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Winners of the 2020 National Outdoor Book Award Announced

Need some new reading material? Shopping for holiday gifts? The 2020 National Outdoor Book Award winners were announced today and feature books on a variety of topics—eels, polar expeditions, kayaking, foraging, crack climbing, the greatest mountain trails, and more.

There are lots of great books in the press release below. If you've read any of them, please let us know what you think below or in a review.

We also want to hear about the best outdoor books you read in 2020.

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2020 NATIONAL OUTDOOR BOOK AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED

The elusive and mysterious eel is a winner in this year’s National Outdoor Book Awards.

The eel is the subject of the book which took top honors in the Natural History Literature category, one of ten highly competitive categories that make up the National Outdoor Book Awards.  

A total of fourteen books were chosen as winners in this year's contest which is now in its twenty-fourth year.  Sponsors of the program include the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Idaho State University and the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education.

 “The Book of the Eel” by Patrick Svensson pieces together humankind's long quest for knowledge about the creature, a quest that, interestingly enough, starts with Aristotle.  Parts are also played by Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, but the star of the show is Johannes Schmidt who spends much of his life searching the world's oceans to find where European and American eels are birthed.

What we learn from Svensson’s work is that the eel remains as mysterious as ever.  In fact, biologists still have not observed the eel’s most basic life function:  reproduction in the wild.    

“This is simply great writing,” said John Miles,  a judge for the contest and former dean and professor of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. “It is a marvelous book, done in a highly readable way, never descending into technicalities.”

Almost all of the books entered in the National Outdoor Book Awards are new books, published within the last year.  The Classic category, however, accepts older books, and recognizes works which have shown to be of lasting significance in the outdoor world.

This year’s winner of the Classic award is “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox.  Heacox is an Alaska based writer and the author of a dozen books.  The judges were unanimous in their assessment that “The Only Kayak” was among Heacox’s best works.  “This is simply an outstanding book,” said John Miles, “with powerful writing throughout.”

In the book, Kim Heacox writes of his years living and working in Glacier Bay.  It is about paddling trips with friends, intimate encounters with wildlife, his work as a ranger, and excursions with an engaging young woman who, as it happens, becomes his life partner.  “I was tremendously impressed with the book,” said Miles, “and believe it should be on the shelf of classics in the history of environmental writing.”

The winner of the History/Biography Category is “The World Beneath Their Feet”  by Scott Ellsworth.  Ellsworth covers mountaineering history from 1930 to 1953. 

“What separates this book from many other climbing histories is that Ellsworth approaches mountaineering from a cultural and political perspective,”  said Ron Watters, chair of the National Outdoor Book Awards.

“The British,” said Watters, “aware that the days of their great empire were numbered, sought to bolster national pride by attempting to climb the world's highest peaks.  At the same time, the newly empowered Nazis looked to the Himalayas as a proving ground for Aryan superiority.” 

And the Americans?   “They were a motley lot of Ivy League College buddies itching to be a player in this high stakes climbing game.”

The judges also chose a second winner in the History/Biography category: “Labyrinth of Ice” by Buddy Levy.

“Labyrinth of Ice” is about the Greely polar expedition which was forced to make a desperate escape from the frozen north.  “It is one of the most harrowing expeditions of polar history,” said Watters.  “Author Buddy Levy tells this epic tale with finesse and intelligence.”

The winner of the Outdoor Literature category is “Dragons in the Snow” by Edward Power.  Power reconstructs avalanche accidents, dissecting what went wrong, all the while bringing in the voices of men and women on the front lines of the avalanche safety profession.  

James Moss, a judge and outdoor industry attorney, calls it “an exceptionally well done book, one that holds your interest while at the same time, offering important, and possibly life saving, lessons on avalanche safety.”

The Design and Artistic Merit category honors outstanding photography and other forms of visual artwork.  This year’s winner is “Beauty and the Beast: California’s Wildflowers and Climate Change” by Rob Badger and Nita Winter.  Moss found lots to like about this colorful, large format work:  “This is a book of wonder,” he said, “and a celebratory feast for the eyes.” 

For more info on the National Outdoor Book Awards:  www.noba-web.org.

NOBA's REVIEWS OF THE 2020 NATIONAL OUTDOOR BOOK AWARD WINNERS

(Official NOBA reviews prepared by Ron Watters. Reviews are based on comments and insights provided by members of the judging panels.)

 

Natural History Literature. Winner

The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World

By Patrik Svensson.  Ecco / HarperCollins, New York.  ISBN 9780062968814

Patrik Svensson's Book of Eels is natural history writing at its finest.  It only takes a few pages, and Svensson draws you in, delivering a graceful and moving account of these elusive and mysterious creatures.  Ever so gradually, he pieces together humankind's quest for knowledge about eels, a quest that, interestingly enough, starts with Aristotle.  Parts are also played by Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson, but the star of the show is Johannes Schmidt who spends much of his life searching the world's oceans to find where European eels are birthed.  Part marine biology, part historical drama, and part personal narrative, The Book of Eels is an extraordinary achievement.

