I’ve finally read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. I mentioned it last fall in a post about our weekend hiking trip when Hubby and I went for our own walk in the woods. I remember observing how restorative walking in the woods can be. Or any wilderness, actually. And how we really needed that trip. The wilderness does seem to wield a special kind of power.
The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park
A typical Algonquin Park scene. Trees, water, and more trees. October 2015.
I was excited to read Bryson’s book… couldn’t in fact understand why I had never read it before. I loved it. I learned a lot about the American wilderness, in particular about the Appalachian Trail which Bryson and his friend attempted to hike in 1996. I laughed a lot. Out loud. This was particularly embarrassing when I took the book along with me to my physiotherapy sessions (back issues, remember?) and read it while waiting by myself in a tiny cubicle, for my therapist to finish with another patient. I’m sure the guffaws coming from behind my curtain were a little unsettling for other clients. But then again… better than sobs, or screams.
Parts of Bryson’s book are a bit of a slog. The structure gets quite sloppy in the middle. At times it’s a bit preachy; Bryson does like his bully pulpit. But most of the time it is a great read. Bryson is so self-effacing; that’s partly what makes his writing funny. He makes no bones about the fact that hiking the Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing he has ever done. He and his friend Stephen Katz survive rain and snow, heat, bugs, annoying fellow hikers (Bryson’s description of their new ‘friend’ Mary Ellen is priceless), fatigue, and some pretty hairy mountainous sections. They do well to carry on as far as they did, in my opinion. One review I read was down-right hostile that Bryson had not hiked the entire 2,000 miles of the trail. Gad. Give the guy a break. He did cover over 800 miles, with and without Katz. Okay, some of it in small pieces. But however he did it, that’s still a lot of walking.
The Lure of the Wilderness: film version of A Walk in the Woods
Scene from the film version of A Walk in the Woods

Bryson and Katz finally abandon their adventure after Katz gets lost. He’s pretty scratched up and quite shaken, and they decide to go home. As they reflect on how they feel about “leaving the trail,” Bryson muses that he “was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts.” Yep. The wilderness can be endlessly challenging, yet endlessly alluring.

Hubby and I watched the movie version of A Walk in the Woods on the weekend. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte have a lovely chemistry in the film, but it’s not a patch on the book. Especially the scene with the grizzly bears. Huh? Seriously? Everyone knows that grizzly bears are only found out west. Way out west. And the Appalachian Trail is way, way east. And if the filmmakers didn’t already know that, they should have read the part about bears in Bryson’s book.

The Lure of the Wilderness: film version of A Walk in the Woods
Scene from the film version of A Walk in the Woods

After we watched the movie Hubby and I decided to make a list of our favourite books on the lure of the wilderness.

We both agreed that Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air about the ill-fated Everest climb of 1996 is perhaps the most compelling non-fiction book either of us has read. Krakauer, himself an experienced mountaineer, was hired by Outside magazine to write a story about “the commercialization of Everest.” His memoir of the climb is stunning. Twelve people died that season, nine of them on the same descent, many of them unskilled “tourists” who had paid $65,000. (excluding airfare and equipment) for the privilege of being guided to the summit. As Rob Hall, experienced guide and leader of the “fee-paying expedition” which Krakauer joined, said, “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.”

Alastair Scott’s review in the New York Times calls Krakauer’s book “a work of atonement.” Exhausted and as a result unable to do anything to save the members of his expedition team who were trapped on the mountain during a sudden storm, Krakauer survived. In his book he relives his experience and tries to answer the question “what went wrong?” The book is a wonderful piece of writing, and certainly (to my mind) a condemnation of those “bloody idiots,” as Hall called them, who have more determination and money, than ability or skill. Essentially it’s a sad book. When all is said and done, Krakhauer has no answers to his questions. And nine of the people who were on the expedition are still dead, some of them the Sherpas and guides, including Rob Hall, who were trying desperately to make the summit dreams of others come true. You can read Scott’s review here.
The shot below is from a 2015 film which recreates the doomed 1996 expedition. The book is sad, and the situation on Everest, during that expedition, tragic and exasperating all at the same time. The film by all accounts cherry-picks the most dramatic and heart wrenching bits from the story, as films do. I really have no desire to see it. I don’t understand the lure of something as dangerous as climbing Everest, which as Krakauer says in his book,  “is primarily about enduring pain.” And even if you are very fit and very skilled, it’s about putting yourself in grave danger. If you’re neither, it’s about putting others in danger too.
The Lure of the Wilderness: film version of Everest
Shot from the 2015 Imax film Everest which recreates the 1996 expedition. source

