A Passion for Paddling

 

A look at Associate Professor of English Michael Burke's new book, The Same River Twice: A Boatman's Journey Home.

By Stephen Collins '74
 

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Associate Professor of English Michael Burke's passions"rivers, family, environmental literature"mingle and merge like the braided channels of a boreal river in his new book, The Same River Twice: A Boatman's Journey Home.

Writing about a wilderness river-rafting trip can be riskier than the sport itself. Out in the bush with only one companion (a virtual stranger, in Burke's case), the dangers of self-analysis, adrenaline-stoked descriptions of rapids, or maudlin reveries about nature wait like sharp rocks in a steep chute.

But Burke successfully navigates these dangerous literary waters, and his device"juxtaposing his own descent of the Stikine River in British Columbia with historical accounts of a distant relative, Sid Barrington, the "Champion Swift-Water Pilot of the North" during the Gold Rush a century before"gives the story a historical anchor and a personal quest. In addition, by drawing from more than three decades of his own river-guiding career, Burke leavens the book with poignant, sometimes outrageous tales of river running. "Guiding," he writes, " is part performance, part sport, part bacchanal, part Thoreau, part Twain"and nothing is much like it."

Burke's knowledge of environmental literature, a topic he teaches, also informs this story: "The adventure narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries took place on the sea, from Defoe to Melville to Dana to Conrad to Stevenson; except for Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness, the river hasn't been a setting for equivalent adventures. That isn't the fault of the rivers, but of writers who haven't figured out what messages rivers bring, what metaphors and symbols they provide."

Burke's nonfiction, about rivers and other places, has appeared in Outside, Islands, Yankee, The New York Times, Down East, and Colby, among other publications. He will read from The Same River Twice (University of Arizona Press, October 2006) on campus February 20"this year's Edwin J. Kenney Memorial Nonfiction Reading.

 
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