Two men take the same canoe trip twice, once after graduating from high school, then 50 years later as their lives are winding down.
In early fall of 1950, before Ben, who narrates Part One, leaves for Korea with the Marines and Harry enters college, the boys canoe down the Firesteel River in Wisconsin to Lake Superior, the Gitche Gumee of the title. Along the way they meet a bear, a giant trout, two aging but vicious outlaws, a wealthy hunter whose fish they poach and whose daughter Cora and her friend Wanda they also poach, some grass-smoking “bohemians” conveniently named Jack and Dean, and a dog that Harry ends up adopting. The adventures, while sometimes bloodthirsty, remain lighthearted, the boys’ chance for survival never in doubt. A short third-person account of Ben’s horrific experience in Korea follows. Saying little new about war-as-hell and shedding no light on Ben’s emotionally scarred character that is not clear from the rest of the story, it is mostly an excuse for some darker macho scenes. In Part Two, told by Harry, now a retired doctor dying of prostate cancer, the two men take the same river trip and find skewed parallels of their earlier adventures. They encounter a giant salamander that’s destroying the trout population, then are reunited with Wanda and Cora, who now run a hunting lodge. The salamander turns out to be part of an evil plot instigated by a former anti–Vietnam activist/vegetarian computer-mogul who hates hunting and therefore wants to put Cora out of business. Things turn increasingly preposterous until Ben and Harry face a Thelma and Louise decision.
Hunters and fishermen who don’t mind the sloppy plot and undeveloped cast will enjoy the precision and passion that Jones (Deadville, 1998, etc.) puts into what really matters: hooking a fish, guns, and the art of packing supplies.