The bestselling author of The Dog Stars and Celine returns with another thrilling adventure inspired by events from his own life in the great outdoors — including a narrow escape from a deadly wildfire.
In Peter Heller’s new novel, The River, a wilderness canoeing trip turns into a life-or-death struggle when two college students encounter a geochemist whose claim that his wife just went missing doesn’t quite add up and another pair of canoers who seem like a possible threat. All the while, a monstrous forest fire consumes its way toward them.
The wildfire lurks in the background throughout the book, seldom seen but sensed with gut-dropping dread like the predators in Jaws and Alien. It’s practically a character itself, and a well-developed one at that. For good reason: The inferno, an inevitable and unstoppable horror creeping toward the protagonists and antagonists alike, was inspired by a blaze that came a minute-and-a-half from ending the author’s life.
Heller was living in Paonia, Colorado, an artsy mountain town, after earning a master’s degree in poetry and fiction from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop the year before. He’d been given a grant to write an epic narrative poem about “a bad man in the West,” and he had just finished the poem when he saw the smoke.
“The last line was something like ‘A thread of braided grief, I give you fire,’ something like that,” he says in a phone interview with C&I a week before his 60th birthday. “It was a description of a waterfall. The last word was fire. I stepped outside to get a drink of water — there was this hydrant outside — and I noticed this plume of smoke. Paonia is in this valley, and on the north side of it is Grand Mesa, and it’s wooded on the slopes, and I saw this plume of smoke in the valley, and I was like, Crap, that’s Chuck’s house.”
Chuck Behrensmeyer was a friend of Heller’s who had hand-built a home where he lived with his wife, Jane McGarry. Heller threw a chain saw and a shovel in his truck and headed out to help but was stopped by police and firefighters blocking the road.
“They said, ‘You can’t go up there, there’s a fire,’” Heller says. “I said, ‘The hell with it,’ and I just ran up the road with the shovel.”
He joined a group of about 10 people — Behrensmeyer and McGarry along with town firefighters and neighbors — scrambling to cut down trees around the house and putting out little fires that flared up as wind-borne sparks landed. In the melee, they were hauling valuables out of the house. Among those valuables was Clawdette, a cat that Heller managed to get into his friend’s International Harvester truck.
“Then there was this gust of wind, and I’ll never forget it, ever,” Heller says. “Behind the screen of junipers, this bolt of flame and smoke, and this sound like a jet engine, and trees exploding, and it was freaking terrifying. And the firemen said, ‘We’re out of here,’ and cut their hoses and jumped in the truck. We had this line of cars, like six vehicles, going down this rough dirt road, and the smoke was coming thick across the road, and I was in the front truck with this cat going back and forth.” He laughs at the memory of Clawdette “hauling the mail inside the truck.”
By the time they were halfway down, they were driving through not just smoke but sparks and flames, he says. They reached a canal at the bottom and regrouped with the first responders.
“I looked back, and I timed it — and 90 seconds later, flames took that entire slope, like the entire hillside,” Heller says. “So we would have been cooked if we had been a little bit later.”
Fortunately, no one in the group was harmed, and they then headed to the next mesa downwind to help cut fences, allowing people’s elk herds to run from the conflagration. “It was a day of fire, and I’ll never forget it,” Heller says.
The date was July 4, 1994. Two days later just north of Paonia, on the other side of Grand Mesa, 14 firefighters would lose their lives in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain.
Heller began his writing career as an outdoors journalist after working in construction, logging, offshore fishing, and other trades. He penned two nonfiction adventure books and a memoir about learning to surf before returning to fiction with the 2012 post-apocalyptic quest The Dog Stars, 2014’s thriller The Painter, and 2017’s detective story Celine, all three of which are in various stages of development for screen adaptation. Like his journalism, his first three novels are brought to life with rich details that show an intimate knowledge of and love for the Mountain West — the hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. The River is set in northern Canada in even more remote and rugged environs.
Heller based the fast friendship of The River’s two main characters, Jack and Wynn, on his own relationship with the first buddy he made in college, a 6-foot-5 “gentle giant” named Jay Mead, an artist and outdoorsman. The choice of setting came from a canoe trip Heller made in the same remote northern Canada area of the book’s setting with his future wife, whom he had been dating for a couple months at the time. And the geochemist whose wife’s disappearance seems fishy to Jack was inspired by a stranger who left an indelible impression on a young Heller.
One evening at a dinner party when he was 17, Heller noticed a man in his late 20s holding a beer and leaning against a wall with a melancholy air about him that contrasted with the revelry. Someone had told Heller the man was a hydrologist and made his living in the field on canoe trips throughout Canada. It sounded like a fantastic job to Heller, who was already a passionate outdoorsman, so he went over to talk to the man.
“He said, ‘I lost my wife last summer,’” Heller recalls. “My jaw sort of dropped, and I said, ‘What happened?’” The hydrologist told him that during a research trip, she headed over a berm to relieve herself and never returned.
“I said, ‘Was it a bear attack?’ The guy said no, it wasn’t a bear. ‘Well, were there tracks? Did you search?’ ‘Of course, for a few days.’ I was sort of shocked. I walked away, and I knew that he was lying. Even at 17, all my antennae were humming. I knew that he was lying, and I thought, This guy killed his wife. I must have thought about that for the next 40 years, because when it came time to write a novel after Celine, that kept popping up, and I kept trying to think of a way to do it.”
Heller won’t run out of inspirations for his fiction anytime soon. Asked how he feels about his upcoming milestone birthday, the first things that come to mind are outdoor activities.
“I’m sure a lot of people turning 60 feel this way, but I feel like, How could I be 60?” he says. “I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m surfing better now than I ever have, I’m skiing better now. I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn in both of those. And I feel like my fiction is just getting started, like I’m just starting to flex my muscles. So it’s interesting.” He laughs. “It’s like, Wow, better put it into high gear.”
Photography: Peter Heller takes a break from cutting wood on his friend’s land in October 2018, in the same area where 25 years ago a wildfire came within 90 seconds of consuming them. Courtesy Peter Heller.