When Durham author and environmental advocate John Manuel decided to write a book about canoeing, he had a choice to make: write something that would be sold in bait shops, or write literature.
The result is The Canoeist, part nature guide, part memoir, a combination that works because Manuel is not just an expert helmsman who can "read" rivers for the "V's" that indicate safe passage through deep water, as well as the eddys and obstacles to stay away from. He is also a deft writer who knows how to take you with him on the ride.
In retrospect, it's a genre-twisting hybrid that seems as obvious as swirling together two flavors of soft-serve ice cream. But Manuel only happened upon the idea when he noticed other writers shying away from it. Other wilderness writers, such as Howard Raines who wrote Fly Fishing Through A Mid-Life Crisis, and River Horse author William Least Heat Moon, hint at autobiographical conflict, only to back away from such personal details.
"I was wondering, what is this 'crisis' that you mentioned? That's part of the reason for this book—I decided to delve into that myself," said Manuel in an Indy interview last fall.
It helps that the canoe is a perfect metaphor for human relationships. The destinies of two people are joined together in a canoe in a way that brings out the best and worst in their partnership and personalities.
"You're two people that are suddenly bound together in a single craft. You're just thrown into this situation that really demands cooperation, or it can be a disaster," he says. "The unique nature of a canoe is bringing out either your incompatible qualities or your compatible ones."
Traveling down chapters named for eastern waterways, Manuel braves personal journeys with parents, siblings, peers, his future spouse and eventually his own children, taking them through portages, whitewater and occasional capsizings.
Some of the rivers have speaking names: The Chagrin, The Rocky, The Lost. Others, like the canoe itself, bespeak Native American origins: The Ocoee, The Allagash, The Nantahala. In this way, the craft to which Manuel has remained loyal since childhood also serves as an ecological metaphor for the interdependence of humans and the environment.
The Chagrin in Ohio, where Manuel grew up, details his ambivalent relationship with his father, who taught him to canoe but never approved of his writing career. The Cuyahoga near Cleveland, which notoriously caught fire, sparked the environmental protection movement, and Manuel's career as a writer in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.
Two chapters are devoted to the branches of the Haw, a local endangered watershed where Manuel today serves as a stream monitor. From Manuel's coming of age to his struggle to find a mode of masculinity that suits his generation and values, canoeing is a constant that challenges him to confront his own identity and his relationship to the natural and social world.
"A river is an entity unto itself," says Manuel. As in life, a lot of maneuvers on a river can be counterintuitive and take persistence to learn, but the journey downstream has much to teach us about ourselves.
The Canoeist is published by Jefferson Press and is available in local bookstores and online at www.amazon.com.