September 2022 Update #8 “The Beginning of the End”
This will be the eighth update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges.
There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.
In October 2017, in my first of these irregular updates, I wrote: “What I am anticipating is another two years or so of research, writing, re-writing, agent searching, publisher searching, and more re-writing. Followed by the exciting publication process, and the intimidating marketing process!” Yep, two years. 2019.
Well, two years somehow stretched into five going on six. BUT, I’m happy to say that Torrents has now reached a significant landmark. On 7 September 12, 2022, at 9:49 PM (but who’s counting), I hit the button and sent the first draft of Torrents to Chip Fleischer, my editor and publisher at Steerforth Press.
So what happens now? Even though it feels like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I should now have all the time in the world to go off on deferred paddling trips and other fun stuff, I have no illusions. I expect Chip will do a developmental edit, after which I hope to drive up to New Hampshire to confer face-to-face. Then rewrites, copy edits, illustrations, cover design, preparation for promotion and marketing, and things Chip will tell me that I haven’t even thought of. And if everything goes according to plan, Chip is hoping to publish in fall of 2023 – Christmas gift season.
But just in case I’m wrong, and I do have all sorts of free time, I’ve treated myself to a new canoe, which should arrive in a week or two.
And at this point I would appreciate some help. In the department of shameless self-promotion, this post is the first announcement of my new author’s website at wickliffewalker.com. As this gets off the ground, and well before any serious marketing, your comments, critiques, and troubleshooting tips will be very welcome and useful. So please, if you notice anything, respond to the address listed on the site.
And by-the-way, all the previous Friends of Torrents newsletters are now on the website as well, as a blog under the Torrents tab.
Holding my breath to see what Chip thinks of my MS,
September 2021 Update #7 “Torrents as yet Unfinished”
This will be the seventh update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges.
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. – A. A. Milne (1882-1956)
Stepping out: Research has been slow, but with the vaccine, and now a booster, I’ve begun easing out of my COVID hermitage. I recently completed fun and useful driving trips to DC and NJ to talk with two members of the Polish Canoandes expedition about the Colca Canyon in the Peruvian Andes and the “longest ever paddling road trip” that got them there in 1981. I now have a first draft of that chapter, although I still hope to catch up with more Canoandes team members for fact checking and more enriching detail. That makes 8 chapters in draft.
In an odd coincidence, as I’ve been researching and working on Torrents, including my Chapter 6 about the Colca Canyon, two young indie filmmakers, Sonia Szczesna and Adam Nawrot at Sourland Studios, have also been hard at work documenting that same, forty-year-old story. Their excellent, lighthearted film, Godspeed, Los Polacas! has won numerous awards at film festivals, and it is just now going live on streaming TV. They intertwine film shot on the expedition and on-camera interviews with animation and with archival news material to fill in the geopolitical context. Great fun! Same river, same expedition, and so very different from my approach. Check it out!
Next stepping-out will be a flight to Colorado next month to meet one or two of the filmmakers behind the iconic American Sportsman TV show that enabled many of the major river runs in the late 70s and 80s: the Arun, Stikine, Zambezi, etc. That was an aspect of whitewater I never had personal contact with at the time, so I’m looking forward to learning about a whole different facet of my sport.
Sucking in: Sometimes it’s all about the turbulence. With great reluctance I’ve cancelled my plans for a grand adventure travelling to Tiger Leaping Gorge in China to see the gorge and track down survivors of the Chinese 1986 run. I was delayed these last couple of years by the COVID, and now the geopolitical situation makes travel there unwise. If I am to do that chapter at all, I will have to find more accessible sources ...
When I first dreamed up this Torrents project years ago, the fantasy was to travel to and experience all these wonderful places. Perhaps with a fat advance from a big publishing house? Reality had different plans. The best part has become the trips to see, sometimes get to know for the first time, all the fascinating explorers who have been part of my whitewater world for all these years, but off on their own adventures just as I have been on mine. But … the canyons are calling still.