The next book we chose, Gold Diggers by Charlotte Gray, is the story of the Klondike gold rush. This book is Hubby’s choice; he’s fascinated by the north, the Yukon in particular. In 2006, we drove from Edmonton, Alberta, north along the Alaska Highway, to the Yukon. We fished, hiked in Kluane National Park (where they do have grizzlies, I might add), visited Dawson City, and Whitehorse, and then drove back south through British Columbia on the way to Banff, and then Calgary. It was an amazing six week trip. We even stayed a night in a cabin on a working gold claim on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike, site of one of the original claims a hundred years ago. We passed an interesting evening on the front porch of our cabin, drinking cold beers and talking to the owner who mined the claim. Hubby loved Charlotte Gray’s book. She is a great writer; I’ve read several of her other books. But this one I haven’t read, yet. Much to Hubby’s chagrin.

The shot below is of those gold crazy “stampeders” hauling their heavy packs up the Chilkoot Pass enroute to the Klondike. The North West Mounted Police weighed the packs of every prospector before they began the ascent. Making sure they had the required “tonne of goods,” enough supplies to survive a year, before being allowed to pass into Canada. A prospector might climb this hillside 30 to 40 times before he had carted all of his stuff through the mountain pass.
We all know what drove most of these men to strike out for the wilderness of the Yukon in the eighteen nineties. Gold. Adventure. A chance for a new life. Adventure enthusiasts can hike this same trail today. According to the website Nature Tours of the Yukon, it’s a fifty-five kilometre, “multi-day, hike of moderate to hard wilderness trek.” Somehow I doubt that the trail is as crowded today as it was back in the gold rush. And it’s for sure the packs are lighter.
The last two books I want to mention are works of fiction by well known Canadian writers. When I mentioned the idea of wilderness and its power to provide solace, Hubby and I both thought of Rudy Wiebe’s 1966 novel First and Vital Candle. Set in the tiny, fictional Ojibway community of Frozen Lake on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Ontario, Wiebe’s novel is the story of Abram Ross who is sent to Frozen Lake by The Frobisher Company to salvage the tiny community store on the verge of failure. But it’s really about Abram’s search for meaning in his life. Despite the hardship of life in the north; despite the violence of some of the people, he seems to find it. In the beauty and the often frightening power of nature. And in the connections he makes with the people he finds there. I read the book many years ago and yet I still remember clearly Wiebe’s description of Abram Ross skiing at night. Of the winter sky, the stars, and the sound of the wooden boards on the snow. First and Vital Candle is not described as Wiebe’s best work, not by a long shot. But somehow it had a powerful impact on Hubby and on me, that neither of us forgot.
I also wanted to give a shout out to one of my favourite books, Ethel Wilson’s 1954 classic Canadian novel Swamp Angel. Wilson’s main character Maggie escapes her home in Vancouver and her troubled marriage, and takes a job at a fish camp in the interior of British Columbia. Here she finds herself again. With the help of the lake, the trees, the hard work, and the fishing which she loves. And coincidentally which she learned during her childhood in her native New Brunswick. Ha. I loved that bit. Swamp Angel is a beautiful little book. Beautifully written. Many of the details I’d forgotten until today. I’ve spent way too much time leafing through the book rereading bits and I’ll never finish this post if I don’t stop. By the way, I was happy to see that both Rudy Wiebe’s book and Ethel Wilson’s are available on Amazon. Just saying.

As you know if you read this blog regularly, I’m not immune to the lure of the wilderness myself. And Hubby is more comfortable in his canoe on a lake in the bush than pretty much anywhere else on earth. Since we’ve been together, I’ve seen a fair bit of wilderness. Hiking, canoeing, fishing… or just walking. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets.

