I am not an outdoorswoman, and my skills with an oar or a paddle are negligible. The last time I fished was with my dad when my family spent summer vacations in Wisconsin. I have never fired a gun, although I was good with a bow and arrow at one point. However, I loved this book. Peter Heller, who is an adventure writer, an outdoorsman, whitewater kayaker, fisherman, a recipient of an MFA in fiction and poetry, and much more, uses his background to good advantage. He has created a thrilling, poetic work with memorable main characters whose wilderness canoe trip is upended by a wildfire and men intent on killing them.
I was immediately hooked by the prologue:
“They had been smelling smoke for two days. At first they thought it was another campfire and that surprised them because they had not heard the engine of a plane and they had been traveling the string of long lakes for days and had not seen signs of another person or even the distant movement of another canoe. The only tracks in the mud of the portage were wolf and moose, otter, bear.”
“They” are two young men, close friends since Dartmouth, taking a backcountry canoe trip in late August on the Maskwa River from Moose Lake into Hudson Bay. (Heller later stated that he based the Maskwa River on the Winisk River, a 295-mile long river that flows from Wunnummin Lake to Hudson Bay in northern Ontario.) Jack and Wynn are the two friends, both experienced outdoorsmen, both with different strengths. Wynn is a large man with a large heart, convinced that people are mostly good. Jack, who lost his mother in a tragic accident at a young age, is more cynical.
“They looked northwest. At first they thought it was the sun, but it was far too late for any lingering sunset and there were no cities in that direction for a thousand miles. In the farthest distance, over the trees, was an orange glow. It lay on the horizon like the light from banked embers and it fluttered barely so they wondered if it was their eyes and they knew it was a fire…the silence of it and the way it seemed to breathe scared them to the bone…At the pace they were going they were at least two weeks from the Cree village of Wapak and Hudson Bay…there was no way to shorten the miles.”
Jack and Wynn encounter another canoe and two men camped on the verge of the wooded island, both drunk. The men brush off the warnings of fire and Jack and Wynn leave. On the third day, Jack and Wynn hear a man and a woman shouting and arguing. They continue on their way, discuss the pros and cons of whether to warn the couple about the fire, and finally turn back to the site only to find no one there.
Jack’s “Spidey sense” is working overtime, but they make camp.
“It was almost like the distant ringing of alarm bells somewhere deep at the base of (Jack’s) skull, which he could hear if he listened. But they didn’t have a sat phone and the couple was nowhere and they’d already made their decision to leave the lake and enter the river.”
The next day the two men begin paddling again when they see a canoe with one passenger, a man. Was he one of the persons they heard the day before? If so, where is the female?
What happens after that are the unintended consequences of the actions that Jack and Wynn take. The stakes couldn’t be higher: life and death, with a raging fire (there is a description of the animals trying to escape it by swimming across the river); the “Last Chance” Falls that face them; the injured woman they have taken with them; and three men after them, one trying to silence them and the others trying to take revenge on Jack and Wynn for stealing their motorboat.
The book’s lyrical prose, striking description of the natural world, and excellent character-building, using dialogue and brief flashbacks, make this a joy to read. I have read many books this past year, but I would place this among my top five.
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.