Bureau of Shameless Self-promotion: All the advice for wannabe authors says that in today’s publishing world, to be successful authors must be primarily responsible for their own promotion and marketing, and that almost inevitably means an aggressive presence on the web as well as leg work like appearances. My very limited experience confirms that – at least in the negative. When I self-published Goat Game in 2012, I shied away from publicity about my military experiences, and I had virtually no social media platform. And correspondingly few book sales. QED.
This time around I will try to approach it differently. I do hope people, paddlers and general readers alike, will read and enjoy Torrents, and it’s my ambition to contribute a bit to the permanent history and canon of our sport. It is still early days before actual publication, but I have started the first baby steps: reserving the web site wickliffewalker.com (nothing there yet; just starting to build it) and puffing up a bit my listing on Wikipedia and author sites at Amazon and Goodreads. Hope I can pull this off with a modicum of dignity.
June 2020 Update #6 Foreword
This will be the sixth update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges – now a journey in strange times.
Shortly after my “western swing” research described in the last update, Torrents received a huge boost and vote of confidence. Sir Chris Bonington generously offered to write a foreword! Association with his lifetime of mountaineering achievements and many books will be powerful marketing, but, even more, I can’t wait to see what he makes of my gallery of expeditions and river rats.
In the moment:
The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. –Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)
A peaceful winter in the Blue Ridge followed by the enforced isolation of the COVID pandemic has allowed a turn inward, to catching up on the stalagmites of books accumulating on my office floor, all promising new insights to enrich Torrents and clamoring for attention.
To date the list of source materials I’ve read/watched/listened to includes 54 books, films, articles, etc., and I have a huge backlog yet to go. Right now I’m working on Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. Recent pleasures were David Roberts’ Limits of the Known, Geoff Powter’s Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line between Adventure and Madness, and John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (I would most certainly have flunked his course at Princeton).
This lock down has also been good discipline for the hard part – actual writing. I now have a gratifying six chapters, of ten, in draft.
McPhee notes, encouragingly: First drafts are slow and develop clumsily because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow. The first draft of my book on California geology took two gloomy years; the second, third, and forth drafts took about six months altogether. That four-to-one ratio in writing time – first draft versus the other drafts combined – has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks. There are psychological differences from phase to phase, and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly and not a few could be called pleasant, I’ll admit.
For myself, however, I expect McPhee’s 4:1 ratio to be only the tip of an iceberg. When he produces a “final” draft, be it a book or an essay for the New Yorker, I’m sure it is a polished draft indeed, ready to sail right through the editorial, publication, and marketing phases. On my previous writing projects, it has consistently seemed that when at last I finish what I feel is my final draft – the very best I can do, ready to go out in public – I am in reality at the 50% mark. Yet to come are to-ing & fro-ing with the actual editors, perhaps additional research to please merciless fact checkers, dithering with illustrations, assembly of front & back material, etc.
And then, for books, there is marketing. For McPhee, I’m sure an ego-stroking, publisher-financed round of talks and book-signings. For the rest of us, cringe-worthy self-promotion, begging for reviews, self-funded rounds of bookstores, perhaps in this case river festivals, etc. So, 80% of 60% of 50% is 24%, and the party never ends.
The source material in Czech and interviews in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for my chapter on the first major hardboat expedition to the Himalayas, in 1973 on Everest, were hard enough, but I got by with help from good friends. I’m just launching into probably an even-bigger challenge. Not only is Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River one of the most hellacious stretches of whitewater in the world, but it’s in China – and Chinese. We’ll see how that turns out. I’ve pasted below a teaser from my book proposal.
Meanwhile I’ve been staying sane by socially distancing in my little open canoe on the local Maury River. With well over 60 years of paddling on my knees and shoulders now, I call my newly discovered branch of the sport “creaking.”