The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park

I’ve spent some wonderful days on the lakes and rivers of Algonquin Park. Especially warm sunny days like this… watching Hubby do most of the hard work. Like tracking our canoe down a set of rapids.

The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park

Or clearing part of a beaver dam so the canoe can carry on downstream.

The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park
But of course the days are not all sunny, nor warm. A couple of years ago on Hubby’s May fishing trip with two longtime canoeing buddies, they awoke to this. Fog and rain …
The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park

And then, as the temperature continued to drop… snow.

The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park
The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park
The May trips are not my cup of tea. Ha. Not even close. But these guys love being in the bush. They brushed the snow off the tent, built a big fire, cooked breakfast. And even found time to build a little snow fishing buddy. It’s very elemental being in the bush. Keeping warm, keeping dry, and keeping well fed, are key. And when the snow melts and the sun comes out, there’s fishing. And later maybe a beautiful sunset as the fish sizzles in the pan on the fire.
The Lure of the Wilderness: Algonquin Park
Like I said above, I don’t go on the long, really tough canoe trips. Four days paddling and portaging and sleeping on the ground are about my limit. But there is something very special about those sunsets, and the sparks from the fire disappearing up into the night sky, and the sound of the loons on the lake. And the feeling of having accomplished something I never thought I would. On the way back to the truck on the last day I always feel stronger, fitter, and somehow, like Maggie in Ethel Wilson’s book, more comfortable in my own skin. And although at some point on every trip, exasperated with the hard work, the hot sun, the rain or …something… I always say: “I’ll never do this again”… I always do. It’s just the lure of the wilderness, I guess.
Hubby and I had fun brainstorming for titles for this post. Our very first blog collaboration. Well, except for when I’m blogging and he’s making dinner… that’s collaboration too.
Do you have any “wilderness” titles you might share with us? Do tell.


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29 thoughts on “The Lure of the Wilderness: Our Top Five Books”

  1. Hi Sue, I love your stories about you and hubby's forays into the wilderness – but I'm afraid it's not my comfort zone. However, I can agree with you that Bill Bryson is a hoot! If you really want a chuckle, read his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. If I ever need a laugh, I go to the bit about his mother's cooking and the toity jar – no matter how many times I read it, it has me gasping for breath, I'm laughing so much!

    1. Thanks, Patricia. I have read Bryson's memoir… both of us have… and we loved it too. I remember that Hubby read it first and I had to tell him to stop reading me bits out loud or I wouldn't have any surprises when I read it myself.

  2. Susan, have you watched the series, "Alone"? I think it was on the History channel, not normally my cup of tea – but after overhearing it in another room in the house where my husband was watching it, I wandered in, sat down, and was hooked. It was very engaging and philosophical about human nature, nature-nature, solitude and fortitude. I loved it. I also love the snowman on your husband's canoe. I'm also happy to have learned of Gold Diggers. I think my husband would love it too. He seems intrigued with all things Alaskan. Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods is a long time favorite on my book shelf – hated the movie.

    1. I haven't heard of that series, Barbara. But I'll see if I can find it. I think my husband would love it… and probably me too. Charlotte Gray, author of Gold Diggers is a wonderful writer…she rights several historical wrongs made by the more famous (in Canada anyway) writer Pierre Burton in his Yukon book.

  3. It's a while since I read A Walk in the Woods but I love his books . Can't quite visualize Robert Redford taking his part , though he is abit grizzlier these days . Films of my favorite books are nearly always disappointing . I don't know any of the other books you mention . Many years ago I read Alaska by James Michener which I really enjoyed .
    Wendy in York

    1. The film was disappointing…kind of flat, I thought. And nor very funny, after the book. Redford did not make a very good Bill Bryson, I thought.