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History/Biography.  Winner

The World Beneath Their Feet: Mountaineering Madness and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas

By Scott Ellsworth.  Little, Brown and Company, New York.  ISBN 9780316434867

Scott Ellsworth combines solid research, and a touch of panache, in this work on mountaineering history from 1930 to 1953.  What separates this book from many other climbing histories is that Ellsworth approaches mountaineering from a cultural and political perspective.  The British, aware that the days of their great empire were numbered, sought to bolster national pride by attempting to climb the world's highest peaks.  So, too, are the newly empowered Nazis, but they also look to the Himalayas as a proving ground for the superiority of the Aryan master race.  And the Americans?  They were a motley lot of Harvard college buddies, itching to be a player in this high stakes game.  There's plenty to sink your teeth into, and plenty of new insights, in this absorbing and eminently readable book.

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History/Biography.  Winner

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

By Buddy Levy.  St. Martin’s Press, New York.  ISBN 9781250182197

The Greely Expedition is perhaps one of the most harrowing expeditions in polar history.  A. W. Greely, an American army lieutenant, set out to reach the farthest north yet achieved by any human.  He was successful in that effort, but it is the return journey for which the expedition is known.  A resupply ship is blocked by ice from reaching the party, and what follows is Greeley and his men's desperate attempt to escape from the frozen north.  Based on exhaustive research, this is an epic tale told with finesse and intelligence. 

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Outdoor Literature.  Winner

Dragons in the Snow:  Avalanche Detectives and the Race to Beat Death in the Mountains

By Edward Power.  Mountaineers Books, Seattle.  ISBN9781680512960

Imagine that you're on a backcountry snowboard outing.  The snow is epic:  deep, powdery and, oh, so luring.  Suddenly, there is an avalanche and you are caught in a moving mass of snow hurtling down a mountainside.  Told in a captivating, novelistic style, Edward Power's lead story in Dragons in the Snow places you at the scene of an accident.  It’s an accurate re-telling of the event, and he effectively uses it and others throughout the book to dissect what went wrong.  Adding even more to the appeal of the book, Power introduces us to the men and women on the front lines of the avalanche profession.  It's an exceptionally well done book, one that holds your interest while at the same time, offering important, and possibly life saving, lessons on avalanche safety. 

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Classic.  Winner

The Only Kayak:  A Journey Into the Heart of Alaska

By Kim Heacox.  Lyons Press, Guilford, CT.  ISBN 9781493049400

In this elegant and moving memoir, Kim Heacox writes of his years living and working in Glacier Bay.  It is about paddling trips with friends, intimate encounters with wildlife, his work as a ranger, and excursions with an engaging young woman who, as it happens, becomes his life partner.  Through it all, he wrestles with the questions that plague all conscientious outdoor users: the never ceasing encroachment of untrammeled spaces, our relationship with the wild, and our relationship with one another.  He often draws from thinkers, explorers, philosophers, and environmental writers of the past.  This is a thoughtful and penetrating work of outdoor literature that clearly ranks among Alaska's finest.

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Design and Artistic Merit.  Winner

Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change.

By Rob Badger and Nita Winter.  Winter Badger Press and California Native Plant Society, Sausalito and Sacramento, CA.  ISBN 9781733104401

The first part of this large format book is entitled "The gift of Beauty."  It's referring to wildflowers, of course, but it is also an apt characterization of the book itself.  It is truly a gift, a gift of artistic beauty that would grace anyone's home.  From wide view photographs of vast fields of color to intricate close-ups of individual flower species, it is a book of wonder and a celebratory feast for the eyes.  Complementing the photographic artistry are 18 essays which help deliver a message of what has been—and will be—lost in the natural world if global warming continues unchecked.

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Children's Category. Winner

Nature Play Workshop for Families: A Guide to 40+ Outdoor Learning Experiences in All Seasons

By Monica Wiedel-Lubinski and Karen Madigan.  Quarry Books, Beverly, MA.  ISBN 9781631598685

With years of experience in teaching children, Monica Wiedel-Lubinski and Karen Madigan couldn't have formed a better partnership for this book.  While children will enjoy the bright, colorful photos and graphics, it's primarily oriented to adults: parents, youth leaders and teachers.  Using an extraordinary practical approach, the co-authors provide innovative ways to entice children away from the indoors and into the outdoors.  Their secret?  Play.  Children love to play, and if you get them playing outdoors, they naturally enjoy being there.  Intended for children in the 8 to 12 year range, it's a joy to use and is packed full of ideas to combine play and learning in the outdoors. 

