Longtime kayaker and author Joe Booth recently released his new book “From the River: A Guidebook to Sobriety from a Lifetime of Lessons Paddling” and his addiction recovery platform www.classfivemind.com, which blends the power of the outdoors with online resources to foster addiction healing and recovery. He also hosts his RESILIENCE live-stream events, focuses on using lessons from the river—including courage, commitment, humility, resilience, and flow—to cope with mental health issues, while raising funds for Team River Runner, First Descents and American Whitewater.
Paddling Life catches up with him for his take on boating, writing the book, and using the power of the river and paddling to help find a balanced life.
Paddling Life: What experiences made you want to write this book?
Booth: A few significant moments in my life brought me to the point where I was ready to begin writing From the River. But it all started when I was a little boy flipping through my dad’s first-edition copy of California Whitewater, the classic guidebook by Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun. I have vivid memories of my dad sitting on his lazy-boy recliner, studying his copy ofCalifornia Whitewater as he prepared for his weekend adventures. He always brought the guidebook with him on those trips, and when he came home, the book would have new scribbled handwritten notes on the section they just paddled. I read that book from cover to cover and it quickly became my favorite book. It exposed me to new rivers, showed me the lines, and inspired me to think beyond my local runs. By doing so, it opened up my world and gave me something to strive for. When I decided to write my book, I did so with the same intention. I wanted From the River to open up worlds, show people new lines, and give people something to strive for, just as California Whitewater did for me.
Looking back now, I appreciate how much effort and courage it took Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun to write a guidebook on the subject of whitewater. Pioneering and documenting all of those runs, taking photos with bulky cameras and rolls of film, organizing the logistical information, and publishing it to a small niche community. That’s a ton of work. And for what? Just to tell people about some exciting rivers? No. The book did more than just tell people where to paddle. Its real significance was uniting a community.
I like to think that my guidebook can also have that same significance. It was a heavy decision to speak up and wave the flag for more awareness around mental health in the adventure sports community, specifically substance abuse. I had to make myself vulnerable and expose my transgressions. But by doing so, I hope to show paddlers who struggle with these issues that they aren’t alone. That there are other people out there who have been down those runs before and know what it’s like to swim over and over again. I’ve been there. I struggled with addiction for 20 years. But after every swim, I kept getting back in my boat, and eventually, I figured out the lines that helped me break free and reach the takeout.
Today, the first copy of my book sits on my bookshelf right next to my dad’s original copy of California Whitewater. It’s a reminder of how far I have come and the importance of community.
Paddling Life: The subtitle is “A Guidebook for Sobriety”, but many chapters have nothing to do with substance abuse. How are they connected?
From the River offers an honest and intimate reflection into the world of whitewater kayaking and transformation. The book is about applying the lessons we learn on the river to overcome the challenges we face in life. Many of the issues I write about are universal — self-doubt, loneliness, fear, peer pressure, shame, anxiety. These are difficult emotions that everyone faces at some point. Some people can handle them with ease; others struggle. Some people run away from these emotions, and others choose to drink their problems away. My book is about helping people connect the dots between mindset and how lessons we learn on the water can help us navigate the problematic rapids that life forces us to paddle.
Paddling Life: What made you want to add river descriptions?
When I began to write From the River, the book was initially intended to be a series of short stories about the lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime spent on the river, accompanied by guidebook-like descriptions of the trips. The book evolved to include lessons about mental health and sobriety. But many of the chapters still reflect the original intent — all the way down to logistic details for the reader who wants to experience these exciting sections of whitewater first hand. I thought about cutting them out, but including river descriptions is my way of paying homage to the heritage of guidebook writing. Paddling guidebooks are a living history of our sport and culture. The photos, the descriptions, even the shuttle logistics all represent a time-stamp of paddling in which the book was written. Plus, Google Maps doesn’t work on the drive to Hells Canyon or Burnt Ranch Gorge. So if you don’t want to get lost, you should have a guidebook in your car.
Paddling Life: How has the river shaped your journey to a balanced life?
The river has taught me to roll with whatever life throws at me and that we can’t control the waves that rock our boat, but we can control how we react to them.
Life is like a Class V river. Like paddling big water, a certain mindset must be cultivated and maintained to live a balanced life. Whether it’s long and challenging or short and intense, life is filled with obstacles and violent rapids that expose a person to risk and also present opportunities. There will be moments of terror and joy, excitement and calm, risk and reward. Sometimes you need to eddy out to catch your breath. Other times you must focus and paddle as hard as you can. There will be times when you get bumped off your line and must fight to get back on track. Seasons when you swim and seasons when you lace every line. There will be times of crisis when you need someone to throw you a rope. And times when you will be the one others, rely on for help. On the river, as in life, we move from one wave to the next, trying to remain present but always planning one move ahead, with past experiences swirling in the back of our minds. The river does not care if we live or drown, just as life does not care if we fail or succeed. However impartial the river may be, it always offers guidance on safe passage for those willing to study carefully. The “line” may not always be visible, but it’s always there.
Paddling Life: Do you think the paddling community has a drinking or substance problem?
One in eight American adults has a substance abuse problem. The paddling community is no exception. As a community, we must recognize that issue and have an open dialogue, so those who suffer in silence can get the support they need. And I’m not just talking about sucking down a sour bootie-beer after a swim (that’s an entirely different kind of suffering!).
