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A Wilderness Called Home: Dispatches from the Wild Heart of Canada

by Charles Wilkins

In Charles Wilkins’ odyssey to the mountains, rainforests, and seacoasts of our country, two questions dominate: What is the nature of the Canadian attachment to our land and water; and what constitutes a life justifiably lived?

To discover the link between Canadians and the sense of meaning they derive from wilderness, Wilkins casts off from his Lake Superior home aboard a freighter on the Great Lakes in the first of many adventures. Wilkins makes the best of the old Chinese proverb “Questions are a prelude to discovery” as he crisscrosses the country seeking the exhilaration of risk-taking that makes him and other Canadians feel alive.

Whether he’s meeting with tribal elder Freda MacDonald, members of the Traditional Finnish Sauna Society, environmentalists Steve and Suzanne Lawson, or trapper Murray Monk of Nipigon, Wilkins attempts to fuse his own Thoreau-like musings with the people he meets along the way. “Out there,” Wilkins seeks to find his sense of place in the larger scheme of things.

Wilkins may not be the world’s greatest storyteller, but his heart is in the backcountry of Canada, a land he knows and loves. Resonances of Annie Dillard and John McPhee echo too often in the prose, but these are impossible models to ignore and there is much to learn from them. Wilkins occasionally tells rather than shows the epiphanies he experiences: “…times when I felt unspeakable ways of tenderness … [in a] paradise almost too basic for words” and “the darkness was so profound” are such moments when he could have opened his prose to the epiphanies presented to him.
But Wilkins has a knack for capturing the essence of the Canadian wild and choosing the appropriate experiences to illustrate its power. On one trip Wilkins meets a Chinese university student travelling in B.C.’s interior who tells him: “Canada many hundred more beautiful than many beautiful lily.” Exactly.