  4. I don't know why I've resisted Bryson so far, but given the stack of books tottering on my desk, I'll probably not be getting to him soon, despite your convincing review… Nor have I picked up In Thin Air despite my husband's paperback copy on a shelf here, gathering dust. Love Swamp Angel, though (any of Wilson's writing, and I really think she should have a street or something named after her in Vancouver, preferably near English Bay where she lived for some years). On the West Coast we also have Roderick Haig-Brown who wrote brilliantly and lyrically about the wilderness, especially about fly-fishing — and on that "other coast" is David Adams Richards whose novels are always stunning but who has a much gentler book of essays about fly-fishing in the Miramichi, Lines on the Water. There's some fine First Nations writing about moving through wilderness as well — Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk and Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach come to mind most easily, but sections of Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road are pretty compelling about the challenges of wilderness survival as well. I don't know that Rudy Wiebe and I have to admit I find his novels hard going for some reason. Prefer his short stories… but if you say that's a good one, I'll take it under consideration. Except that pile of books totters already . . .
    And I take it Cheryl Strayed's "determined amateur" account in Wild didn't make it on your list. I got really caught up in it, ready to get back out on some hills myself. Then didn't. Armchair hiking is perhaps more my thing πŸ˜‰
    I really like the way you manage to integrate the reading into your blog — lots of work for you, lots of new titles for keen readers. Thank you!

    1. Oh, just remembered. . . can I also give a plug for a beautiful collection of poetry, Ursula Vaira's And See What Happens. Ursula was a complete paddling neophyte before she wrangled her writer's way into a spot on an epic journey down the length of the West Coast of British Columbia (30 days, thousand miles of ocean canoeing in traditional FN canoes) — a joint First Nations-RCMP project to build trust between the two communities while raising funds to battle addiction. An epic journey in many senses beyond the obvious. . .

    2. David Adams Richards is a long time fav writer of mine. He's from my neck of the woods (and when you speak about New Brunswick, that is a literal statement) and even went to my university. I haven't read his fishing work, although I know of it. Wonder why I never thought to buy that for Hubby? His novel For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down is one of the saddest books I ever read… surpassed, for me, only by his Mercy Among the Children. I persuaded one of my senior students to read M Among C for her ISU in grade twelve. She was not someone who read much on her own, and she was so engaged by it… that about two thirds into the book, she came and sat on a chair by my desk, pulled it up very close and whispered to me…"If that kid dies, I will be seriously pissed off at you, Ms Burpee." One of my favourite student moments ever. Makes me grin even writing this:)
      P.S. That poetry collection sounds great. Wish I could have designed a combined English/Creative Writing/Outdoor Education course when I was still teaching. Wouldn't that be amazing?

    3. OH, I'm so glad you like his work. So many don't, because he's unflinching, isn't he, and I know he's offended some of his fellow NB'ers. But he's such a humanist, and his work is so rigourous yet so moving. He doesn't do sentimental at all. Tough, tough, beautiful stuff. I heard him speak in Fredericton at the Learneds a few years ago and could definitely see the cantankerous, unyielding side that bugged people, but also see how that refusal to compromise yields some writing worth going back to again and again. And, OMG< the man can write a title!
      That would have been the greatest course! A friend of mine is doing something like that at my old campus, offering a lit course focused on wilderness/outdoors/pioneer-type BC writing to the Resource Management students. It would have been awesome for high school students. . . that's when poetry/literature really connects, right?

    4. Funny that you should say D A-R has offended some NB-er's. I found it so wonderful, that I could read about his characters and think "I know those people." They're the welfare mum (that I was in grade 3 with) or the boot-legger (that we visited that time in high school when six of us piled into a car and we were all underage) or the guy who cut pulp for a living in the winter (and kept his horse in our barn for free because my step-dad liked him)… and they were all on the fringes of so-called polite society but any one of them would do anything for you if you were in trouble. And I remember that David Adams Richards showed us their lives in all its gritty poverty and violence, and yet showed that they had a kind of honour and heroism. Whew… have to get down off my high horse here. I remember we read him for my book club back in the eighties, and I spent some time defending that whole stance.

  5. Wonderful memories….I had never seriously hiked before…but always wanted to. A friend told me that someone had to drop out of a planned trip. There were 8 women…from Tofino on Vancouver Island…..we took a water taxi for about an hour and a half to a small island. Carried our gear through waist high water to the beach…..set up 4 tents..including kitchen tent. This set up and take down happened 3 times. Much laughter…many bruises on me…falling off of
    Slippery logs. I did not know how to pack a backpack and it kept pulling me over. I keep wondering why I was there. I was battered, bruised and burned.
    I would not have missed it for anything. The food was fantastic. The women had been friends since their early twenties. They were now well into their Late
    Sixties….I was the youngest and the least experienced. They had arranged for the water taxi to pick us up on the other side of the island in 4 days.


