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47 years apart, a mother and daughter’s Arctic memoirs complete each other

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: January 29, 2018
  • Published January 27, 2018

Down the Wild River North

By Constance Helmericks. Epicenter Press, 2017. (Originally published by Little, Brown and Company, 1969.) 313 pages. $18.95 paperback.

Trusting the River

By Jean Aspen. Epicenter Press, 2016. 418 pages. $24.95 paperback.

These two memoirs, together or apart, are songs to the value of wilderness, the attachments of family and the power of adventurous living. Connie Helmericks and her husband, Bud, were well-known adventurers (and self-promoters) who lived in the Arctic in the 1940s; Connie wrote a number of books based on their time there. Jean Aspen, Connie and Bud's daughter, born in 1950, spent the first three years of her life with them in a cabin on the Alatna River — some might say as a prop to their photogenic life, which was captured on film and in the pages of Life magazine.

The Helmerickses soon divorced, and Connie raised her two daughters in Tucson, Arizona. With a book advance when the girls were 12 and 14 years old, she took them north for a two-summer canoe trip of more than 2,500 miles through Canadian wilderness — down the Peace River, the Slave River and the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.

"Down the Wild River North" is the account of that journey, undertaken in a 20-foot freight canoe with a 9.5-horsepower motor. First published in 1969 and long out of print, it has now been given a new life by Epicenter Press, which plans to reprint five more of Helmericks' books in the next two years. It well deserves the readership of a new generation. It is a fascinating account of an unlikely and often dangerous journey undertaken by a restless romantic who sometimes exhibited questionable judgment; indeed, it seems that the girls were often the ones to take charge and prevent disaster. The little group also enjoyed some serendipitous good luck and the kindnesses of strangers along the way.

“Down the Wild River North” and “Trusting the River” (Epicenter Books)

The 14-year-old on that trip, Jean, not only survived and seemingly flourished on the adventure but grew up to embrace Arctic adventures of her own — and to become an accomplished writer. "Trusting the River" follows "Arctic Daughter: A Wilderness Journey" and "Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream." She and her husband have also made two independent films and are working on a third.

"Trusting the River" began as a series of letters to the author's son, Lucas, and evolved into a lengthy but utterly compelling narrative of an aging (but not old) woman thinking through her life's adventures, her relationships with family and friends and how to plan for a meaningful future. It is, perhaps above all, a work of philosophy — not in a simplistic, self-help form but as a companionable conversation with a remarkable, inquisitive mind.

Much of the book involves Aspen's work as a traveling nurse from 2004 to 2008, during which she and her husband searched the States for the perfect place to eventually settle in winters. ("I think life washed us up in exactly the right eddy," the author says to her husband in the chapter called "Homer Bound," when they discover their ideal winter habitat.) Their "real" and spiritual home always lay in Alaska's Arctic, where they spent summers at a cabin on a river, not well identified in the book (presumably to respect its privacy). The narrative thus travels back and forth between nursing locations (with some fascinating accounts of work as an obstetrical nurse) and contemplative life in the Arctic, with occasional forays into the past.

One such backward look speaks to the river trip with her mother and sister in 1964 and 1965. In a single page, she recounts the crossing of the Great Slave Lake on a tugboat that first autumn, after she and her mother were saved from an ill-advised open water crossing. (Her sister, after an appendicitis attack and then a botched appendectomy that nearly killed her, had been sent ahead to Yellowknife, where she lived with strangers above a bar while she recovered.)

Aspen then reflects on an event the following summer, when the three of them resumed the journey to cross the same lake, "fourteen miles of open water with a high following sea." "The lake almost claimed us," Aspen says simply, proceeding to wonder about "life's mysterious unfolding," the process of living, and how to make the life each of us is given matter.

The details of that crossing are dramatically told in her mother's book. In a gale, waves broke over the boat, got below the cover and were filling it. "Jean, in the stern, had it by far the worst. That was why she was there. . . Our lives were in the hands of this half-drowned, half-seal fifteen-year-old girl." Once they reached shore and dried out, Helmericks rhapsodizes, "Excited by the dangers we had escaped, happy as larks, we had never been so much alive in our whole lives. . . . Only a few times before had I known such tremendous happiness. Each of the girls felt it too. Perhaps it was a happiness reserved for those explorers who land for the first time upon a new shore. To have known it even once in a lifetime puts you in touch with something nearly divine."

If Helmericks was the reckless mother committed to wild nature for building character and finding spiritual fulfillment, her daughter tempers that same love of nature with pragmatism. Aspen writes about her mother, "Wilderness remained her true love. The rest of us … were all secondary. This passion for the untamed natural world was her biggest gift she left me, though it took me years to forgive her."

Trust the river, Aspen advises, although she didn't always find it easy to do that. There will be surprises around every bend.

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