“Don’t grow old,” my late mother-in-law used to say. She wasn’t one to fuss over her accumulated physical ailments, and she certainly knew there was only one other option. But that was her default advice when I asked her how she was doing.
I suspect Wasilla author Eric Wade offers similar thoughts after reading his latest offering, “Upstream: In the Alaska Wilderness.” This is the second memoir he’s written about his remote cabin on an unnamed river somewhere in interior Alaska, accessible only by boat. And this time, well beyond sixty, he feels his age. Just like his wife. And in case either forgets, they keep remembering.
“From the cabin, the only fast transportation is a helicopter, and getting a helicopter isn’t easy,” Wade writes. “At the end of the day, and we both know this, if we get seriously injured, we’re in serious trouble. So we try to be thoughtful: don’t burn yourself, don’t cut yourself, don’t slip, don’t fall in the water. We constantly repeat “be careful”.
“Upstream” is a first-hand account of what it’s like to have successfully pursued a lifelong dream – and what it feels like to know that dream won’t last much longer. Wade is a retired teacher and school principal who secured his land in the 1980s and built his dream cabin. It is an escape that he and his wife Doylanne spend two months each year. May, when Alaska wakes up with the promise of summer, and September, when winter is imminent and death and decay are in the air. It’s no coincidence, I suppose, that most of this book takes place in this second month.
Wade’s wild dream isn’t a romance and wasn’t meant to be. Building and maintaining a cabin in Alaska, away from the road system and away from supplies, is mostly a lot of hard work. And her increasingly uncooperative body doesn’t make it any easier. A recurring theme in this tale is her need to build a shed for the couple’s growing array of items they keep on hand, since they can’t just run to Walmart when needed. Still, building a shed is a bit of work in itself. And so Wade continues to delay.
However, it is faster to remove a tree that is about to collapse. The dead spruce threatens to fall on the cabin and must be felled. In a single paragraph, Wade explains how difficult this job can be at times, as he deploys a chainsaw, wedges and a maul, only to be repeatedly blocked in his efforts. He tries to steer the snag toward a safe landing, and he manages to build the tension well by telling the story.
The tension returns when he wanders through the woods in the fall, looking for a moose, and finds himself in the dark. Not so far from her cabin, but far enough to be worried. Yet he has the presence of mind to consider the natural world as he walks through it, and it’s a world where cruelty is as ubiquitous as beauty.
Both of these can be found in Owls, to which Wade devotes a chapter. Strange and majestic, they are also, he notes, among the most efficient killing machines nature has provided. They silently swoop down on their prey, flying with grace and determination. And then they kill with brutality. They have even been known to attack humans. They’re not a creature we typically worry about when out in the woods, and really, we shouldn’t. But we should be aware of them. After all, they know us.
Bears, of course, are also watching. Usually it’s the proof of their death that’s enough to urge the couple to be cautious, but sometimes it’s the bear itself. That’s when you discover what living in the moment really entails.
Far more common are insects, a fascination of Wade. Where a bear capable of killing a person will mostly avoid humans, insects we can crush into oblivion invade us, turning a jaunt into the wilderness into a game of self-flagellation by hand. “Ah, mosquitoes, besides time, the most powerful force in the boreal forest,” Wade writes in the first section. “At the end of May, they buzz and attack like they don’t like you very much.”
Sometimes Wade’s writing reminds me of Annie Dillard with her unsettling descriptions of nature. In the passages on owls, he writes: “What an easy meal a spruce grouse must be for an owl. The beautiful grouse, clumsy innocents of the forest. Trying to find his way back to the cabin after dark, he notes in his exasperation with himself, “Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs wouldn’t have brought me home.” There is no end to the boreal forest. Sailing upstream in a rainstorm, “in the afternoon, the sky merged with the river; the horizon disappeared, and we ran towards the edge of a flat world. Camped along the river, “we built a funeral pyre with wet wood”.
Such writing continually flows through the book. Simple, yet lyrical. In awe of nature, but not respectful. There’s a practical realism born of Wade’s decades of experience in the country, as well as his impending demise. It’s hard to be respectful to nature when nature takes hold of your body, telling you with every step that you can’t win this battle in the end, you can only get the occasional inconclusive truce.
“Upstream” is an inconclusive book, just as life itself is always inconclusive, even as we age. Finally, the shed begins. Bears are kept at a safe distance. Clearly, since writing about it, Wade has found a way out of the woods. “We left with our coffee and fig bars and little stacks of morning meds,” Wade writes. Thanks for one more day. Even if it’s hard work.
“Upstream: Into the Alaskan Wilderness”