Spotlight: Good Guidebooks
Handicapping the Field
By Farwell Forrest
April 8, 2003
What do canoeists and kayakers want? There are a lot of
good answers to this question, of course, but many of us will agree that a holiday from
the tyranny of the everyday is high on our list. We want to make a clean break from the
nine-to-five routine. Failing that, we'd at least like a weekend furlough from the
life-sentence of office cubicle and daily commute. In short, we want adventure.
But it's not quite this simple, is it? Adventure real adventure, that is
involves leaving behind all that is familiar and plunging off into the unknown.
This is a risky business at best. There's always the chance that it will end badly. So
most of us settle for the next best thing: a change of scene that still retains enough of
the familiar to be reassuring. That's not such a bad idea. Our spouses, children, bosses,
and bankers will all thank us for our prudent and responsible conduct. But it isn't
exactly easy. On one hand lies danger a blank space on the map of our lives.
Here be dragons. On the other hand, there's the (apparent) safety of the
day-to-day. What's on television tonight, dear? And, sooner or later, death by
boredom. Compromise solutions are hard to find. Few of us know more than a handful of
waterways well enough to call them home. And the unknown is always unknowably dangerous.
What to do? There are, I think, only three choices. The first is to sell the boat and
take up something like stamp-collecting. Then, whenever the urge for adventure becomes
unbearable, rent a video: Deliverance,
say, or Lonesome Dove. With any luck, the urge for new horizons will have passed
by the time you've worked your way down to the bottom of your bowl of popcorn.
Most of us won't give up our boats so easily, of course. But some of us will be
perfectly happy exploring the same waterways again and again. There's nothing wrong with
this. Even the smallest beaver pond has
enough going on, in and around it, to keep any curious and observant paddler entertained
throughout a long and active life. Call this the "home waters" option. It's a pretty good
Still, there will always be hardy souls who are forever itching to "seek a newer world,"
a stalwart band of brothers and sisters whose motto is an uncompromising "To strive, to
seek, to find, and not to yield" or, at any rate, not to yield to the temptations of
stamp-collecting and too-familiar waters. But even these adventurers will want to make it
back home in time for supper (or the start of the fall semester) now and again. The unknown
can sometimes be too much of a good thing. New worlds are just fine, thank you, but when
push comes to shove it's best to have a little of what sailors call "local knowledge" on
That's where guidebooks come in. Unfortunately, picking a guidebook's a little like
picking the winner in a horse race. Some entries will finish in the money almost every
time. Others will be lucky to stagger out of the starting gate before collapsing. And the
difference isn't immediately obvious. Just as it's hard to judge a horse on first
acquaintance, it can be hard to tell a good guidebook from a bad one in the store.
Guidebooks stand and fall on the accuracy of countless niggling details: the number and
direction of the turns on the unmapped jeep trail that leads to a put-in, for example, or
the location of the high-water route that avoids a boat-eating hole, or the ownership of the
land at the foot of a falls where you've found a perfect campsite. If a guidebook gets
even one of these things wrong, unpleasant consequences are almost sure to follow.
There's more. Like many a promising horse, good guidebooks sometimes fail to
go the distance. It's not always the author's fault. Waterways and shorelines are dynamic
environments. Flooding from a higher than normal snowpack can rearrange a river's
rapids in one season. A hurricane can wash a barrier beach off
the charts in a week. And a single land sale can turn a secluded wilderness pond into a
development overnight. Goodbye, call of the wild. Hello, waterslide fun-park,
miniature golf, and Do you want fries with that, sir?
This isn't what most canoeists and kayakers are looking for. So we fall back on
guidebooks and their hopeful litany of far-away places with strange-sounding names. But
how can we be sure that we've picked a winner? After all, if we knew a river, lake, or
coast well enough to critique a guidebook's description of it, we wouldn't need the
guidebook, would we?
Catch 22? Almost. But not quite. Absolute certainty may be unobtainable this side of
the grave, but it's possible to handicap the entries in the guidebook stakes nonetheless.
How? To begin with,
Experience counts. All things being equal, an old nag that's been running for
twenty years (and five editions) is a better bet than a colt just celebrating its first
printing though only if the old-timer has kept in training. Check the reverse of the
title page. The best guidebooks are revised regularly, and each revision is sweeping
enough to warrant a new edition. On the other hand, a guidebook that's bad at birth
seldom runs well enough to warrant reprinting. Conclusion? If you've got a choice, it's
safer to bet on a veteran, even if there's a filly in the running with a lower price and
a more seductive cover. Then again, experience isn't the whole story, is it? In
guidebooks, as in horses,
Breeding matters. Good guidebooks are usually sired or at least midwifed
by established outdoor organizations or university presses. Are there exceptions?
Yes. But the imprimatur of a group like the Sierra Club or The Mountaineers is almost always a
sign of quality. It's not hard to see why. Few guidebooks are best-sellers. Most are
labors of love. They're time-consuming to research, expensive to produce, and costly to
update. Not many commercial publishing houses have the resources to invest in such
doubtful ventures, and most don't throw money away on long shots. Still, parentage isn't
Form's important, too. Borrow a copy of the book you're thinking about and check the
descriptions of familiar waterways. If you can't recognize your home waters from the
author's words, put the book back on the shelf. But what if you're going foreign? Suppose
you know nothing about any river in Mongolia (or New Jersey)? Don't despair. Dig deeper.
Guidebooks get talked about. Good ones are regularly praised. Poor ones are frequently
damned. Ask other paddlers what books they'd recommend for waterways that are completely
new to you. Read any reviews you can find, as well as checking newsgroups, forums, and
mailing-list archives for comments, pro and con. These opinions aren't the last word, of
course. Every reviewer has an axe to grind, and paddlers aren't immune from the influence
of fad and fashion. But it never hurts to hear what other people are saying. Just don't
let them make up your mind for you. It's important to
Know what you want. Obvious? Maybe, but a lot of us need to be reminded
occasionally. I know I do. Guidebooks, like horses, are individuals. Each has a unique
personality. Some are strict, no-nonsense, nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am handbooks, dead
set on getting you from A to B in the shortest possible time, with the fewest possible
distractions along the way. Others encourage you to play the river, leaving the
mainstream of descriptive narrative now and then to explore the eddies and backwaters of
history and nature. Which is best? It's
up to you. There are good guidebooks from both stables. Even the best will have small
faults, however. In particular, don't forget that
A picture's worth a thousand words. Well-written guidebooks are surprisingly
common, but guidebooks with good maps are as rare as Triple Crown winners. This isn't
hard to explain. Almost anyone can put a coherent sentence together, at least when he's
writing about something that he enjoys, but comparatively few people can draw a straight
line, let alone produce an accurate, informative map. And these gifted few expect to be
well paid for their time. The upshot? Most publishers are forced to choose between
good maps and cheap maps. Not surprisingly this isn't horse-racing
we're talking about, after all they usually opt for cheap. So if you find a good
guidebook that also has good maps, you've found a real treasure.
Got the idea? These simple rules will help you handicap the entries and increase the
odds that you'll pick a winner. Happily, many guidebooks are very good performers indeed,
almost guaranteed to finish in the money in all weathers, whatever the field. Next month,
we'll take a look at a few specific examples and see what we can learn from their form.
See you then!
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights