We meet Burke at age 38, staring at himself in a motel mirror somewhere between his family's home in Maine and his wife's parents' home in Iowa. He calls himself "a man too old for this sort of thing," and we quickly find out what "this sort of thing is": He's plotting an escape, a river-rafting trip in the wilds of Alaska and British Columbia. The longtime river guide yearns to return to his roots: "I still thought of myself as a guide," he confesses, "temporarily masquerading as professor, father, writer."
He leaves his very pregnant wife (with her permission) and his two teenage children for a remote sliver of mountainous land. He plots out a three-week trip along the Chutine, Stikine and Sheslay rivers, chosen partly because of a competitive urge to follow in the footsteps of a distant relative and legendary riverman, Sidney C. Barrington.
He quickly locates a friend of a friend to join him: Max, a cranky biologist and avid disciple of the touchy-feely men's movement that was trendy when the book takes place, in 1991. They fly to Alaska, each glimpse of a river or a mountain triggering a wild excitement in Burke. They embark in "the rafting equivalent of bell-bottoms," Burke's aged boat the Oyster Dunny, and head south, short on fitness and planning but long on ambition and the self-assurance that they're still young, reckless and bold.
Burke is an enormously capable writer, and, better yet, an immensely likable narrator. After issuing the disclaimer that no one can truly do justice in words to the beauty and vastness of the region, he does a damn fine job of it. "The river was corseted by the tiny canyon," he writes. "The lake was a kind of cerulean blue ... as if it had been scraped from inside of an iceberg and dabbed onto the surface of the lake."
Equally riveting are the tales of rafting and its many dangers. The shore provides its own hazards, from wandering wolves to curious bears to relentless mosquitoes and a boiling sun. To his credit, Burke offers a highly convincing explanation of why people go to the wilderness. Even the most devout city-dweller will pause at lines like, "I could enjoy the sound of Alaskan science once again," or descriptions of "the delicate noise that evergreen needles make when they fall on a dried aspen leaf beneath."
Burke comes across as a silly fellow, a man gifted at making fun of himself. "Max wanted to talk about weighty, personal things," he says. "I wanted to tell the story of the last time I'd been in Wrangell (Alaska) and had stayed at a place called the Thunderbird Motor Lodge and Laundromat, because I couldn't resist the name." His reveries include a hilarious tale of himself drifting naked in a raft, on LSD, wearing nothing but sneakers and a long feather earring. ("I am both amused and chagrined, in equal measure, by the memory," he says.)
This humility and self-deprecating sense of humor disguise his wisdom, which reveals itself in lines like, "The types of loneliness are infinite, as multiple and varied as the types of love, yet not as well chronicled." He speaks of rivers as metaphors for a man's life, and briefly considers responsibility, fate and the cosmos. None of this is bothersome: We grow to trust him, largely thanks to his own refusal to take himself seriously.
The book's sole misstep is its reliance on the tale of Sidney: Sid, unfortunately, is boring. We want to know more about Burke. Along the way, he develops shades of despair about aging and settling down, but also an acceptance of the future and the comforts of maturity. This process is a fascinating, universal one, and we're left wanting more.
Burke deservedly will provoke some outrage from female readers--he did from this one--for leaving his pregnant wife to go on a self-indulgent trip. But he compensates with a lot of guilt-laden worrying, and since she forgave him, we should, too. He thanks her in the dedication: "For Pat, who let me go, then let me come back." We owe her thanks, too.