“Upstream: Alaska in the Wilderness”
by Eric Wade; Shanti Arts Publications, 2022; 156 pages; $17.95
“Don’t get old,” my late mother-in-law was fond of saying. She was not one to riot over her growing physical ailments, and she knew for certain that there was only one option. But it was her default advice when I asked her how she was doing.
I suspect Wasilla writer Eric Wade will offer similar views after reading his latest offering, “Upstream: Alaska in the Wilderness.” This is the second memoir he wrote about his remote cabin on an unnamed river in the interior of Alaska, accessible only by boat. And this time, in his 60s, he is feeling his age. As is his wife. And when forgotten, both keep reminding each other.
“From the cabin, the only fast transport is a helicopter, and getting a helicopter is not easy,” writes Wade. “Bottom line, and we both know this all too well, if we get seriously hurt, we’re in serious trouble. So we try to be discreet: don’t get burned, don’t cut, don’t slip, don’t get in the water. Don’t fall. We keep repeating ‘be careful’.”
“Upstream” is a direct description of what it’s like to successfully fulfill a lifelong dream, and what it feels like to know that the dream won’t last long. Wade is a retired teacher and school principal who got his land in the 1980s and built the cabin of his dreams. It’s an escape that he and his wife Doyleen spend two months on each year. May, when Alaska is waking up to the promise of summer, and September, when winter is imminent and death and decay are in the air. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that much of this book is circulated in the same second month.
Wade’s dream of the woods is no ideal, nor should it have been. Building and maintaining a cabin in Alaska, off road system and off supplies, is mostly a lot of hard work. And their dwindling cooperative isn’t making it any easier. A recurring theme in this narrative is their need to build a shed for the couple’s growing items because they can’t walk to Walmart when needed. Still, building a shed is a good job in itself. And so Wade keeps delaying.
However, he is fast about removing a tree on the verge of collapse. The dead spruce is threatening to fall on the cabin and must be dropped. In the same paragraph, Wade describes how difficult that job can be at times, as he deploys a chainsaw, wedges, and a maul, only to be repeatedly interrupted in his efforts. He’s trying to guide Rona for a safe landing, and he manages to build the tension well into the storytelling.
The tension returns when he wanders into the woods in the fall, looking for a moose, and finds himself in the dark. Not too far from his cabin, but removed enough to be concerned. Nevertheless, he has the presence of mind to contemplate the natural world, and this is a world where cruelty has always existed as beauty.
Both of these elements can be found in the owl, to which Wade devoted a chapter. Terrible and majestic, they, too, are one of the most efficient killing machines bestowed by nature. They pounce on their prey silently, flying with grace and determination. And then they kill mercilessly. They have also been known to attack humans. They are not a creature we usually worry about when in the wild, and in fact, we shouldn’t. But we should know about them. After all they know about us.
Of course, bears are watching too. Usually it is evidence of their passing that is enough to prompt the couple to exercise caution, but sometimes it is the bear itself. Only then does one realize what it really is to live in the present.
Far more common are insects, Wade’s Charm. Where a bear that’s capable of killing a person would mostly get away with humans, insects that we can smash into oblivion turn us from hand slaps to a game of self-flagellation in the wild. “Ah, the mosquito, besides the weather, the most powerful force in the boreal forest,” Wade writes in the first volume. “By the end of May, they buzz and attack like they don’t like you much.”
[Book review: A memoir brings to life Southeast Alaska’s island wilderness, tested by one restless heart]
Sometimes Wade’s writing reminds me of her disturbing descriptions of Annie Dillard’s nature. In the passage about the owls he writes, “What an easy meal the spruce grouse must be for the owl. Notes in his anger, “Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs don’t take me home. The Boreal Forest has no end.” While boating uphill in a rainstorm, “at noon the sky merged into the river; the horizon disappeared, and we ran to the edge of a flat world.” Camped on the bank of the river, “We built a pyre out of wet wood.”
In this way writing continues to flow in the book. Straight, yet lyrical. They are crazy about nature, but do not have faith. Wade’s decades of experience in the country, as well as his transcendent demise, have evoked a pragmatic realism. It’s hard to have reverence for nature when nature is making its way onto your body, telling you every step of the way that you can’t win this battle in the end, you can only achieve an occasionally inconclusive ceasefire.
“Upstream” is an inconclusive book, just as life itself is forever indecisive, even as we age. Eventually the shed starts. The bear is kept at a safe distance. Apparently, since he wrote about it, Wade found a way out of the woods. “We left with our coffee and little pile of fig bars and morning medicine,” writes Wade. Thanks for another day. No matter how hard it is.