Maintaining sanity with a good book
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Every trip into the outdoors needs a good book. Here’s a long list to get you started.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

If you want to survive in the wilderness, there are a few items important to bring on every trip. A map, compass and food are a good place to start, with the rest of your gear dictated largely by the type of trip you're taking.

But whether you're fishing, hunting, backpacking, rafting or cross-country skiing, there's one item that you absolutely cannot leave the house without.

What is this item you ask?

The answer is a book. No, not a Kindle. Or an Ipad, e-book or 12G cell phone capable of downloading Moby Dick while overthrowing a South American dictatorship.

A printed book.

Why is this item so important? Well, the short answer is to save you from insanity.

Two summers ago, I went backpacking to Devil’s Punchbowl in the Siskiyou Wilderness. Almost the moment I arrived at the mountain lake, it started raining hard and didn’t stop until midnight. Without the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I would basically have been staring at the nylon of my tent for 12 hours. By bringing the book, the time flew by as I reacquainted myself with the classic American story.

It can actually get much worse, especially for mountain climbers. There are hundreds of stories about climbers trapped at high altitude during dangerous weather going stir crazy. My favorite is about a climber on K2 who convinced himself that his tent was alive and planning to eat him while he slept.

So while suggesting these books might appear a simple way to help you evict boredom, it’s also my part in ensuring you don’t believe your tent is going to eat you.

Without further ado, I present the meta-list of books for the backcountry. It includes six suggestions for various outdoor situations, the five greatest fishing stories of all-time and my four favorite adventure/travel books.

0 0 0 0


“Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage”

By Alfred Lansing, 1959

Although you might feel cold while setting down stakes in the snow, after reading the story of this catastrophic five-month journey across the Antarctic ice, you'll feel as snug as a mitten. In August of 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail with the goal of crossing the Antarctic overland. The fierce conditions of the north destroyed their boat and the crew were forced to camp upon patches of moving ice, cross the freezing ocean in open boats and trek though glaciers and mountains to safety.

Shackleton’s adventure is widely considered one of the most incredible survival stories in history, and no matter how cold the night might be where you're camping, by comparison you’ll feel downright toasty.



“Genghis Khan; and the making of the modern world”

By Jack Weatherford, 2004

There are few things in the outdoors more annoying than massive crowds. Seriously, what's worse than attempting to enjoy a little solitude in the majesty of nature, only to be bumped and bruised by hordes of people? Nothing.

But it does happen. At National Parks and popular trails, it's nearly impossible to dodge the crowds in spectacular places. So why not read a book about a man named Genghis Khan, who also became irritated with other people? Instead of bearing this annoyance, however, this book allows you to fantasize about acting as he did, mainly by conquering more land and people than anyone in history.

This fantastic, lively story of the original Mongol Empire tells an interesting and detailed tale about one of the most unlikely rises to power in world history. Part Homeric epic and part well-researched history, this quick-paced book covers the idiosyncratic and misunderstood Khan who changed the world.


“The Old Man and the Sea”

By Ernest Hemingway, 1952

Everyone who goes fishing on a regular basis knows how much it stinks to get skunked. Which is why this story about a Cuban fisherman named Santiago, who goes 84 days without catching any fish, is perfect for the struggling angler. The story centers on Santiago’s battle with a giant Marlin he catches on the 85th day, and the ensuing trials he faces. Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about quiet dignity and perseverance, and an added bonus, is very short and easy to pack.



By Dava Sobel, 1995

In this modern age, we take completely for granted how difficult navigation was just a few hundred years ago. In the 18th century, they had no GPS, satellite or radio to help them cross an ocean. The question of longitude was the most difficult question of all. Countless ships were lost on the high seas because of this missing link to navigation. This story chronicles how the problem was slowly, painfully solved by, of all people, a master clock maker named John Harrison. After reading this rich history, you won't ever take for granted the relative ease with which we cross the high seas nowadays.

QUOTE: “The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child's play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma - one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.”


