Paddles & Prose
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Whit Deschner's eyes dance with laughter when you ask about his books.
Or, more specifically, how this Alaskan fisherman and kayaker ended up writing and publishing 3 1/2 books.
"I got total Ds in English (in high school)," he laughs.
Deschner, 50, grew up in Bellevue, Wash., and learned to kayak when he was 12.
"My dad used to do a little bit in the '50s," he says. "My parents wanted to get all us kids into it to keep us out of trouble."
Perhaps his parents never expected their son to one day start hauling his kayak around the world, running rivers in Pakistan, New Zealand, India, Nepal, Turkey ...
And so many other places.
"I've never counted," says Deschner, who's lived at Sparta since 1982.
But he did take notes along the way, later compiling the stories of his adventures for two books: "Does the Wet Suit You?" and "Travels with a Kayak."
His other two publications are the novel "Burning the Iceberg: The Alaskan Fisherman's Novel," and the 70-page "How to be a Jerk in Bristol Bay: An Abuser's Guide" (he refers to this as the "half" book).
The story of his writing begins in the 1970s when he was enrolled at Washington State University.
He wanted to be an architect.
Then came the storm that turned his plans upside down.
In 1974 he was in Alaska, where he spent his summers earning money as a commercial fisherman.
"I was working up in Alaska, and was getting ready to go back to school. I got caught in a storm out in Dutch Harbor.
"I missed my plane and didn't go back to school for three years," he laughs.
Following forays into more fishing seasons to support his kayaking trips, Deschner returned to school at Evergreen State College.
This is when he ventured into writing.
"I had this teacher that kept bugging me, reading my stuff in front of the class at Evergreen," he says.
His first book about kayaking was "Does the Wet Suit You?"
"I didn't have a clue what I was doing, published 5,000 of them and sold out in two years just by word of mouth," he says.
He released "Travels with a Kayak" in 1997, covering more than 20 years of kayaking trips. "Travels" earned the Benjamin Franklin Award for humor.
These aren't exactly travel guides.
As he takes the reader through the landscapes and escapades in the foreign countries he explored by water, Deschner shares the more humorous side of his travels.
Heck, try to read the copyright page without smiling:
"Some of this book is fiction, other parts originated with non-fiction facts that I made up. ... Please note that if your face appears in one of the photos in this book, it is now copyrighted; however you have my permission for its continual usage."
Each chapter tells the story of a different trip through Deschner's impressions, conversations with the locals (and his fellow kayakers) and anecdotes.
Exploring countries on the waterways took Deschner to places and people most tourists would never encounter.
"Some of those people have never seen tourists before," he says.
He'd put his adventures on paper after returning from each excursion.
"After the trips were over I'd write my impressions of them and those were the bare bones of the stories," he says. "Some of them just wrote themselves."
Characters reappear in story after story from country to country.
"It was just a bunch of people my age who'd say, how about going to this place?' It's a really tight group," he says. "I used to try to take one (trip) a year, go overseas every other year."
He has a few favorite runs right close to home, too.
"The Payette and Salmon rivers in Idaho are as good as it gets," he says. "You've got water, wilderness, hot springs, beautiful scenery there's nothing better in the world."
The sport, he says, really isn't too dangerous and not all kayakers head straight for the waterfalls and extreme stunts.
"You start out on these really easy rivers and it's just exciting," he says. "If you do it slow and you learn how to enjoy it, it's fantastic.
"In kayaking you can always just pull over to the bank if you get in trouble. I think in 30 years I've hit my head on a rock twice."
Deschner quit commercial fishing in 2001, and the frequency of his kayak trips has slowed since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago.
His most recent kayak trip was in October through the Grand Canyon.
This time he spent half the time in a kayak, the other half in the raft.
"I just have to cut back on how hard of stuff I do," he says. "It just tires you out."
But his ride in a raft offered a different experience than his two previous trips down this stretch of the Colorado River.
"You're laid back on the raft, you can look around," he says.
The Parkinson's also hinders his typing, so Deschner now uses a voice recognition program on his computer.
The technology doesn't always cooperate, he laughs, admitting to bouts of frustration when the computer doesn't recognize his name (it always types "with") and calmly transcribes his angry swear words.
"(Parkinson's) is one of those challenges you don't want to deal with, but you have to," he says. "It just makes me look at life different and appreciate what I have."
Whit Deschner's most recent published product does not bear his name or have anything to do with kayaking.
He first read the New Zealand novel "We Will Not Cease" 20 years ago.
The book was written by Archibald Baxter in 1939, nearly 25 years after the author was arrested, incarcerated and forced to the front lines during World War I after he spoke out against the war.
"It's a real sad book, but I really admire what he did," Deschner said. "They wanted to make an example out of him and he wouldn't break. The guy really believed in something and stood up for himself."
The book was never released in the United States, and five years ago Deschner bought the novel's rights and published it in America.
But first he reworked the archaic language into modern-day prose.
"It was really hard to do, almost harder than writing a book," he says.
However, "We Will Not Cease" didn't catch on quite as quickly as he'd hoped.
"I had such a target market with the kayak books," he says.
He still has 3,000 copies of the World War I novel, and has reduced the price to $2.50.
"We Will Not Cease" and Deschner's own books can be found at Betty's Books.