As awareness of sobriety’s benefits continues to grow and become more socially accepted, people search for other like-minded individuals and resources they can identify with. That’s where From the River comes in. This book is my way of contributing to the community I love — my tribe of adventure athletes, weekend warriors, and young adults who get caught in a cycle of being stuck, self-doubt, striving to succeed, and fun at all costs; people who live to go big but let their guard down and got caught up in a destructive lifestyle.
While there have been numerous books written about recovery, very few speak directly to the heart and soul of the paddler. I hope that nature-lovers seeking inspiration and practical guidance on how to win their battles against substance abuse will appreciate the honesty, metaphors, and advice included in this guidebook for sobriety.
Paddling Life: How has the paddling community responded since the book’s release?
I’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the support of my fellow paddlers. This book wouldn’t have been written without the help of the boating community. When I was 20,000 words into the first draft, I reached out to a few friends to get their feedback. It was nerve-wracking, like sitting in an eddy above a monster rapid. When everyone returned to me with positive encouragement and suggestions, I felt empowered and knew that I was doing something special. When I was further along, I reached out to Nick Hinds, author of the fantastic PNW guidebook. I’d never met Nick before, but he took my call and helped me understand the publishing process. Nick introduced me to the legendary Eugene Buchanan, who helped guide me and turn my manuscript into a book. Many paddlers contributed their photos to include clean shots of every run I wrote a chapter on. Ben McKenzie, a kayaker and artist in White Salmon, did the cover art for me. Once the book was completed, we threw a fundraising event to celebrate the launch of From the River and raise money for American Whitewater, First Descents, and Team River Runner. Now the book is out there, sitting on the shelves of river stores from Bozeman, Montana, to Lotus, California.
So, yes, the paddling community has been incredibly supportive the entire time — from creation to launch to sales and feedback.
The best part has been the direct messages I’ve received from paddlers sharing their stories and thanking me for addressing substance abuse among adventure athletes. Those messages make all the hard work worth it.
I could have never written From the River without the help of the paddling community. It makes me very proud knowing that I’m part of a tribe of kayakers and rafters that support one another when we are off the river too.
Paddling Life: What’s the biggest lesson for paddlers who read this book?
There’s a take-out waiting for you downstream if you are willing to get back in your boat and keep paddling. Whatever it is that you’re striving for 1). Don’t give up on yourself, and 2). Help others along the way.
Paddling Life: In the first chapters, you introduce the “Class Five Mind.” What is that all about?
When I decided to get sober, I took the year off from kayaking to focus on the essential things in my life: my wife, family, and career. During that time, I developed five principles to help me find balance in my life. Because river water runs through my veins, I based this new personal ethos on lessons I learned from the river. The Class Five Mind was born. It consists of five basic principles: Courage, Commitment, Humility, Resilience, and Flow.
Courage: Apply the courage developed from facing unknown obstacles on the river to other personal and professional challenges.
Commitment: Just like you would commit to a line in a rapid, follow through on the promises made to friends, family, coworkers, and yourself.
Humility: Use the humility learned from portaging rapids to recognize your limitations, work on those areas, learn from others, and accept help.
Resilience: The resilience of getting back in your boat after a swim can teach you that some failures in life can be overcome just by persevering.
Flow: The precious flow of being wholly present and connected to nature shows that you can also find rhythm, purpose, and mindfulness in other life priorities.
Paddling Life: Proceeds of your book sales go to American Whitewater, Team River Runner, and First Descents. Why support these organizations, and how’s that going?
One dollar from every book purchase goes to TRR, AW, and FD. So by purchasing this book, you’re helping these organizations continue to provide life-changing experiences for paddlers. We also raised a few thousand dollars for them when we did our book launch/fundraising event called RESILIENCE. I’m proud of the money and awareness I’ve been able to help raise for them. But it will never equal the value of the experiences and lessons they have given me.
These organizations have taught me how to paddle for a purpose and think beyond my own boat. I’ve been a proud card-carrying member of AW for many years. The work they do is super important and helps paddlers access our local rivers for generations to come. In the early years of FD, I spent my summers as a kayaking volunteer in Montana and Colorado. I witnessed how a week on the river with fellow cancer survivors can change someone’s outlook on life. TRR has a program for blind veterans. The day I spent guiding a blind war hero down the Yellowstone in a kayak permanently changed how I see the river. These programs and the people they serve have shown me what courage and resilience truly means. You can read about some of these experiences in my book.
Paddling Life: You’re also holding webinars to help people find a more balanced life…how are those going?
It’s both enlightening and humbling when you learn from an expert that’s been studying a specific field for 20+ years. Each month I host a live webinar with different experts in mental health and explore a broad range of perspectives on how people can live balanced, healthy, happy lives. They aren’t just about sobriety. We cover topics like meditation, emotional intelligence, brain health, nutrition, and sleep. It’s been fantastic learning from the doctors, PhDs, and gurus that make time to teach an interactive “Masterclass” with a live audience. I encourage anyone interested in healthy living to check them out on our website- www.classfivemind.com
Paddling Life: How’s the paddling season looking out there?
I live in California, which had a below-average snowfall this past winter. We’re at only 59% of the average statewide. But it’s a big state, and most of our water is locked up in dams, which means we have access to numerous scheduled releases all summer long. Even though the spring snowmelt went fast, there will be plenty of opportunities to paddle the rest of the year. You just might have to drive a little further than you like and bring a playboat. But you know how it is- The paddling season, and any day on the river, is always what you make of it.
Purchase a copy of Joe’s book, From the River here: