After reading Hap Wilson’s latest book, River of Fire: Conflict and Survival on the Seal River I can honestly say my past misadventures in a canoe now seem quite bland.
Not only did he have to deal with some over-the-top natural hazards while paddling this remote northern river (zillions of mosquitoes, navigating continuous canoe-eating rapids, escaping the worst forest fire in Manitoba’s history, predacious polar bears), Hap had to struggle with an extremely problematic assistant guide—characterized by Hap as a "sociopathic demon." His assistant, Dawson, was, in fact, an absolute lunatic.
The book is based on a guided trip down the remote Seal River in northern Manitoba. Hap led the expedition back in 1994, taking a writer and photographer from Men’s Journal. His assistant guide created extreme conflict along the way, extreme enough for Hap to come tangibly close to shooting his partner with a 12-gauge shotgun.
It’s an intriguing read, to say the least. It’s also a must read for anyone wanting to study one of the true real dangers of wilderness travel—group conflict. Hap’s own words best describes how threatening this issue can be:
Conflict on the trail is a by-product of fear and disassociation with the familiar parameters we construct as social, gregarious and dependant creatures. Remove the comfortable amenities of community existence, thrust the individual (be he or she uninitiated or imperious in character) into a world controlled by a whimsical god and the immutable forces of nature, and watch the true disposition of an individual unfurled.
Having good outdoor skills is one thing. But guiding others in the wilderness also means you need a solid understanding of how to deal with tension and disharmony with group members. Hap’s book explorers this issue in great detail. The journey itself would have been a good read on its own. But having Dawson’s lunacy packed along makes this book one of the best paddling novels I’ve read in a very long time.