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The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg And The Rivers Of The West

Author : Vince Welch
Published : 2012-09-26

Floating boats down rivers was to Amos Burg almost as routine as walking down streets was to others of his generation. But was it the thrill of adventure, or the desire to be a writer of adventure tales, that motivated the Oregon man to paddle the West's major rivers?

In The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg And the Rivers of the West, Vince Welch touches on that question while tracing Burg's exploits that streamed from his boyhood days on the Columbia River.

In the end, of course, it really doesn't matter what motivated Burg, for he succeeded in stringing together a decades-long series of adventures down rivers from Oregon to Alaska, through the Grand Canyon, and even to England and the tip of South America in an odyssey by sea that many tried to dissuade him from mounting.

The rivers Burg succeeded in navigating would fill a river runner's dream book: Columbia, Yukon, MacKenzie, Snake, Porcupine, Canoe, Bell, Green, Colorado, Middle Fork and Main fork of the Salmon, and for good measure he tossed in the Grand Union Canal System from London to Liverpool in England as a stunt tied to the coronation of King George VI.

Along the way he evolved into a capable filmmaker, photographer, and writer with more than a few articles in National Geographic. And he became part of river-running history by becoming the first to run both the Green and Colorado rivers in an inflatable raft (christened Charlie) that he designed and persuaded the Goodrich Co. and Air Cruisers, Inc., which supplied "flotation devices" to the U.S. Navy, to construct for the expedition.

Now, not all of Burg's trips were straight descents. He wasn't averse to hitch-hiking on ships, or trucks to get around dams or particularly sketchy sections of river, or laying over in a village or town for a number of days.

Still, his stories of paddling or rowing (he rigged his canoe with oarlocks) through good weather and bad, through spells of both loneliness and warm camaraderie, down tricky stretches with challenging wave trains and and rock gardens, and waiting out storms while negotiating the Tierra del Fuego through the Strait of Magellan are riveting and more than a little thought-provoking for paddlers debating their next trip.

On one trip to Canada to paddle the Mackenzie River, Burg and two companions came upon a stretch of river that gave him more than a little pause as they headed downstream.

Mosquitoes with the spirit of a civic welcoming committee clouded the air along the trail and used our necks for landing fields until we launched the canoe below a beautiful basin, into which cataracts poured from several ravines. In three hours we had worked our way to the foot of an island and were trapped by falls. I scouted across the mossy wooded island, seeking another passage. Neither of my two companions had ever ridden such wild water as raged below the island. It was with considerable anxiety that I steered the canoe into the breakers that swept us rapidly toward the brink of a rocky 20-foot drop. In the middle of the river a maelstrom twisted our craft with a suddeness that threw the starboard gunnel beneath the water. The sluggishness of the half-swamped canoe alarmed me.

His trips, though historic, also passed through history as well. Regarding Burg's trip down the Green and Colorado rivers with "Buzz" Holmstrom, who had floated the rivers solo in 1937, Mr. Welch writes:

As the trio passed through the Gates of Lodore on September 10, the temperature reached one hundred degrees. The historically minded Burg pointed out "the clump of mountain cedar where Butch Cassidy and Oregon's Harry Tracy had shot and killed Sheriff Val Hoy for trailing them." He mentioned other serious events that had taken place downstream at Disaster Falls in 1869. Major John Wesley Powell had lost one of his boats, much-needed gear, whiskey, and supplies in the early days of their trip. Two of his men had nearly drowned. In 1936 the amateur boater Tony Backus, traveling alone, had abandoned his boat at the same location. Under an overcast sky Holmstrom and Burg ran the impressive rapids at Disaster Falls and Triplet Falls. Charlie hung up on a rock at Triplet, forcing Burg out of his boat and onto a nearby rock to push it free. Nevertheless, his modest confidence rose. After two weeks on the river, the advantages of rowing an inflatable raft were undeniable.

Many of Burg's trips preceded the construction of dams that interrupted the rivers, dams that he later came to lament in 1984 in an article for the Alaska Fish and Game magazine for those interruptions:

Unlike my early canoe voyages, when I was the only voyageur on thousands of miles of river, America today is becoming water-minded again. More and more canoeists and kayakers take to our rivers. Thousands of would-be voyageurs fill the rosters of the National Park Service, waiting their turn to float down the Salmon, Snake, Green, or Colorado Rivers. The lineup is so long that it may take years for a prospective voyageur to make a booking. Rivers, once free and uncrowded, now have limited entry. Inevitably, these voyageurs and commercial river outfitters will soon move northward to Alaska, attracted by the Yukon, Gulkana, Taku, Tanana, Kuskokwim, Colville, Iditarod, Noatak and Kobuk Rivers. Alaska could well benefit from this outdoor invasion in terms of tourist dollars. But primarily, the state should see to the protection and preservation of the streams and rivers that will make all this possible. We have plenty of bad examples.

Mr. Welch's challenge in compiling this biography was aided by many of Burg's first-person stories for National Geographic, and he sifted through records at the Oregon Historical Society and the Alaska State Library along with several other institutions. And he relied on more than a few books about rivers, river runners, and canoes, and on friends and relatives of Burg.

The end result is a compelling, well-woven read, particularly so in light of the passages from the many articles Burg left behind that the author has neatly embraced with his own narrative.

Mr. Welch has produced an engaging book of not only an early 20th century explorer (indeed, Burg was elected to the prestigous Explorer's Club in 1931 in the wake of his trips down the Columbia (1930), Snake (1930), Slave (1929), Mackenzie (1929), Bell (1929), Porcupine (1929) and Yukon (1929) rivers), but one that explores these great rivers and lays out how they appeared before the dams arrived.

If you're a paddler, this belongs in your library.

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