As the summer heats up, many of us find that a great way to cool off is to head to the water. The swimming beach at Stephens Lake Park is a favorite place for my family to spend the afternoon, and we also enjoy canoeing at Finger Lakes State Park. In a figurative sense, one can cool off by reading great books about traveling on water, and the library has many that fit the bill. Let’s take a look at a few new and classic titles.
In the spring of 1834, Richard Henry Dana Jr. was a young man recently dropped out of Harvard University because of poor health and looking for something to do while recuperating from his illness. He signed on with the Pilgrim, a ship that launched from Boston. Dana recounted his experience in arguably the greatest work of maritime nonfiction, “Two Years Before the Mast.” The Pilgrim spent a great deal of time on the coast of colonial California, and Dana’s writing about these explorations is one of our best documents of the very early settlement period there. Dana also examines at length the injustices imparted upon common sailors. “The captain, in the first place, is lord paramount. He stands no watch, comes and goes as he pleases, and is accountable to no one,” writes Dana.
Dana was also obsessed, as were most sailors on these multi-year voyages, with the offerings of food and drink. “Food at Sea: Shipboard Cuisine From Ancient to Modern Times” by Simon Spalding is a detailed look at the history of food found on ocean-going vessels. On a ship like the Pilgrim, the fare was described in the following way by a common sailor: “the mush is never cooked, the beans are awful, and the Cape Cod turkey, or in plain English, the codfish, is the meanest mess of all.”
Dozens of books have been written about Ernest Shackleton and his expeditions to the Antarctic, but two stand out in the crowd for their uniqueness. The first is the graphic novel “Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey” by Nick Bertozzi. Historically accurate and concise, grabbing from Shackleton’s and other expedition members’ diaries, this thin volume will delight readers young and old. “Shackleton’s Boat Journey” authored by Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, is also of note. In order to save his crew, Shackleton made a harrowing journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. Shackleton’s eight men almost miraculously made it across this stretch of the Southern Ocean in a 12-foot boat, mainly due to Worsley’s uncanny skill at navigating by dead reckoning. This ocean journey is an accomplishment with few modern corollaries and was indeed performed near the apex of Antarctic winter. As Edmund Hillary wrote in the introduction: “It only confirmed the view of his friends that Shackleton was ‘the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.’”
On a more local level, for a look at the historic navigation of the Missouri River, I suggest “Wild River, Wooden Boats” by Michael Gillespie. Gillespie says: “The untamed Missouri was as close to a living thing as a river could get.” In the chapter “Sudden Death” Gillespie catalogs a whole range of terrible ways that human beings could perish on steamships: “The steamer Big Hatchie blew her boilers at Hermann, Missouri on July 25, 1845. Thirty-five unidentified victims are buried in the cemetery there.”
Modern day Missouri has an incredible network of smaller rivers and creeks perfect for boating. “A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri” offers lots of information about these waterways. This handy guidebook was created by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and it includes a full listing of navigable rivers and streams in the state. It even has mile markers, maps and difficulty ratings for each section of the river run. Happy paddling this summer!