The River Behind "The River" - by Peter Heller

Chris Schluep on March 25, 2019

River_PH_2.jpgI am a big fan of Peter Heller's new novel The River. It's a story about two friends who go on a canoe trip up in northern Canada, a trip that very quickly turns dicey before turning altogether dangerous. When I wrote the Amazon review, I said: "This is a thriller, an adventure novel, and a meditation on friendship, the outdoors, and something altogether deeper. As I read, I felt like I had been waiting for this book without knowing it, and I fully expect The River to persist as one of my favorite reads of 2019."

So far, so good. I still find myself thinking about this book often--so I asked Peter Heller to write something about the origin of the novel:

The River Behind The River by Peter Heller

I begin my novels with the music of the first line and let the cadence carry me into the story. I mostly don’t have a clue where it will take me, but usually, within a few paragraphs, I find myself in a place that I know and love. The River was no different, though the first lines frightened me.

A few years ago I got a magazine assignment to paddle a river called the Winisk in northern Ontario. It spills out of a string of lakes and flows north about two hundred and fifty miles to Hudson Bay. The idea was to fly into the most northerly lake in an Otter float plane and run the river for a few weeks in an open canoe.

You can’t get more remote. No roads, no settlements, nothing but the big black timber of the Canadian Shield. And the roar of rapids cascading over granite ledges, wide coves patrolled by eagles, the desolate cries of the loons. Moose, wolves, caribou. Lower down, the river drops off into the more open woods and spongy ground of the taiga, and cuts across the mudflats into the sea below the Cree village of Peawanuck, where people and polar bears have to get along.

When I got the call, I’d been on a couple of dates with a young woman named Kim. She was a badass. On the third date she dropped off her gym bag at my house before we went out to dinner. “Heavy,” I said. “What’s in it?”

“Weaponry.” She unzipped it. Inside were throwing stars, two short swords, chopsticks filed to points.

“Do you eat with those?”

“I wear them in my hair.” I fell in love right then. That night I asked her to come with me on the river. She said she hadn’t camped much, but I figured a trained Ninja could handle whatever came up.

As we were packing our personal gear in small waterproof blue barrels, going over every item, she asked me if she should bring her eyebrow tweezers. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I was taken aback and said, “No!” Reflex. How much does an eyebrow tweezer weigh? I could have been more gracious.

It was mid-August when we set out, and it sheeted rain and the fog rolled on the river at dawn and then cleared. The sky was often lens clear and broken by ragged skeins of geese. The pink fireweed popped along the shore, the birches yellowed. There were shallow bays with stony beaches backed by fringes of tall tawny grass; rocky coves with deadfall spruce lying across black boulders and bleached like bones, and low patches of vegetation between the rocks on the shore that we knew were lowbush blueberries.

We pulled over under running clouds. As the sunlight swept the bank it warmed the groundcover and loosed the scent of the fruit and the tang of Labrador tea. We used t-shirts as buckets and picked the berries by the pound. We cooked on driftwood fires, and at night, what looked like faint clouds breathing against the stars would brighten and spread into vast curtains and cascades of light. The currents and swirls of the aurora borealis.

Kim was a champ in the rapids and portages. We had to hit some landings above ferocious falls and she never got scared. One early morning we came around a tight bend and nearly ran into a bull moose the size of a pickup. He was belly-deep in current, and he studied us for so long and looked so perplexed we knew he had never seen a human. And I learned that Kim could speak loon. A lone male would lift his head and loose a cry that hollowed out the evening with longing and she would answer back. And they would have a conversation.

Also, she loved fossils: the beaches were broken limestone bedded with ancient sea life. She began to fill the boat up with rocks. The canoe got lower in the water and we were losing our freeboard. One morning I went to load the boat and there was a twelve-pound chunk of shale with a tiny clamshell in the corner of it. I held it up and said, “Hey, Kim, do you think, maybe--?” She looked at me with level eyes and said, “Don’t minimize me.” I remembered the tweezers; also the chopsticks and short swords. I put the rock under the center thwart.

This was how we learned that the other was someone to ride the river with. We moved in together a few months later and got married a few years after that.

I know that the bends and current of that river have etched themselves in my heart. When I sat down to write The River, the Winisk was where I wanted to go. I wanted to be under that sky, with the fireweed brilliant on the banks, and the tamarack yellowing, and the smoke from a breakfast fire drifting over the water. I renamed it the Maskwa because the opening paragraphs scared me to the bone, and I wanted to remind myself that this time the journey was pure fiction.

-- Peter Heller

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