Raft Reading: Your Summer Book List

To put it simply: I have a passion for rafts. Do I mean the yellow rubber behemoths that bounce down rapids, spilling beer everywhere? Not really. I’ve floated the Grand Canyon—it’s awesome, no doubt—but that’s only one type of raft adventure.

More than a decade ago, I built my own raft. About the size of a kitchen table. Just some planks and foam, a blue tarp rigged over a piece of rope in lieu of a proper tent. Oars and a square sail. On this rudimentary thing, I traveled the length of Lake Champlain over the course of 22 days. I got my ass kicked by thunderstorms. I played ukulele in the sun. I read a bunch of Plato and Shakespeare. I drank Labatt Blue with bass fisherman. I got my ass kicked by more thunderstorms. I slept on the raft, night after night after night. 

Basically, it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was so great, in fact, that I wrote a 400-page manuscript about the voyage (young man’s first attempt at a book = unwieldy beast = never tried to get it published). I also wrote a short essay for this space in Vermont Sports, plus a handful more articles for other magazines. 

Why? Because I’m a raft evangelist. Because I’m a guy who stands on a soapbox that isn’t actually a soapbox because, yup, it’s a raft. 

For me, the raft is summer: the season’s essence, the season’s premier symbol. The freedom and chaos and weirdness and straight chillin’ that rafts invite into our lives is unparalleled. Drifting around at sunset, maybe tossing the anchor and pivoting on a “waterbed” beneath the stars, is the logical extension of relaxing on the dock with a cocktail. Just cut the dock loose, my friends, and away you go! (One vignette in the sprawling manuscript, titled “Liberation Of The Dock,” described a vision of a raft armada on Lake Champlain.)

So that’s why I write: to spread the Gospel. But any proselytizer worth his salt needs a Good Book, of course, not just a mere essay or five—and as mentioned, the book I wrote wasn’t quite up to snuff. Where to turn? To the library, duh.

Please, I implore you: put down that James Patterson drivel and pick up a book about rafts. I’ve got a Ph.D in this field (alas, from an unaccredited university) and am happy to share the highlights from years of reading. Let’s inventory a few classics from the shelf.

1.Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. 

This is the masterpiece, the famous raft that everybody knows. One rainy morning during my voyage up Lake Champlain, a fellow stepped out onto the deck of his shoreline camp and bellowed from memory, “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” What else is there to say? Amen, brother! 

2. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. 

WWII has ended and the Norwegian paratroopers are sort of bored. Luckily, their buddy Thor, an anthropologist, has a plan to build a balsa raft and float it from Chile to Polynesia, thereby proving his theory about ancient human migration routes. More than 4,000 miles later, the guys crash on a reef. Published in 1950, Kon-Tiki is the badass granddaddy, the raft book that continues to inspire.

3. The Story Of A Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Raft literature is thick with survival tales. Before he became a famous fiction writer, Marquez reported this story for a Bogotá newspaper: five Colombians get swept off their ship, four drown, and the last fellow swims to a life raft, then battles thirst and sun and sharks for ten days before washing up on a beach. Useful tidbits abound in this book, for instance: the blood from a turtle is better than Gatorade in a pinch (and the fluid from a turtle’s eyeball also works).  

4. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 

Kids, adults, who doesn’t love this story of Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, first published in 1908? It’s not as rafty as other books on the list (though there is a nice horse-drawn barge), but it deserves inclusion because of a certain famous sentence from the opening chapter: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” At the end of my Champlain voyage, hitchhiking south from the Canada line after parking the raft in a nice person’s yard with the promise that I’d return to get it soon, I snagged a ride from a guy who recommended a little magazine out of Massachusetts. The title? Messing About In Boats.

5. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. More sharks! Just too awesome! I listened to this one while driving from California to Arizona once, but I couldn’t turn it off when I finally arrived at my campsite after 12 hours, so I sat in the dark and kept listening. The first scene in this book features our protagonist—a WWII bomber who has been shot down over the Pacific—diving out of his life raft because a Japanese plane is firing at him. There’s a shark under the raft. He punches it in the snout. And with that—we’re off and running. 

6. The Happiest Man In The World by Alec Wilkinson. This book, written by a staff writer at The New Yorker, profiles Poppa Neutrino, a unique vagabond adventurer who crossed the Atlantic on a raft made entirely out of refuse (for which he was made a member of the elite Explorer’s Club in Manhattan). Says Neutrino: “When the big boats go down, they put you in the small boats, right? So why not start off in the small boat?” Oddly enough, as an old man Neutrino ended up in Burlington, Vt., and his last voyage saw him crashing in a squall on Thompson’s Point, literally a few hundred yards from the place where I grew up swimming. This occurred about three years after I made my voyage on Champlain, which is to say that my sole claim to fame in life is that I rafted a lake that even the audacious and accomplished Poppa Neutrino failed to navigate successfully.

7. Pop Goes The Weasel by James Patterson. Just kidding. Put that drivel down! Use it as a coaster for your Negroni or Tom Collins. Would be a shame to mar your raft’s deck with a watermark stain, don’t you agree? You do have a homemade raft, don’t you? You’re going to throw one together soon, right?

Leath Tonino is a native of the Champlain Basin and the author of two essay collections about the outdoors, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press). 

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