Chapter 8: Tiger Leaping: The Deadly Race for the Yangtze
To enter the canyon is to commit to running it, to do or die. Shanghai never seemed so far away.
— Richard Bangs
Along with its annual floods and tons of sediment, the Yangtze River carries the soul of the ancient Chinese nation: its rice growing agriculture; its inland commerce; the merging currents of Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tsu; the still vivid epic of Mao’s Long March. Fifteen hundred miles downstream from its source in Tibet lies Tiger Leaping Gorge. For twelve miles sheer walls constrict, and thousands of cubic feet of water per second flow as from the nozzle of a fire hose. By legend a tiger fleeing hunters leapt to safety across the raging water.
By the mid-1980’s, as other great mountains were climbed and rivers run around the world, the Chinese saw their forbidden treasures appreciating in the eyes of ambitious western (and Japanese) adventurers. The asking price for a permit to run the Yangtze was a million dollars. Oregon rafting outfitter Ken Warren won the prized permit in 1986, with a proposal that included lavish backing by ABC’s American Sportsman television program.
But powerful currents of independence and national pride were roiling China’s youth and intellectuals, including a fervid insistence that Chinese must claim this “first.” That they had neither traditions nor training in river running became irrelevant; this was a matter of national honor, and no price was too high to pay. Chinese rafters launched well in advance of Warren, vowing to beat the “foreign devils” down their national river. As the rapids became bigger, they experimented with lashing rafts together to create bigger – but less manageable – vessels, and then with completely enclosed capsules with breathing apparatus, which could no more be controlled than a barrel over Niagara. One of the capsules was thrashed for a half hour in a monstrous hole, then ejected in pieces. None of the three occupants were recovered. Undeterred, the Chinese raced downstream and threw their capsules, and themselves, into Tiger Leaping Gorge, forcing runs on twenty-one major drops – but at the cost of even more lives.
Meanwhile, their feared pursuers were in fact grinding to a deadly, ignominious halt 300 miles to the rear, plagued by slow progress, poor leadership, and finally the death of photographer Scott Shipee from altitude sickness. The lavish American expedition was abandoned. Overall that summer, a dozen lives were lost, 11 Chinese and one American. Whitewater had never seen this degree of jingoistic, suicidal competition.
September 2019 Update #5 Western Swing
This will be the fifth update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges.
“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
I just wrapped up the swing around the American west that I mentioned in the last Torrents newsletter. Many hours of fascinating conversations with some extraordinary explorers, and all were incredibly generous with their time and with details about their remarkable lives. These were hard boaters and rafters I have known of, and heard parts of their adventures, for years but had met only casually or not at all. As with my research trip around Europe, these meetings are the highlights of the project. Torrents wouldn’t be possible without this kind of cooperation – or, at least, it would not be the book I want it to be.
Even though many of us are getting long in the tooth these days, it doesn’t seem to have slowed these guys down much. Coordinating to catch as many as possible in one trip wasn’t easy.
I started with Mick Hopkinson in Jackson Hole, just back from the Salmon River and packing to leave for the (Southern Hemisphere) summer season at his kayak school in New Zealand. Mick was Mike Jones’s close paddling partner and friend, from their frightening 2-man run thru the upper gorges of the Blue Nile to Mike’s heroic (but probably preventable) death in the Karakorum (Chapters 2 & 4). Beyond fact checking, Mick provided lots of context and nuance to that remarkable story – the stuff that is best communicated face-to-face. In our very first e-mail communication, Mick summed this up concisely: “Needs more beer.”
Next, north to Montana for a fascinating day and a half with Doug Ammons. Doug is a prolific writer and thought leader, well known in the paddling magazines and with his books Laugh of the Water Nymph and Whitewater Philosophy. In 1991 he made a 3-day run through the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in British Columbia – at that time perhaps the most intense and remote whitewater known anywhere. It had been run before, in fact Doug had run it with a previous expedition. This time he did it secretly and solo, and to this day he has spoken little and published nothing about that experience. I am grateful for all he shared with me and hope I can do it justice in prose.
