JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In his new book, "Backcast," author Lou Ureneck sets out on an Alaskan fishing adventure with his son, Adam. The trip is an attempt to heal their frayed relationship with the balm of the wilderness. Ureneck's accounting of that journey becomes a vehicle for a meditation on fatherhood and his own longing for a father.
Lou Ureneck joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.
Mr. LOU URENECK (Author, "Backcast"): Thank you, John.
YDSTIE: You know, in addition to being a writer and a journalist, you're also an accomplished outdoorsman. Tell us a little bit about your childhood and how the natural world sustained you.
Mr. URENECK: We moved around a lot when I was a child. By the time I had gone off to college, we had lived in 17 different homes or apartments, but my mother had something of the gypsy in her. And we also were always broke, and sometimes we couldn't make the rent, and we'd have to leave an apartment in the middle of the night, skip out on the rent. I had a father and then a stepfather who were heavy drinkers and who walked out of my life at an early age. I spent an awful lot of time by myself fishing and it shaped my outlook on the world. And it's always been a place that I could go to in troubled times and gain strength from.
YDSTIE: And you grew up in New Jersey - not the place that people think of…
Mr. URENECK: Right.
YDSTIE: …when you think of fishing and outdoorsman.
Mr. URENECK: Exactly. Central New Jersey, and we lived in a set of garden apartments in the middle of New Brunswick. And there wasn't trout stream for 25 or 30 miles, but I managed to buy a fishing vest, and I had my fly rod, and I would stand there in the middle of the garden apartment complex. As the sun was setting, I'd be practicing my casting. I'd lived a kind of fantasy life as a fly fisherman.
YDSTIE: And there was great disappointment. Your mother married John Kebabek(ph) and things looked like they were returning around.
Mr. URENECK: Right.
YDSTIE: He took a job as a merchant seaman. But just…
Mr. URENECK: You know, John Kebabek was a big and charismatic man. He was the kind of person who people would fall in love with. But he had a disease and that disease was alcoholism, and one day he just walked out of the house and we never saw him again.
YDSTIE: Your goal in life was to be a father - a strong father.
Mr. URENECK: Right.
YDSTIE: The father that you never had.
Mr. URENECK: Exactly, John. And it was a great disappointment to me when I finally made a decision to be divorced; it's kind of like a bomb going off inside the family. What made it particularly difficult for me is that I had witnessed divorce as a child, so I had made a promise to myself that divorce would never be a part of my life. Well, you know, life sometimes has a way of surprising us, and it, unfortunately, did become a part of my life. And part of what happened on this trip in Alaska was a change inside of me. I finally came to terms with the decision I had made and the way it had altered the relationship between my son and me.
YDSTIE: And let's talk a little bit about that experience because you had great hopes for it.
Mr. URENECK: Right.
YDSTIE: You felt like it would be a healing time together.
Mr. URENECK: Adam was angry. Adam was the kind of child who loved living his life inside the family, so the divorce was particularly difficult for Adam to experience. I was raising Adam as a single father in Philadelphia, I was working at the newspaper in Philadelphia, and there was a lot of trouble between us in that period - through his teen years.
When he graduated from high school, I was very fearful that my son's anger was hardening into permanence and that this would be the end of the relationship between the two of us - that he would go off to college and that would be the end of it. So Alaska was my answer to that. Adam really didn't want to take this trip - he was not happy being there, especially in the early days on the river, he made his unhappiness very clear to me.
YDSTIE: And you were feeling guilty.
Mr. URENECK: Oh, hugely guilty.
YDSTIE: That was all directed at you because of the divorce.
Mr. URENECK: Right. Right. Absolutely. I was - I was looking at everything he was doing and saying through the lens of my guilt. I think we both changed on that trip. I think it was more change inside of me than there was in Adam, but things happened along the way on the river. We had to rely on each other to get down that river.
YDSTIE: You also had a harrowing experience very early on in the trip.
Mr. URENECK: We had several bear encounters on the river. And typically, bears, even these big brown bears and grizzlies that you find in Alaska, they'll leave you alone if you leave them alone. But the guaranteed exception to that is surprising a female bear with her cub.
On the third day of the trip, Adam and I came around a sharp bend in the river. And the river was narrow - it was probably only three raft-widths wide. We came around a sharp bend and there was a big sour bear, all of nine feet tall, probably a thousand pounds, and she was there with her cub - teaching him how to fish. And we surprised her, so it was a very dangerous situation. I pulled the raft over to the side of the river, Adam and I stepped out of the raft, and when we did, when we stepped on to the gravel, she fixed her eyes on Adam. Adam was obviously very anxious - we both were. He started to trot off away from the bear. And when he did that, he seemed to trigger some sort of predatory response in this bear and she started to chase him. I had a gun with me. You have to carry a gun when you're fishing for salmon in Alaska that time of year. So I brought the gun up. I had no desire to shoot this bear; I did not want to kill a bear; I wasn't even sure of I could kill the bear. But I brought the gun up to protect my son and I shouted to Adam to stop. He kept running; I shouted again. The bear continued to chase, and I was about ready to pull the trigger when Adam stopped. And in that moment, the bear also stopped, fortunately.
And what happened was she looked back to find her cub, and the cub was missing. Her cub had clambered up into the woods again, and she had to make a decision. You know, was she going to continue to chase Adam or was she going to go find her cub? And, fortunately, maternity prevailed, and she turned around and went looking for her cub. At which point, we jumped in that raft and paddled the heck out of there.
YDSTIE: That's a very exciting moment.
Mr. URENECK: You know, it's interesting, John. In the writing of this book, this bear incident is one of those surprises for me as a writer. It was two parents facing off on a river, both of us worried about our cubs.
YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Well, why don't we turn to page 258? And you're, once again, waking up in Alaska on the river but after some difficult times with your son but feeling better because you're out there. (Unintelligible).
Mr. URENECK: I will, John. In fact, this is one of my favorite passages in the book.
(Reading) We, who are fishermen, are both witnesses and bit players in that marvelous poem that is the natural world. I had always turned to the woods for comfort and healing, though I hadn't been aware at the time of what had drawn me there as a boy and then a young man. But nature had been a balm in my life -a quiet place and a healing forest. And, again, on the river, it seemed to be infusing me with confidence and strength. I was feeling more myself there in Alaska. The landscape swept by, and I listened to the soft whispering of the water brushing the banks.
YDSTIE: This is a very personal and revealing book. I wonder how difficult it was to write.
Mr. URENECK: It was difficult, especially in the beginning, but once I made the decision, John, that I was going to carefully examine my feelings and my actions, it moved right along. And, you know, one of the great things about having written this book has been my son's response. Adam is now in Lima, Peru - interestingly - where he is studying to be a priest. And once the book was published, he read it and he sent me an absolutely beautiful e-mail about the book reflecting from where he is now on where he was then and what was happening between the two of us. And you know, he said to me, you know, dad, you don't have to worry about losing me. I'm yours, I'm your son, I always will be, and I love you. And that note was reason enough to write the book, John.
YDSTIE: Lou Ureneck, thank you very much.
Mr. URENECK: You're welcome.
YDSTIE: Lou Ureneck's memoir is called "Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska." He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston.
You can read an excerpt about the stormy day of Lou Ureneck's trip to Alaska at npr.org/books.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Scott Simon will return next week, broadcasting from Los Angeles.
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