By Susan Munroe
I am surrounded by books: eddied out among wobbly stacks of geology texts, river history, Edward Abbey, naturalist guides, bird books, water politics, meditative writings, John Wesley Powell, and the collected writings of the incomparable Dee Holladay. Most river guides spend their off-season skiing or traveling. I’m hanging out in the Holiday office, working on a Master’s degree in River Studies at the University of Dee.
“Meaningful interpretation” (or “a teaching technique that combines factual with stimulating explanatory information,” according to Merriam Webster), is one of the cornerstones of Holiday’s mission statement. Founder Dee Holladay’s passion for education grew at an exponential rate as he and his wife Sue worked to build their rafting company, and over the years, this self-taught river rat built an interp program and library system designed to give guides a thorough education and guests more than just a river trip. Dee’s tireless research and writing resulted in a series of interp handbooks—one on geology; one on plants, animals, and ecology; one on history (with the help of many past Holiday guides); and another that ties together the relevant material for each of the trips that we run. Dee’s favorite quotes as well as anecdotes from former guides round out the densely packed pages.
The system is sprawling and comprehensive, but without Dee, it lacks a certain cohesion. The geology handbook, for example, reads more like a collection of notes than an actual text. It was time for an update, a reimagining, and as a river guide with an underutilized degree in English and a similar affinity for books, learning, and teaching, I volunteered for the project. Selecting new books to add to our collection and printing out relevant articles is the easy part. Rewriting Dee’s handbooks to make them stand on their own is the challenging part. How to find the words to replace the irreplaceable, to fill in the notes and esoteric diagrams with the details and big picture story-telling that would have been spoken—taught—by Dee. And so, here I sit, with my stack of books and fourteen tabs open on my laptop and Dee’s decades of research, working to complete Dee’s interp legacy and ensure that it continues to be a useful program for teaching guides and guests about the incredible world of our rivers.
I contacted John Weisheit, the conservation director for the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Colorado Riverkeeper, to ask for book recommendations to include in our on-river libraries. John, like Dee, is a passionate and incredibly knowledgeable advocate for river education. He told me that he no longer brings a library on his river trips. He wrote, “I brought my library faithfully until maybe five years ago. I put it in the middle of camp and made an announcement. People would peruse through it and then get distracted and do something else. Or, they brought a book along and are reading it instead. It is, after all, a vacation.” And then, “What [guests] really want more than a book is a teacher.” Dee was that teacher. His excitement made it impossible for guides and guests to remain unmoved.
Honing and updating Holiday’s interpretive material is a big task, but it’s only one part of the process of keeping Dee’s educational legacy alive as we move forward as a company. It’s going to take more river guides with a willingness to read, with a genuine curiosity about the environment in which we work. And it’s going to take our guests, too, asking questions, joining in campfire discussions. There is so much to learn—and how lucky, for if we already knew everything, how boring would life be?
Written by Susan Munroe