Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River

The following is a book review I wrote that was just published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine: 

Running Dry by Jonathan Waterman (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010, $26 U.S., 305 pages, hardcover) is in many ways a masterpiece. However, it’s not an easy read. The book is dense with information that should be properly pondered and digested, not lightly perused as one might read a novel. It is about the Colorado River, but is also very much about the man who decided to travel its length and document the life within it—and the life being sucked out of it. For me, the most compelling realization from taking my time to read this book was the complexity of what exists within and around the Colorado River. The history is fascinating. The ecological ramifications of whether we respect and preserve, or abuse and plunder, this watershed can be extrapolated to every stream, river, pond and lake in America.

The author decided to travel the length of the Colorado River from its snowy origin to the Mexican delta. This was not a feat of endurance, but a contemplative river running with portages intended to observe the give and take of the river—how it contributes its water and habitats to men and animals, and how it is impacted by natural and man-made influences. The river is threatened by numerous pressures, not the least of which are alteration and extraction of its waters. Add to these climate change and pollution, industry, and government, and one appreciates the fragility that circumstances impose upon a powerful force of nature.

The book is written in a high-level rhetorical style that is simultaneously provocative and educational. As my youngest son might say, “There is a lot going on.” The historical vignettes are entertaining oases in the midst of the river kayaking narrative, which is used to bring the author from location to location, each of which provides at least one teaching moment. Whether discussing the esoterica of oil shale or tamarisk, or spinning a fascinating ecological tale in the chapter, “The Lights of Las Vegas,” Waterman is superb at his literary craft. But do not expect to be able to read this narrative while multi-tasking. This book demands your full attention.

The book is accompanied by a removable National Geographic wall map that traces Waterman’s journey on the Colorado River and provides a portrait of the challenges facing its waters and wildlife. The map is a nice touch, but is not essential to the story. The black and white photographs inserted in the middle of the volume have become customary in books like this, but really should have been portrayed in color to have an impact.

If you are interested in the environment, and in particular have an affinity for rivers and their future, then Running Dry is a must read. In the proper educational setting and with sufficient imagination to expound upon its teaching points, it could be a semester’s work. For recreational reading, it is sufficiently a page-turner, but it is not a thrilling adventure in the vein of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. However, the message is much more profound.  I am grateful for having had the opportunity to read it, and would love to see it made into a documentary film. The more that young people, by whom the fate of our planet will be guided, are exposed to this combination of exploration, documentation and philosophy, the greater the chance that future decisions about our natural resources will be intelligent and preservative.

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Tags: Backpacking , General Interest , In the Water , Products

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.