C&K’s Guide to Fall Reading

Two new books for armchair adventures

Anyone who dreams of making an idyllic living as a wilderness guide should first read Hap Wilson's new book, River of Fire (Latitude 46 Press, $20). The book chronicles Wilson's experience guiding a magazine writer and photographer on canoe trip on northern Manitoba's wild Seal River in July 1994. The tumultuous expedition was marked by the stress of paddling powerful, unknown whitewater rapids and the harsh Hudson Bay coast; a raging wildfire that engulfed the river's shores; and the erratic behavior of Wilson's assistant guide, whose final attempt at mutiny is quashed by Wilson's Mossberg shotgun. Over 20 years later, 66-year-old Wilson says the expedition left him shell-shocked with post-traumatic stress disorder. Drawing on his trip journal, photographs and memories to write River of Fire was his means of therapy.

River of Fire chronicles author and canoe guide Hap Wilson’s adventure on Manitoba’s Seal River

River of Fire moves along with the steady, unbridled flow of a northern river. Wilson provides compelling insight into the challenges of guiding. "A guide's reputation then, has to encapsulate a multitude of vocations, from chef, doctor/surgeon, entertainer, teacher, philosopher, musician and raconteur, to arbitrator and psychologist," he writes. As the group prepares to set off from the remote First Nations village of Tadoule, Manitoba, Wilson reveals his deep respect for Indigenous knowledge. He also provides readers with detailed insight into his own strategies for organizing and executing a challenging expedition. Before the days of cheap satellite communication devices and GPS units, Wilson relied on skill and wits. In this regard, it's interesting to contrast how high-tech equipment has changed wilderness canoe tripping.

The narrative is mostly rollicking, but River of Fire suffers from numerous typographical errors—perhaps the fault of its upstart Ontario publisher, Latitude 46. Additionally, Wilson's digressions can seem long-winded and repetitious—especially as he rants about the character flaws of his assistant. An editor might've addressed these pitfalls.

However, for those looking for an entertaining mix of adventure and opinion, River of Fire is a good read. What's more, paddlers planning their own Seal River journey will benefit from Wilson's tales of navigating the river—especially in concert with the exceptional detail of his 2004 Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba guidebook, which should be considered an essential companion volume for trippers.

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Since 1980, Minnesota non-profit publisher Milkweed Editions has earned a reputation for producing exceptional books that explore the power of place. A Year in the Wilderness (Milkweed Editions, $35) is outdoor adventurers Dave and Amy Freeman's inaugural publication, and the C&K contributors found a good home with Milkweed. This gorgeous hardcover blends photos with text in documenting the Freemans' experiences while living in northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for an entire year, starting in September 2015.

The Freemans spent a year living in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in support of a campaign to protect the wilderness from mining.

Traveling by canoe, ski and toboggan with a full complement of high-tech communications gear, the Freemans set forth to share the natural wonders of the Boundary Waters in all seasons with a broad online audience. Their effort was part of well-organized campaign to highlight the risk of a proposed copper mine near Ely, Minn., which—if developed—would threaten the region's watershed with contamination. "We must speak loudly for these quiet places," is a familiar Freeman refrain.

Anything written about Minnesota's North Woods will draw comparisons to the late Sigurd Olson, the canoeist and early conservationist whose landmark The Singing Wilderness set the wheels in motion for the 1964 Wilderness Act. To be sure, Olson is a tough act to follow. The Freemans' cannot match his eloquent prose but their words are complemented by an outstanding selection of photographs that immerse the reader in the watery landscape, making an indelible impact.

Like Olson's collection of essays, the Freemans' narrative is arranged according to the seasons. While the text often reads like a simple day-to-day journal, moments describing their growing affinity for the wonders of natural world stand out. "Maybe it's best that the camera can't capture the cool moist air soothing trail-worn muscles or the sounds of swans skimming the treetops and disappearing into the fog," the Freemans write. "Moments like these fuel our souls and bring in to focus the intangible values of the wilderness.

"This is the real world—wild, free and untrammelled. We don't find it on our phones, computer screens, televisions, or radios, no matter how many times we surf the web or change the channel. We have to put all that noise away and make pilgrimages to wild places; we have to slow down, unplug, and just be."

These moving passages, interspersed like gems throughout the text, hit the mark. Could there be a better call to action?

More on CanoeKayak.com:

— C&K’s top 10 paddling adventure books

— Our 2014 reading list

— More good reads for autumn