    1. That sounds wonderful…and challenging….and wonderful, Ali. Food cooked in the bush always tastes different, doesn't it? What a way to get to know those women. You must be a good sport!

  6. Thanks for some great book reviews Sue. You seem to read such a great variety of topics and consequently introduce us to authors and books we probably wouldn't have heard about. Thanks again …and to hubby! The picture showing their little "frosty friend" is my favourite! Canoeing etc for four days is very impressive …far out of my comfort zone. I used to hike and camp when I was (much!) younger … Then camped on family holidays with the children …never in the wild though! and I've mentioned to you our only experience of canoeing in Canada! πŸ™‚ we do still love to walk/hike though. Nothing better than walking in the snow in Switzerland surrounded by mountains! Definitely my "happy place" Beautiful in the summer too. I guess we get a similar feeling that you get in the wilderness as often, for periods of time there's just us and the mountains … easier for me though as I've a hot shower and bed at the end of the day!

    1. You will love staying at one of those Algonquin lodges I mentioned, then. If you can squeeze it in. As Hubby says you don't have to walk far in the park to leave most of the people behind; there are great hiking trails like the ones we did in October… where you can walk for a couple of hours (of whatever) and turn around and walk back out. Then you'd get to go back to the lodge for an amazing dinner. A hot shower and a nice bed. Win-win situation!

  7. Sue – I've just seen that you one Alyson's competition for a Twiggy suede jacket from Marks and Spencer – congratulations!! Looking forward to seeing it on the blog!

  8. Congratulations Sue! The jackets a really great colour for you as is the biker style …lucky you …I'm happy for you πŸ™‚

    1. It looks like a great jacket.. and I love the colour. But Rosie… I need some help. I have to send them my size. How do UK sizes translate into Canadian/American sizes???

  9. I love your book recommendations, and I too enjoyed Into Thin Air. I live in Northern California, and really enjoyed Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, who wrote about our neck of the woods (so to speak). Have you read that? –Natalie

    1. Thanks, Natalie. I have read some Wallace Stegner…friends of ours from Saskatchewan recommended him. But not the one you mention…I will look for it at the library.

  10. Sue, I really enjoyed your blog, very poetic, however if you go with Stu on a fishing trip you don't wait for the snow or rain to stop and for the sun to come out to go out fishing, especially if you are faced with the backup kraft dinner for supper. I had the Bryson book recommended to me by a squash friend so will definitely read it. I agree with you on Into Thin Air and will try to pick up your other recommendations. For the Klondike I enjoyed Pierre Berton's books.

    1. Gee, thanks, Glenn. Poetic, huh? I do know that the fishing does not wait for the rain to stop necessarily. Stu says not to cast aspersions on his culinary abilities:) Although I'd be very keen to avoid Kraft dinner as well!

    2. Kraft dinner was just a bit of artistic license for effect. Actually the backup meals were dehydrated and quite tasty although we rarely had to resort to them.

  11. Late to the party, catching up on my favorite bloggers after being in Texas vacationing for a couple of weeks. This blog post and the comments are a mine of information for me. I have already ordered a couple of suggestions for my husband's birthday this month. He never read for pleasure while working but now he really enjoys so many of the "Alaska" and wilderness books.
    We have spent many a vacation on canoes in Canada and Algonquin is one of our favorite places. This year we are giving up the camper, old age and health issues seem to be slowly changing our life style. Truly, enjoy the great out of doors while still healthy and active enough to get around in it!!

    1. Texas sounds wonderful, Diane. Considering that we've had snow and freezing rain and high winds the last few days. It's hard to give in to age and give up doing some things you love, isn't it? We have had a taste of that this year with Hubby's injuries etc. And are trying to be creative in order to still do what we love as much as possible. Hope your husband enjoys the books you've ordered for him. Let me know what he thinks.

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