“To Kill a Mockingbird”

By Harper Lee, 1960

This novel of childhood, conscience and Boo Radley is about racism and the difficult choices we must make in life. Set in the sleepy southern town of Maycomb, the story is told by a young girl named Scout whose sweet, childlike way of contemplating the central issue of the 20th Century is as soft as rain falling on the nylon of your tent. The central figure of the story, Scout's father Atticus, is charged with representing an African-American man clearly innocent to the charges of raping a white girl. The story tackles big issues, but the softness and wisdom of Scout and her father allow the reader to glide across all the rocky issues the novel presents.


“A Little History of the World”

By E.H. Gombrich, 1936

While you might be camping alone, this book allows you to get to know all the people who’ve come before you in a small, friendly story about the history of humanity. The book, as the title suggests, chronicles the known history of the world. This massive task is boiled down into a powerfully simple story that covers everything from the Babylonians, to Charlemagne, to the Enlightenment. Any loneliness you might feel is quelled by Gombrich's friendly, informative style of describing history.

0 0 0 0


5) “On the Rainy River”

By Tim O'Brien, from the book, “The Things They Carried” (1990)

In one of the most celebrated novels of the past 50 years, this fishing story stands out among the pages of a book set almost entirely during the Vietnam War.

The story is told by a 21-year-old college graduate who’s been drafted to fight in Vietnam. The decision of whether to go to war or flee to Canada gnaws at the narrator throughout the story. Finally, he frantically drives north to International Falls, Minn., and stays with an old man named Elroy Berdahl at Tip Top Lodge.

The climax of the story comes when Elroy takes the narrator fishing on the Rainy River — the border that separates Minnesota from Canada — and forces him to decide.

Quote: “And right then I submitted. I would go to war I would kill and maybe die because I was embarrassed not to. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. Elroy Berdahl remained quiet. He kept fishing. He worked his line with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white bobber on the Rainy River. ... He was a witness, like God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them.”

4) “The River Why”

By David James Duncan (1983)

Of the five pieces I've picked, this Oregon-based story (with a chapter set on the Rogue River) is the only full-length novel.

It's a coming-of-age story about a fishing savant named Gus who grows up in a lunatic family. His father is a fly-fishing elitist while his mother is a down-home advocate of bait-fishing who uses a double-barreled shotgun to terrify anyone that crosses her.

Gus eventually moves to the coast obsessing upon all things fishing until he meets Eddy, a beautiful girl who enjoys angling from the tops of trees. The book is hilarious, poignant and philosophical by turns. More than anything else, it's simply a good read.

Quote: “And anyone who thinks I brag in stating that I understand fish-thought is obviously ignorant of the way in which fish think. Believe me, it’s nothing to brag about.”

3) “Headwaters”

By John Gierach, from the book “Trout Bum” (1986)

Coming up with a favorite essay from the collection of Gierach, one of the greatest outdoors writers of all-time, is difficult. Gierach's plain-spoken prose always is entertaining and features the best wit this side of Mark Twain.

The story “Headwaters” is simple. It’s about a lone fisherman who hikes along a river up into the mountains. The story has a quiet, ironic humor mixed with masterful descriptions of fly-fishing. The story’s power comes from the emotional balance between being happy about fishing in the wilderness, and sad about being alone.

Quote: “You've gone out alone before because you were sad or happy, or neither or both — for any reason at all, the way some people drink. The lake is black now, and for a long moment you can't remember why you're here this time.”

2) “A River Runs Through It”

By Norman Maclean (1976)

Most people are familiar with this story thanks to Robert Redford's fantastic movie, but the tale of Norman Maclean and his brother Paul is even better in the original novella.

The richness of the characters are fleshed out in the book. Maclean’s eloquence on the art of fly-fishing is more enjoyable in print as are his descriptions of the rivers the brothers fish. The story also is incredibly funny ... something the movie largely misses.

More than anything else, though, the details of the book allow the reader to feel the frustration Norman feels at being unable to help his troubled brother.

