At the beginning of The River, Brian Robeson opens his front door to three men. They ask if he is the Brian Robeson who survived for fifty-four days alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash. Brian says yes. He thinks at first that the men are with the press, but they explain that they work for the government, teaching and providing psychological support for a military survival school. They want Brian to take one of them into the woods and show them how to survive.
“It’s a joke, right?” Brian asks—but he soon realizes that the men are serious. His period in the woods, which he thinks of as simply “the Time,” changed him, made him see and hear everything differently. Nobody can really understand how it felt to rely totally on himself, to re-discover fire, and to experience hunger that felt like it would never end. Brian tries to explain this to the men, but they reply that this is exactly what they want to learn. Eventually, with his parents’ consent, Brian decides to go.
Brian knows that his decision seems crazy. Most of what he remembers of the Time was terrible, but there were good parts too: the beauty of nature, and a sense of being capable of taking care of himself. People always assume that the Time hurt him, but he knows it did not. Instead, it made him a better person. He is quieter and more serious, but also closer to his mother and more able to accept hard realities, like his parents’ divorce.
Two weeks after Brian meets the three men, he and a military psychologist, Derek, board a bush plane to northern Canada. They consider bringing an elaborate set of back-up supplies, “just for emergencies,” but at the last minute Brian decides that they need to leave the gear behind. The only supplies Brian allows are a radio, in case they need to call for help, and an all-weather briefcase containing some spiral notebooks so that Derek can record what he learns. In addition to this, Brian and Derek each have a pocketknife.
The moment Brian lands on the lake, he finds himself reverting to the behaviors he learned during the Time. He notices everything around him: every bird, every plant, the feel of the air and the clouds. He realizes that it is going to rain in just six or seven hours, and he sets immediately to work making fire and shelter.
Derek works to help him erect a simple lean-to, but Brian fails to find flint, the kind of stone he needs to use to make a spark with the steel of his knife blade. When night falls they have no smoke to ward off the thick swarms of mosquitoes that attack them. Brian just covers himself as well as he can and lets the bugs bite the skin that remains bare. Derek fidgets and slaps until Brian says:
You must settle. In your mind. There are some fights you can’t win, and I think this must be one of them.
The rain starts in the middle of the night. It pours down straight through the makeshift shelter. Brian and Derek end up sitting under a tree and let the rain soak them.
All the next day, Brian works at finding shelter, food, and flint—which he calls “fire stone” because he did not know its name on his last trip to the wilderness. Derek presses him to speak aloud about what he is doing. He works his way along the edge of the lake, keeping it in sight to avoid getting lost, keeping an eye out for shelter and food. “Food is everything,” Brian explains. He continues:
You watch other animals, birds, fish, even down to ants—they spend all their time working at food. Getting something to eat. That’s what nature is, really—getting food.
By the end of the day, with Derek’s help, Brian has made a better shelter and built a fire. The two of them eat little except for raspberries and a few nuts, but over the next several days, they make tools and gather fish and clams.
As the days pass, Brian teaches Derek the basics of survival. Derek is uncoordinated and unskilled, but he is sincerely interested in learning how to survive and in helping others with his knowledge. Brian likes him. Still, Brian thinks his whole experience with Derek seems wrong somehow. He explains:
You don’t just fly in and get set on a perfect lake and have all the food you want and have it all come this easy. It isn’t real.
Brian tries to articulate how he felt during his first survival experience. He was alone, traumatized after watching the pilot of his plane die of a heart attack and injured after crashing the plane. Now, with Derek, he is surviving—but he is not scared and afraid the way he would be during an emergency. Derek thinks this over, clearly trying to discover how to work this into survival training. “You need the tension created by the emergency,” he says, and Brian agrees.
That night, Brian wakes up to the sound of thunder. The storm seems far away, but he knows how terrible it can be to experience storms in the wilderness. It will come or not; there is nothing he can do about it. Hoping it will miss them, he goes back to sleep. Hours later, the loudest thunderclap he has ever heard jolts him out of sleep. The booming sound goes on for a long time. In the midst of it, unable to hear Brian’s warning to stay down, Derek gets up and grabs the radio. At that moment, lightning strikes. It hits Derek directly. Brian, a few feet away, also absorbs some of the shock.
Some time later, Brian awakes to the smell and taste of burned hair. He feels awful, and the light of day hurts his eyes. It takes him a moment to piece together what has happened. Soon he finds Derek nearby, lying on his back, eyes half open. He does not respond when Brian speaks, but he is breathing. Brian cannot think properly, and everything looks fuzzy. Slowly he realizes that he needs help, but when he locates the radio, he sees that the lightning destroyed it.
For a day, Brian waits and hopes that Derek will return to consciousness. As Brian regains his ability to think, he considers his situation. He and Derek are supposed to radio status reports once every week, and they did this the night before the thunderstorm....
(The entire section is 2548 words.)
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