The rapids are like an executioner’s smile: welcoming in their majesty, but deadly in their intent. The white water is so loud a jackhammer would be a lullaby. And the immortal plague of biting insects draws more blood than the Red Cross.

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This article was published 21/10/2017 (1436 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The rapids are like an executioner’s smile: welcoming in their majesty, but deadly in their intent. The white water is so loud a jackhammer would be a lullaby. And the immortal plague of biting insects draws more blood than the Red Cross.

To the city dwellers Canadian naturalist and writer Hap Wilson guided on this way-up wilderness river in Manitoba, what started out as a storybook adventure soon turned into a nasty tug-of-war for survival against the couldn’t-care-less forces of nature.

Wilson’s River of Fire is a classic saga, well worth reading and a bargain at 20 bucks — hair-raising canoeing on one of the last great wild rivers in Canada, extremely dangerous and razor-sharp rocky rapids, water so cold you’d be dead in minutes, animals that can eat you and clouds of black flies that have made lost men lose their minds long before starvation killed them.

And, on this weeks-long trip in 1994, it includes a blinding, choking and near-fatal run-in with a monster of a wildfire coming right at them as nature goes berserk.

However, River of Fire is more than just an account of four men surviving the 310 kilometres of the isolated Seal River, located north of Churchill and running all by its lonesome into Hudson Bay. On this adventure, the quartet also comes face to face with near-mutiny, with outrage and with enough strain in their interpersonal relationships that at times, they could have used a priest more than a paddle.

The trip was sponsored by New York-based Men’s Journal magazine. It hired an American writer and photographer to chronicle the classic Canadian adventure, as well as two Canadian guides to coach them through the Seal and make sure the two city boys came back alive. Wilson, who lives in Ontario, was the expedition’s leader; he is a professional guide and has published a dozen books on the outdoors and geography.

But beyond the drama of this guide’s story is something powerful that makes his book much more than a dramatic travelogue. It offers insight into how Wilson’s mind worked under pressure, his spiritual empathy with the Dene and Inuit, his astute understanding of the colonialism they suffered and how they continue to live with it — even laugh at it — and his surprising eloquence in describing all these things. This is a man who can calculate what’s going on inside and around him and describe it exquisitely.

He speaks of life, mortality, human conduct, hypocrisy, history that lies, racism and his strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at putting down in words what he sees and thinks — and what he sees and thinks is worth putting down in words.

An example: "I had never been this close to a bush fire and it was absolutely terrifying; but in an obtuse way, incredibly beautiful too, hellishly powerful and oddly spiritual; frightful but utterly divine and utterly final. Drifting along, we all became mesmerized by the magnitude and pageantry of such a pyrotechnic show, like kids at a fireworks display."

And later: "We were suddenly surrounded by white (beluga) whales... Our eyes would meet and they would look right into your soul… A complex and marginal solemnity passed between us. No words, just a mild feeling of wonder."

Wilson wrote River of Fire two years after the excursion and left it on a shelf unpublished until now. He’s not sure why.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist.