2015: Book 5

Todd Balf: The Last River

the last river

Every once in a while I develop a sweet tooth for titles that positively kick my sluggish ass outdoors. I finally decided to give The Last River a shot. The fact that the author is a former senior editor for Outside Magazine just made this book a blue-chip. Like I expected, I couldn’t get myself to even take coffee breaks while I lived through the journey.

This book is special for many reasons. One – the detailed description of virgin Tsangpo gorge in Tibet and the landscape. Picture towering gorges over 25,000 feet, a little over 70 waterfalls, a fully pregnant frenzied river and a fabled 100-foot cascade, throbbing and hollering for you. Secondly – the knuckle and bones of all that is white-water kayaking – The detailed ABCs of the sport, the men and their never yielding attitudes, the understanding of nature, and unblenching nerve that pushes a mere human to shake hands with the universe. Finally, the repute and temperament of the reigning character of the narration – the ravenous river and its unquenchable thirst.

A team of extremely talented and passionate American paddlers head to what is called the ‘Everest of rivers’. Almost everything, right from Day 1 is not in favour of the Walker-McEwan team. The team’s relentless pursuit, the respect for the river, and the sheer weight of their nerves takes them far, beyond what most think impossible. Todd Balf does what he knows best – explains the sport, the soul of men who follow the ‘adventure’ religion and wilderness aptly. A beautiful fast-paced narration, a blow-by blow account of what truly transpired on the Tsangpo in the year 1998 – a wonderful read.

Then there is the expected ethical inquest – are extreme adventurers really all about themselves? Are they selfish? You will have to decide that for yourself. But personally, I think they are not. An individual spends over 30 years mastering an art, lives, breathes passion into this infatuation till it completely grows into its pure form – only to finally perform, at times, what could become their final act of trust and willpower. Who are we to judge his/her choices in life?

Like acclaimed big-water boater Doug Ammons explains, “It’s a different world over there, past the edge. I’ve paddled a lot of rivers. Kayaking has shown me a lot of fun, a lot of seriousness, and a simple fact: life is full of horizonlines. They come in all shapes and sizes – accidents and jobs, people, marriage, and children. Time is the current that pushes us toward the edges of what we know, usually faster than we can cope. And flowing water is the current of time made real. I know that fear comes from doubt about where those horizonlines lead. I also know that the truths of life, large and small, are what lie beyond each one.”

How can we blame those brave souls who crossed those horizonlines to explore the truths of life?

And like Todd Balf puts it simply, “To one extent or another, all career river runners claim a devotional connection with water that isn’t merely sporting. Who wouldn’t want to move with the grace and purposefulness of running water? If the questing soul needs nourishment in places where the human feels speck-sized, where they are absolutely bowed before the force and cataclysmic beauty of nature, then a deep waterwater gorge is one of life’s obvious destinations. It is a place of such life-changing visceral oompf that those who get a taste of an epic whitewater run – or a volcano eruption, or an avalanche fracturing off – often spend the rest of their lives chasing the very thing they’re most scared of.”

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