Still in Montana, I found Skip Horner just back from a ramble around Central Asia, and we spent the day on the deck of his beautiful home deep in the foothills, getting sunburned and comparing notes on Kashgar, Tashkent, and beyond. Skip rowed on many of Richard Bangs’ Sobek Expeditions pioneering international rafting expeditions, and he gave me insights on rafting in general (not my strong suit). In particular, he shared a wealth of detail about the first run on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls (Chapter 6). World Heritage Site; huge rapids bounded by dramatic basalt cliffs; the end of the Rhodesian war and independence from colonialism; military helicopters and minesweepers clearing the beach campsites; crocodiles; TV, National Geographic, and Hollywood. Sobek/Richard Bangs pulled off a three-ring media circus unmatched since Lowell Thomas’s Indus extravaganza (Chapter 1).
Then off to LA and Labor Day hanging out in Venice Beach with Richard Bangs, just back from Armenia and Georgia. Fifty years of river miles and memories to compare. We both grew up and began boating in the DC area. Richard went on to Grand Canyon raft guiding, mentored by Don Hatch (Chapter 1), then founded Sobek and pioneered international rafting, while I focused on hardboat racing and river running. Like Skip Horner, Richard shared a wealth of first-hand info on his Chapter 6 Zambezi extravaganza, and he also shared a lot of printed material and leads about the over-the-top Chinese descent through Tiger Leap Gorge on the Yangtze in 1986 (Chapter 7).
I finished my “LA experience” at a sidewalk café just up the avenue from the Sony Picture Studios in Ventura, for a fascinating dinner conversation with actress/producer/novelist Deborah M. Pratt. Travelling with actor LeVar Burton, who was there as the “celebrity focus” for the scripted TV coverage, they were the Hollywood contingent of Richard Bangs’s epic. To Skip’s account as veteran raft guide, and Richard’s as leader and impresario, Deborah added her viewpoint as a keen observer and professional storyteller who had never been on a whitewater river, nor in Africa, in her life.
What a privilege writing this tribute to expedition whitewater has become,
Feb. 2019, Update #4, Translations
It’s certainly a truism that writing consists of long periods, often years, of solitary plodding, punctuated, if the writer is both good and lucky, by brief periods of recognition and social interaction – book launches, tours, reviews good & bad, etc. It’s hard to write an interesting newsletter about the plodding; hence it has been a while since my last.
That’s not to say nothing has been happening. My research achieved a major breakthrough when a very generous friend translated essential primary source material into English from Czech and German concerning what I believe were the two first major kayak expeditions in the Himalayas: the Czechs and Slovaks on the Dudh Kosi down Everest in 1973, and the West Germans down the Kali Gandaki, 18,000+ feet deep between the peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, in 1974. Very little seems to be known about these pioneering expeditions in the English-speaking paddling world. Toni Morrison advised “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So here I am.
I’ve also started interesting conversations with Doug Ammons about his remarkable (to say the least) solo kayak run down the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in the British Columbian Rockies, and with Skip Horner about the first run, in rafts, on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls. I’ve begun planning a late summer trip around the American West to meet them and I hope several others central to these whitewater stories.
Finally, on a personal note, I moved last summer from my farm in western Pennsylvania to Lexington, Virginia, where I can stare out my window at the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains as I write. I have a handy little open canoe and have already started exploring the Class I – II headwaters of Virginia’s historic James River. It can’t all be slogging.
All best, and as always, keep it pointed downstream,
June 2018, Update # 3, Book Contract,
Another occasional update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges. I’m happy to report that Torrents has found a home! I have a contract with Steerforth Press and we are shooting for publication late in 2020 (which means my deadline for the completed manuscript is end 2019). Steerforth is small, independent, and high quality; I’m looking forward to working with them and my editor there, Chip Fleischer.
