School of The Haunted River, The

1 September 2023

The School of the Haunted River
by Colleen Gerwing
Published by Endless Sky Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.99 ISBN 9781989398869

What a surprise. It’s poetic, actually. During my Saskatoon years, each time I’d launch a book, an affable but unassuming woman I knew only by sight would attend and we’d make minimal small talk while she had her copy signed. I moved. Several years passed. I never thought of her again.

Last week a newly-released autobiographical novel arrived in the mail. The School of the Haunted River concerns outdoorswoman Jay, who takes her college-aged niece, Dilly, on a two-week snowshoeing and camping trip in northern Saskatchewan. I flipped to the author bio and photo before beginning the novel, and there she was, Colleen Gerwing, the woman who’d attended all of my Saskatoon launches. I never even knew she was writing. And I certainly never knew she’d died in 2021; this sad fact made reading her fine stories-within-a-story even more bittersweet.

In her “real” life, Gerwing, I learned, grew up on a farm near Lake Lenore, SK, and her love of adventure was evident from childhood. In 1977 she hitchhiked to the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and later worked for the Parks Service (mostly in Prince Albert National Park), ran Wilderness Trips for Women, and shared her zest for outdoor life via the Saskatoon Boys and Girls Club. Canoeing, snowshoeing, winter camping … these were her passions. Apparently documenting her adventures was a passion, too.

In this reflective novel—the author’s cover painting of a canoeist in the boreal forest demonstrates that Gerwing was also a talented artist—the snowshoeing trip provides the frame from which Jay shares stories about her earlier canoeing adventures during the grueling, solo, five-month canoe trip that was part of her Outdoor School experience. “̒I was dropped off by plane in a remote area,’” she begins, revealing that the earlier expedition was near where the aunt and niece are now snowshoeing.

Jay’s solo canoe expedition began at the Saskquatsch Annie River, northwest of La Ronge, and she was to travel in a circular route, ending at Silver Feather Lake. Packrider “Cowboy” dropped provisions along the route every few weeks. The first night, ice and snow still on the ground, Jay slept beneath her sleek canoe: “̒ … in my sleeping bag, I squirmed like a big grub in a cocoon under trillions of stars in trillions of galaxies with unfathomable empty space between. I was nothing. And that made me feel like everything.’”

All the wildlife encounters, weather woes, a “̒scourge of mosquitoes,’” portage and river challenges, and the hunger one would expect from an extended, solitary canoe journey are here, but it’s the revelations about self and humanity that raise this book to a higher level. Gerwing ingeniously weaves her engaging life-story into an adventure novel and fills it with life lessons and poetic gems, like “̒Sunrise is a wordless poem,’” “̒Gratitude is a moving target,’” and “̒I could’ve left, but somebody had to look for stars in the sky.’”

Thank you, Colleen Gerwing, for transporting us to your sanctuary. Rest well now.


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