrouck worked as a river guide for 12 seasons with companies based in Riggins and Coeur d’Alene. She was guiding on the Lochsa in 1996 when she heard that Reece, a legend in the guiding community, had drowned and the cause of death was hypothermia.
“That’s just not how skilled boatmen who died in the water died. He was ultra-competent. He died what sounded like a fool’s death when he was no fool,” says Deurbrouck, 49.
Ultimately his death would become the least interesting part of the story she would spend over a decade researching and writing, she says.
Reece was born in Lewiston in 1945. His first run at whitewater was with a friend in a rowboat outside his home in Lenore. EMTs brought them home. They’d managed to escape the whirlpools of Big Eddy, said to suck logs to the bottom of the river and hold them there. Later Reece learned to whitewater raft from John A.K. Barker, his theater professor at Lewis-Clark State College, who had found the young sport in 1970. Reece was hooked. He guided in Idaho and the Grand Canyon in Colorado. He and other guides of the time were “lovers of freedom with a healthy distrust of rules,” Deurbrouck writes. Their adventures became legends.
In 1988 Reece and his friend Jon Barker, John A.K. Barker’s son, plotted an epic journey under the motto, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” They would float 912 miles from the Salmon’s source in the Sawtooth Mountains to the ocean. Reece built a special dory for the trip. Obstacles ranged from beaver dams to huge ocean-bound barges.
Deurbrouck floated and visited the places where the men traveled. This included camping beside the John Day Lock and Dam so she could capture details for her story. She also interviewed friends and family and was given access to Reece’s journals.
The Salmon was broiling with fresh snow melt in June 1996 when Reece, Barker and a friend set off to do what was said to be impossible — row the Salmon from the eastern border of Idaho to the state’s western edge in 24 hours. This meant navigating in the dark past logjams and house-sized boulders, a journey Deurbrouck renders in captivating detail.
“She did capture a sense of adventure. She gave it some depth and parameters I didn’t know you could really explain to someone,” Jon Barker says about Deurbrouck’s retelling of what happened.
Barker is 49 and lives in Gifford, where he continues to work as a river and hunting guide. He says when he heard Deurbrouck wanted to write a book, he wasn’t sure he wanted the publicity on such a sensitive subject. Reece’s life ended on the speed run — “a tragedy,” Barker says, “but people have to dream and try and attempt stuff and I think that’s worthwhile.”
If readers take anything away from the book, Barker hopes it’s the importance of protecting the Salmon and keeping it free.
Finding a publisher for “Anything Worth Doing” was a struggle. Deurbrouck, author of the nonfiction book “Stalked by a Mountain Lion,” shopped the book to publishers in New York.
“What we kept hearing, even from New York publishers, was, it was a ‘little’ book and they were interested in big books,” she says.
For them, it was an obscure topic on obscure people engaged in an obscure pastime, she says. Regional publishers were even nicer but said they couldn’t make any money on a book about whitewater and rafting. She turned to self-publishing.
“With books like these a certain, but fairly small, group of people are going to read it and say, ‘I love this book,’ but there’s not 10 million,” she says.
Author David James Duncan called the book “a white-knuckled adventure classic.” Cort Conley, literature program director at the Idaho Commission on the Arts, called it “unforgettable.”
Deurbrouck left guiding and now works full time as a writer in Idaho Falls. Writing “Anything Worth Doing” helped her come to terms with her decision to leave the wilderness, she says.
“I couldn’t balance the risks and the rewards as middle age started to become real to me. … I think Clancy (Reece) had that same exact struggle. I don’t think he liked the way the future looked to him from the vantage point of age 51.”
if you go
What: Jo Deurbrouck signing and reading “Anything Worth Doing”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: BookPeople of Moscow, 521 S. Main St.
Of Note: The reading is sponsored by Idaho Rivers United and there will be refreshments and a no-host bar.