I believe it was Duke Ellington who said of composing “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” This project has suddenly become a lot more real, and I’ll now be juggling researching upcoming chapters, writing a current chapter, going back-and-forth with Chip editing completed drafts, and, swelp me, developing a “marketing platform”. It’s going to be an exciting few years.
I just sent off the first chapter to Steerforth to begin learning the editing process. It’s the story of what I believe was the first major whitewater expedition in the Himalayas: Bus and Don Hatch of Hatch River Expeditions rafting on the Indus, Hunza and Gilgit Rivers in 1956 at the behest of Lowell Thomas as part of a movie spectacle. Now working on the story of Mike Jones, the British kayaker who pioneered expedition kayaking in the 1970s in Africa, South America and the Himalayas.
All best, and keep it pointed downstream,
Dec. 2017 Update #2 Banff
Another occasional update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges. I’m now home after 3 weeks working on Torrents at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
The Banff Film & Book Festival was also running the first week we were there: more puff parkas than Aspen & Vail & Jackson Hole combined; crowds from Japan & Europe & the Americas; 3 or more venues screening films, reading book excerpts, interviewing celebrities all day; parties all night. A scene to be seen.
And the annual Mountain & Wilderness Writing Program was a great experience. 8 peer writers to workshop with – all published, amazing variety of backgrounds and projects. (Yes, I did qualify as the oldest.) And we each had a cool little studio set back in the woods of the private “artists’ colony”. Two writer/editor professionals as mentors; mine was Tony Whittome, with more than 20 years as an editor with Random House. Overall, I workshopped two chapters, finished first draft of another, and got a detailed review and critique of my book proposal and three chapters from Tony.
Of course, the upshot is I now have major revisions to make to everything I had written so far!
A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!
October 2017 Update #1, Europe
This is the latest of what I intend to be occasional updates on my journey producing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges. What I am anticipating is another two years or so of research, writing, re-writing, agent searching, publisher searching, and more re-writing. Followed by the exciting publication process, and the intimidating marketing process!
I’ve just returned from three fun and educational weeks of research in Europe. I started with my old friends Bernd Kirstein and Werner Moreth, who introduced me to river running in the Alps and Corsica in the ‘70s. Bernd and I scouted up and down the Inn River Valley in Switzerland, where British kayaker Mike Jones got his first taste of expedition paddling in 1969. We also ran up to Bavaria and interviewed the widow and son of the great German paddler Hans Memminger, who led a 1974 expedition on the Kali Gandaki in Nepal.
My next step was Prague, where I joined up with another old friend, Lida Sirotkova, who, along with others on the Czech National Slalom Team, introduced me to international slalom in the ‘60s. From Prague we drove a loop around Bohemia and Slovakia, meeting with several members of what I now believe was the first (and still little known) major kayak and canoe expedition to the Himalayas, a 1973 descent of the Dudh-Kosi on the flanks of Mount Everest.
My final week was a loop around Great Britain by train – London to the Scottish Borders to Aberdeen, Scotland, to LLangollen, Wales. Following up the Mike Jones story, I had fascinating discussions with Sir Chris Bonington, who was the Sunday Telegraph photojournalist on the Inn River expedition; Jeff Slater, who put together and led that expedition; Chris Baillie, Mike Jones’s sister; and Dave Manby, who paddled with Mike on expeditions to Everest, Venezuela, and the Karakoram where Mike died in 1979. In addition to the invaluable research material I collected, I had great visits with these veteran paddlers that I had known of but never met, and I was honored to be asked to speak to canoeing groups in Aberdeen and Llangollen. (Maybe those count as the official start of my “book publicity touring”?)
I am sincerely grateful to all those who helped make this such a great experience. I’m already having to rethink and redraft some of my former ideas about those expeditions.
Next step, end-October to mid-November, will be a three-week intensive writing program in Banff, along with the Banff Mountain & Wilderness Film and Book Festival.
Never stop exploring!