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Excerpt from The River by Peter Heller, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The River

by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller X
The River by Peter Heller
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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Print Excerpt

Prologue

They had been smelling smoke for two days.

At first they thought it was another campfire and that sur­prised them because they had not heard the engine of a plane and they had been traveling the string of long lakes for days and had not seen sign of another person or even the distant movement of another canoe. The only tracks in the mud of the portages were wolf and moose, otter, bear.

The winds were west and north and they were moving north so if it was another party they were ahead of them. It per­plexed them because they were smelling smoke not only in early morning and at night, but would catch themselves at odd hours lifting their noses like coyotes, nostrils flaring.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown from their own ancient fire. They climbed the hill. They did not need a headlamp as they were used to moving in the dark. Sometimes if they were feeling strong they paddled half the night. They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds—the gulp of the dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.

Tonight there was no loon and almost no wind and they went up through tamarack and hemlock and a few large birch trees whose pale bark fluoresced. At the top of the knoll they fol­lowed a game trail to a ledge of broken rock as if they weren't the first who had sought the view. And they saw it. They looked northwest. At first they thought it was the sun, but it was far too late for any lingering sunset and there were no cities in that direction for a thousand miles. In the farthest distance, over the trees, was an orange glow. It lay on the horizon like the light from banked embers and it fluttered barely so they wondered if it was their eyes and they knew it was a fire.

A forest fire, who knew how far off or how big, but bigger than any they could imagine. It seemed to spread over two quad­rants and they didn't say a word but the silence of it and the way it seemed to breathe scared them to the bone. The prevail­ing wind would push the blaze right to them. At the pace they were going they were at least two weeks from the Cree village of Wapahk and Hudson Bay. When the most northerly lake spilled into the river they would pick up speed but there was no way to shorten the miles.

* * *

On the morning after seeing the fire they did spot another camp. It was on the northeastern verge of a wooded island and they swung out to it and were surprised that no one was break­ing down the large wall tent. No one was going anywhere. There was an old white-painted square-stern woodstrip canoe on the gravel with a trolling motor clamped to the transom and two men in folding lawn chairs, legs sprawled straight. Jack and Wynn beached and hailed them and the men lifted their arms. They had a plastic fifth of Ancient Age bourbon on the stones between the chairs. The heavier one wore a flannel shirt and square steel-rimmed tinted glasses, the skinny one a Texans cap. Two spinning rods and a Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle leaned against a pine.

Jack said, "You-all see the fire?"

The skinny one said, "You-all see any pussy?" The men burst out laughing. They were drunk. Jack felt disgust, but being drunk on a summer morning didn't deserve a death sentence.

Jack said, "There's a fire. Big-ass fire to the northwest. What you've been smelling the last few days."

Wynn said, "You guys have a satellite phone?"

That set them off again. When they were finished laughing, the heavy one said, "You two need to chillax. Whyn't you pull up a chair." There were no extra chairs. He lifted the bourbon by the neck between two fingers and rocked it toward them. Jack held up a hand and the man shrugged and brought the fifth up, watching its progress intently as though he was oper­ating a crane. He drank. The lake was a narrow reach and if the fire overran the western shore this island would not keep the men safe.

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Excerpted from The River by Peter Heller. Copyright © 2019 by Peter Heller. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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