Funny thing about wilderness adventures: the best trips make the worst stories.
Back-country travel is mind-numbingly slow & tedious. Pack up, move, unpack. Day in and day out.
When you get back to civilization, everyone wants to hear about that time you almost drowned, the bear who ate all your food or how a huge storm blew your tent down a ravine in the middle of the night…
But if you’re lucky, none of that happened. On good trips, weather & wildlife cooperate so you slip into a comfortable rhythm with your body, with your surroundings — with the movement itself.
Transformative, sure, but terribly personal. Even individuals on the same trip tend to have a hard time sharing what it is, exactly, they get from 8 weeks of repeating the same tasks again & again as the scenery slowly changes.
East Falls author & expert wilderness paddler Jonathan Berger attempts to express the primal flow of swinging an axe, carrying a load, and slicing his canoe through sinuous currents in remote, untamed landscapes. He tells the story of “Uncle Nick” and three young companions who undertake a 1,200-mile Summer river expedition through the Canadian boondocks.
With the exception of some rain, cold, and a brief bout of homesickness, the four enjoy a smooth trip, and months later they gather to recollect how much fun they had.
That’s pretty much the whole book, except on top of the “Point A to Point B” plot, the narrator spins off little reveries: poems, songs, sketches. He tells about an author famous for canoeing the river they ride on. He describes a school of painting that distills primitive beauty to simple line & color…
Although the work is fiction, Berger references actual people & events which is nice, but my biggest take-away was a surprisingly heart-breaking moment of clarity mid-way through the book:
“As much as I wanted it to, canoe travel cannot heal a broken heart, or save a fractured marriage.”
From here, in words and between the lines, the narrator quite perfectly encapsulates Love’s truth and madness when his wife files for divorce, “How can this be? We did the Great Whale River together!”
And so the narrator attacks heartache, loss and adversity with constant forward motion. There’s not a whole lot about what he and his niece, nephew & nephew’s friend ate or how they managed practically — it’s not a camping or canoe guide. Nor is it a map or atlas (for that, see Berger’s definitive tome published by Boston Mills Press, now in its second printing).
It’s not particularly gripping and while I love his sketches there aren’t a whole lot of ’em, and even fewer pictures. I read plenty, and really kinda had this book pegged as “fluff” that’d evaporate from my brain the moment I put it down. Oh but this book is sneaky…
Weeks later, I’m still thinking about the Great Whale River. Not the one described in Back Blaze (which I’ve never seen), but my own “Great Whale River” of sorts. How crossing a gauntlet as a couple so solidly means something… until it doesn’t.
So that’s sticking with me, and I like when books internalize, especially off the cuff like this.
Ha! For now, we’ll stick with our favorite local paddle on the Brandywine (all downstream!). No doubt Back Blaze’s rhythm & flow will come back to me, next time I’m out on the water. For a light read, it’s surprisingly inspiring. Makes me wonder what kind of story Berger would’ve written if a bear HAD run rampant thru his campsite…
ORDER JONATHAN BERGER’S AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL “Back Blaze — Memory of a Canoe Trip” from Amazon.com — also thru EastFallsLocal.com with free local delivery. Or pick up a copy from the East Falls Development Corporation office 3728 Midvale Ave, East Falls, Philadelphia. Open weekdays 9 to 5ish — ya probably wanna text first: 215-498-8874
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Berger began paddling with his mother in the Wissahickon when he was six years old, and from the age of 12 he’d spend every Summer camping and canoeing. He’s taken friends, kids, family with him on his back-country tours, and even co-authored an atlas of remote, historic North American canoe routes comprising about 1/10th of Canada.