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KAYAKThe Work of William Nealy by Tom Holtey
The late white water expert & cartoonist continues to inspire & educate new generations of paddlers through his books.

The illustrated books by William Nealy are part instruction, part comic book and part satire. Although these classics are gradually moving out-of-print, copies can be readily found on the Internet and are well worth pursuing. William introduced and educated, and still does, many white water paddlers to the techniques of river running and the dynamics of a rapid river like no one else in the history of the sport.

William Nealy, photo: Kayaks To HellKAYAK - The Animated Manual of Intermediate and Advanced Whitewater Technique has been his most popular book, with more than 250,000 copies sold and translated into 5 languages, perhaps the most popular whitewater book ever. William, not Bill - he preferred William - depicts the art of river running in an almost "graphic novel" sort of way. While preparing this article I was happy to discover KAYAK to be undergoing a process of updating by a contemporary white water expert and its current publisher, Menasha Ridge Press.

Paddle Fu - From: KAYAKNealy taught white water paddling technique in a "classic" style, dating him to the earlier days of the sport with images of classic kayaks, long and slender by today's standards. He got his start boating in the 1970s when kayaks were fiberglass and clubs would share a mold and each member would build his own boat from scratch. William sardonically referred the advent of plastic kayaks as the "Tupperware Holocaust".

Indeed Nealy's cartoons seem to move and flow in the mind's eye. Not only does his artwork mimic a motion picture, but a small series of pictures in the right hand corner of the pages illustrates the Eskimo as a "flip book".

Hydrotopography from KAYAKIn KAYAK you will find sections titled: Paddle Fu The not-so-ancient art of Ninja kayaking (paddling technique), Hydrotopography The art of using watery features to your maximum advantage (river reading), Air Traffic Control (hand signals), Swimming Self Rescue or swimming lessons for those who NEVER go swimming, Self Rescue or the Zen art of Eskimo rolling, River Rescue, The Joy of Flood or big water technique if you subtract the trees and debris, plus kayak and rapid anatomies, an appendix and glossary.

River Guides from Kayak To HellNot only is KAYAK instructional it is funny. The characters peopling William's book show all the confidence, fear, coolness and macabre terror that one would expect to find among adrenaline junkies. While some of the satire and humor may be a tad dated, appealing to an older generation, a young person steeped in American culture will certainly find more than enough to laugh out load at.

KAYAK was not Nealy's first book. The White Water Home Companion preceded it but some pages can be found in KAYAK. What actually led to his publishing efforts were William's artful efforts drawing river maps. Nealy worked in NC at the River Runner's Paddle Shop.

From: Whitewater Tales of TerrorPrior to moving North he worked in an Alabama paddling shop, burned down by the Klu Klux Klan. Customers would ask about local rivers and Nealy would draw them a map. So many asked, that he finally had maps printed and put up for sale. Thus started a small publishing company, Class Seven River Maps, documenting quite a few rivers of the southeast; many of which are still in print.

Just For Fun

From: Whitewater Tales of TerrorNot all of William's work is informative in nature. Two of my favorites are Whitewater Tales of Terror and Kayaks To Hell, very packable books, great for reading in camp. Whitewater Tales of Terror, subtitled "Don't Get Off the Interstate", is full of "true" river stories and lots of short comics like the Whitewater Drive-Thru, a spoof on mail order catalogs and longer stories such as Glacieryaking on the World's Mightiest Frozen River. My favorite story is One Day at the Paddle Shop and the strips: Extra Long Boat Racks and Grab Loop Modifications You Can Do (to prevent terrified swimmers from capsizing your kayak).

From: Kayaks To HellIn Kayaks To Hell you will find much of same satire and dark humor. There are funny kayak trip stories, shorts and satires, like the one about a Carl Sagan documentary. Short comic strips include Punk Yakers, How to pick up a river person, Uses for duct tape and River signals. One of my favorites is Recipes for River Trips, including Crepes of Wrath and Aspirin Hors D'Oeuvres.

William Nealy wrote not only to the kayaker but also to many other adrenaline sports fanatics. Few of us delve into only one mode of fun, but often like to pursue other similar sports to freshen the thrill and explore new ground and so while many of his books are about kayaking he also wrote books about skiing, skating and mountain biking. Even more books were published by the talented cartoonist that satirize the sub culture of adrenaline junkies.

From: KAYAKNealy collaborated with others as well. His instruction style is able to illustrate in very simple terms the complicated and sometimes overwhelming concepts of the white water environment and its paddling techniques. So strong was this ability that he was brought in to illustrate The Squirt Book, Appalachian Whitewater and Squirt Boating and Beyond, how to rip in anything that squirts.

I met William at the Outdoor Retailers Show in Salt Lake City. He was signing books at a booth and I was one of the many waiting in a group of outdoor enthusiasts, tickled pink to receive a copy. I loved his work and felt an affinity to him, as he portrayed the quintessential kayaker and gear head. I could relate to that, his off-beat humor, the understanding of "how things work" his ability to poke fun at the industry I worked in.

signatureFrom: KAYAK"He was stunned at this reception," says Holly, his wife. "But the minute we left Salt Lake City, he was not aware. He lost the knowledge of how many people liked him."

I was a fan, still am. Knowing William Nealy, as a person, was never in the picture for me. I took if for granted that he was an icon, and avatar of paddle sports. His tragic death, some time ago, by his own hand, shows that all of us are real people, with an inner light and darkness, no matter what public persona we may have, or how high on a pedestal we may seem. It is true, I suppose, that the light that burns brightest burns shortest.

KAYAK The New FrontierWilliam Nealy is not just a "blast from the past" proven by the delicate effort gone into producing the updated version of his book KAYAK, entitled: KAYAK The New Frontier. It is an all-new completely updated manual of modern white water technique, representing the equipment and moves used by today's boaters. Release date mid May 2007.

You need not be a dedicated white water paddler, or adrenaline junkie, to enjoy Nealy's works. Anyone with a sense of adventure and willing to embrace his quirky satire and gallows humor will enjoy each book regardless of the sport. Many of William's maps and early works are considered prized collectors items, still informative and accurate.

So join in the fun. You might bust a gut laughing with William, but hopefully you will learn something too and not dislocate your shoulder.


Books by William Nealy:

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:

Links to purchase new or used through Amazon.com:

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