Quote: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

1) “Big Two-Hearted River” (Parts I and II)

By Ernest Hemingway, from the book, “In Our Time” (1925)

The greatest fishing story of all-time follows Nick Adams as he hikes from the burned-over country of Northern Michigan to the edge of the river where he makes camp and fishes for trout.

Through Hemingway's short, declarative sentences, the reader gradually becomes aware that something is troubling Nick ... though it's never made clear what's wrong and what he's trying to escape.

The story is seemingly simple — it's about hiking, camping and fishing — and is so well-written that the reader feels as though they're alongside, as “Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins.”

The brilliance of the story comes from the iceberg effect. The reader knows what's troubling Nick is there, somewhere below the surface of the story, but it's never made clear what the problem is. In that way the story becomes timeless. The unnamed trouble could be anything or anyone. Going fishing in the woods is a way to work through that trouble.

Quote: “He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.”

0 0 0 0


"Listening For Coyote, A Walk Across Oregon’s Wilderness"

by William L. Sullivan

This Oregon classic follows the journey of Sullivan on a 65-day, 1,361 mile hike from the state’s western shore of Cape Blanco to the eastern point of Hells Canyon.

There are numerous things to enjoy about this nonfiction story, not the least of which is that Sullivan describes many local trails as he travels through the Southern Oregon section of his trip.

Sullivan’s talent lies in mixing personal observation, natural history and biological fact into a soft-spoken but powerful narrative that is by turns humorous, philosophical and descriptive.

There’s an environmental message present throughout, but Sullivan never beats you over the head with it, and the most memorable aspects are the characters he meets along the way (one of which is Grants Pass legend Len Ramp).

All in all, it’s a must-read for anyone who loves hiking in Oregon.

“Lost In The Wild, Danger and Survival in the North Woods”

by Cary J. Griffith

This intricately crafted nonfiction story follows two separate hikers who become lost in the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota’s North Woods.

The brilliance of these gripping stories is the step-by-step detail.

Griffith’s short, descriptive sentences illustrate in horrifying detail how easy it is for even accomplished, well-prepared hikers to find themselves lost and in serious trouble.

This book does a masterful job of allowing the reader to see through the eyes of the ill-fated hikers, taking one through the thought process of becoming lost and the method by which they’re rescued.

It’s a truly scary read and a cautionary tale for all hikers, but it’s also packed with useful information.

“Into the Wild”

by Jon Krakauer

It would be impossible to write a column on outdoor stories and leave this nonfiction bestseller — which recently was made into a movie directed by Sean Penn — off the list.

The story centers primarily on Christopher McCandless, a young man who rejects his upper-class suburban lifestyle for a vagabond existence that ultimately ends with his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

The story is familiar enough — a disenfranchised youth seeks relief by escaping to the wilderness, but there’s an undeniable power in McCandless’ philosophy and journey.

Some people see McCandless, who died trying to live off the land in Alaska, as a starry-eyed fool who didn’t respect the dangers of nature. Others view him as a sort of folk hero, an idealist of the highest regard who demonstrated through his life the way to escape the materialistic ills of postmodern America.

Krakauer, who’s probably the best-known outdoor author in America, renders this fascinating story in lighting-fast prose that most people finish in a few days.

“Roughing It”

by Mark Twain

Twain was the ultimate rambling man in the newly forming American West during the 1860s, and this book is a fictionalized account of those years.

This narrative follows Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) through a series of adventures, mishaps and money-making failures. Along the way he meets an oddball cast of desperadoes, vigilantes, newspapermen and prospectors that populated the American West in the 19th century.

The appeal of this story is Twain’s unique prospective and legendary wit that can make even his darkest failures hilarious.

There are a few chapters that can get long-winded (his endless descriptions of failures in mining and prospecting) but overall the story is so vivid and funny that it’s hard to put down.

A few more:

Here are a few more excellent choices: “A Walk in the Woods,” by Bill Bryson; “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins; “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,” by Piers Paul Read; “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer.


« Back to stories main page
This site Copyright © 2019 Grants Pass Daily Courier/Courier Publishing Company.
To return to the Daily Courier homepage click here