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Nature and the Environment.  Winner

Secrets of Snakes: The Science Behind the Myths

By David A. Steen.  Texas A&M University Press, College Station, TX.  ISBN 9781623497972

What is impressive about this excellent primer on snakes is its clever organization.  It is divided up into a series of statements and/or questions, each lending themselves to short chapters:  Does the head of a snake reveal danger?  Are baby snakes more dangerous than adults?  Can you tell the age of a rattlesnake by its tail?  With the reader's interest thus engaged, author David Steen uses the opportunity to correct falsehoods and misconceptions about snakes, and then very effectively follows up by imparting information about snake ecology and biology.  It is enlightening without being overly academic, perfect for anyone who wants to learn about the fascinating world of snakes.

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Nature and the Environment.  Winner

America's Great Mountain Trails:  100 Highcountry Hikes of a Lifetime

By Tim Palmer.  Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York.  ISBN 9780847865420.

You can always rely on Tim Palmer for keen observation and accurate descriptive writing.  In this new, large format book, he details 100 noteworthy trails in the United States, covering the mountainous areas of the East and West, along with Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.  It's two books rolled into one.  It's a guidebook, yes, with information and practical hints on hiking the trails, but it's also an art portfolio, exhibiting Palmer's outstanding outdoor photography. 

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Nature Guidebooks.  Winner

Foraging Southern California: 118 Nutritious, Tasty and Abundant Foods 

By Douglas Kent.  Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MN.  ISBN 9781591939153

Foraging Southern California is a terrific little guidebook on nature's edible goodies which easily slips into a pocket of your pack.  Foraging expert, Douglas Kent takes care of the important stuff first.  In the opening chapter, he pictures and describes the plants you want to stay away from:  those that are toxic or poisonous.  From there it is smooth sailing, setting the stage for a great day of foraging.   Each of the edibles include a large color photograph and descriptive information on habitat, leaves, flowers, harvest season and comparable species.

 

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Instructional.  Winner

Peak Nutrition: Smart Fuel for Outdoor Adventure

By Maria Hines and Mercedes Pollmeier.  Mountaineers Books, Seattle.  ISBN 9781680512052

"Wow" is the best way to summarize the judges' reaction to this exquisitely designed and illustrated book on outdoor nutrition.  What really notches up the wow factor is the great writing team of Mercedes Pollmeier and Maria Hines. Pollmeier is a nutrition expert and a certified strength and conditioning coach.  She trains athletes from around the world.  Hines is a climber and a chef.  Food & Wine magazine included her in their list of “Best New Chefs” and the New York Times has featured her organic restaurant.  Combining their diverse talents, they add a little pazazz to trail cooking, helping you create meals that are both delicious and nutritious.  Try one of the recipes in this book and you, too, will be saying wow.  The best thing?  You'll never ever have to resort to a tasteless freeze dried dinner again.

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Instructional.  Honorable Mention

Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide

By Pete Whittaker.  Illustrations by Alex Poyzer.  Mountaineers Books, Seattle.  ISBN 9781680512151.

If there's ever been a definitive guide devoted to one segment of climbing technique, this is exhibit number one.  Pete Whittaker is a world class crack climber and he leaves no stone unturned in this excellent instructional book.  What is crack climbing?  It is that aspect of the sport whereby you jam fingers, hands, or feet into cracks to move upward on a rock face.  Whittaker has organized the book by width of crack (finger, hand, offwidth, chimney).  Then, with excellent illustrations by Alex Poyzer, he describes a myriad of ways a climber can position fingers, hands, feet and body to tackle any crack that comes your way. 

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Outdoor Adventure Guides.  Winner

Fly Fishing Austin and Central Texas

By Aaron Reed.  Imbrifex Books, Las Vegas.  ISBN 9781945501241.

All you have to do is to read the introductory chapters to realize that Aaron Reed is the sort of guy who you wouldn't mind having as a fishing pal.  Fortunately, for most of us, his fly fishing guide allows you to do just that.  You can fish the same waters, grab a bite at a favorite eatery, and enjoy the same music.  Music?  Yessiree.  At the end of each chapter, Reed includes suggested music that you might enjoy on your fishing excursion.  This is Austin, Texas after all.  He covers more than 100 legal fishing accesses, most within 50 miles of Austin and others within a 90 mile radius.  Besides being a first rate writer, he's a darn good photographer, and his color photographs are the perfect supplement to this well designed and thoroughly useful guide.

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Outdoor Adventure Guides.  Winner

Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park: A Guide to the Park's Greatest Hiking Adventures

By Tracy Salcedo.  Falcon Guides, Guilford, CT.  ISBN 9781493044047

It's always a pleasure to come across a guidebook writer who really knows her stuff—and Tracy Salcedo is certainly that and more.  She has been hiking the trails of Lassen for over 20 years, and her many days on those trails plainly show as she accurately guides you on the 50 trails highlighted in the book.  Everything you need is there: nicely rendered maps, color photos, difficulty ratings, mileage charts, and helpful advice from one who knows.

The National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) is the outdoor world's largest and most prestigious book award program.  It is a non-profit, educational program, sponsored by the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and Idaho State University. For more info: http://www.noba-web.org

November 30, 2020
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