“Upstream: In the Alaska Wilderness”
By Eric Wade; Shanti Arts Publishing, 2022; 156 pages; $17.95
“Don’t get old,” my late mother-in-law was fond of saying. She wasn’t one to make a fuss over her accumulating physical ailments, and she certainly knew that there was only one other option. But it was her default advice when I’d ask her how she was doing.
I suspect Wasilla author Eric Wade would offer similar thoughts after reading his latest offering, “Upstream: In the Alaska Wilderness.” It’s the second memoir he’s written about his remote cabin on an unnamed river somewhere in Alaska’s Interior, accessible only by boat. And this time, well into his 60s, he’s feeling his age. As is his wife. And in case either forgets, they keep reminding each other.
“From the cabin, the only fast transportation is a helicopter, and it’s not easy to get a helicopter,” Wade writes. “Bottom line, and we both know this well, if we get seriously hurt, we are in serious trouble. So we try to be thoughtful: don’t get burned, don’t get cut, don’t slip, don’t fall in the water. We repeat ‘be careful’ constantly.”
“Upstream” is a firsthand account of what it’s like to have successfully pursued a lifelong dream, and how it feels to know that dream won’t last much longer. Wade is a retired teacher and school principal who obtained his land in the 1980s and built his dream cabin. It’s an escape that he and his wife Doylanne spend two months in every 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’s no accident, I suspect, that most of this book transpires in that second month.
Wade’s wilderness dream is no idyll, nor was it meant to be. Building and maintaining a cabin in Alaska, far from the road system and far from supplies, is mostly a lot of hard work. And his decreasingly cooperative body isn’t making it easier. A recurring theme in this narrative is his need to build a shed for the couple’s increasing array of items they keep on hand because they can’t just run to Walmart if need arises. Yet building a shed is a fair bit of work in itself. And so Wade keeps delaying.
He’s quicker about removing a tree on the brink of collapse, however. The dead spruce is threatening to tumble on the cabin and must be felled. In a single paragraph, Wade conveys just how difficult that job can sometimes be, as he deploys a chainsaw, wedges, and a maul, only to be repeatedly stymied in his efforts. He’s trying to direct the snag to a safe landing, and he manages to build the tension nicely in telling the tale.
Tension returns when he wanders off into the woods in fall, looking for a moose, and finds himself in the dark. Not so very far from his cabin, but sufficiently removed to be worried. Still, he has the presence of mind to consider the natural world as he claws through it, and it’s a world where cruelty is as ever-present as beauty.
Both of these elements can be found in owls, which Wade devotes a chapter to. Eerie and majestic, they are also, he notes, among the most efficient killing machines that nature has provided. They sweep down in silence on their prey, flying with grace and determination. And then they kill with brutality. They’ve even been known to attack humans. They aren’t a creature we generally worry about when out in the woods, and really, we shouldn’t. But we should be aware of them. After all, they’re aware of us.
Bears, of course, are also watching. Usually it’s the evidence of their passing that’s enough to prompt the couple to caution, but sometimes it’s the bear itself. That’s when one discovers what living in the moment truly entails.
Far more common are the insects, a fascination of Wade’s. Where a bear that is capable of killing a person will mostly steer clear of humans, bugs that we can smash into oblivion swarm us, turning a wilderness jaunt into a game of self-flagellation by hand slap. “Ah, mosquitoes, besides the weather, the most powerful force in the boreal forest,” Wade writes in the first section. “By the end of May, they buzz and attack like they don’t like you much.”
At times Wade’s writing reminds me of Annie Dillard with his unsettling descriptions of nature. In the passages about owls he writes, “What an easy meal a spruce grouse must be for an owl. The beautiful grouse, awkward innocents of the forest …” When trying to find his way back to the cabin after darkness has descended, he notes in his exasperation with himself, “Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs wouldn’t have led me home. There is no end to the boreal forest.” When boating upriver into a rainstorm, “the afternoon the sky merged with the river; the horizon disappeared, and we ran toward the edge of a flat world.” Camped along the river, “we built a funeral pyre with wet wood.”
Writing like this flows continuously through the book. Straightforward, yet lyrical. In awe of nature, but not reverent. There’s a practical realism borne on Wade’s decades of experience in the country, as well as his encroaching demise. It’s hard to be reverent toward nature when nature is having its way on your body, telling you with every step that you can’t win this battle in the end, you can only achieve the occasional inconclusive truce.
“Upstream” is an inconclusive book, just as life itself is forever inconclusive, even as we age. Eventually the shed gets started. The bears are kept at a safe distance. Clearly, since he’s written about it, Wade found his way out of the woods. “We left with our coffee and fig bars and small piles of morning medication,” Wade writes. Thankful for one more day. Even if it is hard work.