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Broke, Hungry and Happy: The Life of Dangerous Dave Norell


Book reviews are supposed to be unbiased, written by critics who ruthlessly deconstruct an author's prized work. But I'm not unbiased. And I'm far from a critic. I'm a character in the play, my role in the narrative being messenger.

When Rae Ann Norell sent me a copy of Broke, Hungry and Happy, the book she authored in tribute to her son Dave, a world-class kayaker who died during an adventure race on Bogus Basin Road in 2004, I found myself agonizing over the last few chapters. That's where she describes the scene when I met her and Dave's dad, Mike, at Mike's house to tell them how her son had died (after informing her over the phone).

I organized this infamous race that included a paddle down the Boise River, a bike ride up to our town mountain and then a cross-country ski race. I remember giving Dave a ride to the start at Barber Park. He didn't just want to do the race. Like everything he did in life, he wanted to win.

But the 12-mile climb would prove too much for his weakened heart, one that had troubled him since his youth. He died of a massive heart attack on the bike ride up the hill. When reading the scene, I remember exactly how Rae Ann looked when I told her and Mike how it had happened, her frantic, utter disbelief, his long blank gaze, as if I'd slugged him in the stomach, forcing every bit of air out of his lungs. I know reading it left me breathless. Yes, I am not unbiased.

And now, as a parent, I understood how emotionally vulnerable you are with children out there in the world, doing what they love. How, in an instant, everything can change.

Dave certainly loved life. It jumps from the chapters Rae Ann re-printed from his journal writings or previously published work. (Dave penned several solid adventure and technique pieces for paddling magazines to fill out his income during his kayaking career.) She disguises her voice in his to complete the story but the meat of his emotions are there: his triumphs, his disappointments, his insecurities. Producing kayaking videos, his fantastic descent of the North Stein in the British Columbia wilderness, the urban kayaking he did during winters to pass the time (he and friend Drew West would rail slide their kayaks down city stairs and on to public walkways).

I was there for some good moments with Dave. And some not-so-good. I knew him better than his mother admittedly realized. I saw him absolutely stomp some incredible whitewater (that 40-footer on Hard Creek north of Brundage) and take some unbelievable beatdowns (Jacob's Ladder, North Fork Payette, 4,000 cfs). But mostly, I witnessed in Dave's life a noble story arc, one built on self-improvement, a hunger to be better, fighting through difficult times, finding humility. Things I want my children to work at. Things I try to work at every day.

In Broke, Hungry and Happy, Rae Ann works to capture her son's emotions and leave a gift to enhance his legacy. It was a monumental undertaking, and in my biased opinion, done well. I only hope I'd have the strength to do the same if it were my child.