September 19, 2018
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Maine author chronicles outdoor adventures, tragic loss in latest book

Courtesy of Rob Jordan
Courtesy of Rob Jordan
Earl Brechlin
By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Courtesy of Down East Books
Courtesy of Down East Books
"Return to Moose River," by Earl Brechlin.

Hundreds of river miles have passed under Earl Brechlin’s canoe since he and a group of relatives and friends began staging elaborate Maine camping trips some 31 years ago.

There have been miscues — “They say you can’t call it an adventure if everything goes according to plan,” Brechlin explains — and tragedy. Friendships have been forged, tested and relied upon.

And at some point along the way, Brechlin, an award-winning journalist and founding editor of the Mount Desert Islander, decided there might be a few tales worth sharing.

“I’d been working on this Maine guide adventure love story novel, and I’d written a few chapters and sent them off to an agent in New York, and I realized I was using the novel to steer these stories about these people [that I went camping with],” Brechlin said.

The agent wasn’t enthusiastic about the novel, and Brechlin took stock in what he was attempting, asking himself a critical question.

“‘Why am I writing fiction?’’ Brechlin said. “I’m a journalist. I write stories about stuff. And [I realized] an essay form would be a better way to share those stories.”

Those stories — 16 essays in all — now make up Brechlin’s ninth book, “Return to Moose River, In Search of the Spirit of the Great North Woods,” published by Down East Books and released in June.

The book provides a wealth of insight into Maine, its people and the wild places that help make the state special.

Among the priceless nuggets: Brechlin’s description of what a motorist should do when learning that their location in the Maine woods is somewhere between two pages on the omnipresent DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.

“When that happens, the best strategy is to drive straight ahead as fast as you can until you’re middle of another page and can figure out where you are,” Brechlin writes.

The essays deal with specific trips to a number of the state’s rivers and mountains, and share hard-earned knowledge on wilderness skills and Maine lore. They also give Brechlin the opportunity to channel his inner Thoreau, and wax poetic about the woods and nature around him.

But at its best, “Return to Moose River” is a moving ode to adventures taken, trusted friends and loved ones who have been lost too soon.

“One of the conversations that you have around the campfire is, ‘How many trips do you get in your life?’ Do you get 20? Do you get 30?” Brechlin said. “You begin to realize that number, it’s a rare thing, and you certainly value and prize that more [as time passes].”

Brechlin starts the book with an essay about a canoe trip that celebrated the Moose River Camping Club’s 10th anniversary of a similar trip. The final essay involves the return to a much-loved river, where he and others spread the ashes of his twin brother, who had died on an excursion with the club.

Brechlin said he wrote the first essay — and the book’s capper — as a column years ago as a way to deal with the loss of his brother.

“So I kind of had the bookends,” Brechlin said. “[At that point] you know where you want to start, and you know where you want to end, but it’s kind of like a river trip — you don’t know what happens in the middle. And as I’m writing [the essays that fit into the middle], you finally get to that point where they point back to home base. It’s a moment of joy when that happens.”

The book’s penultimate essay is both powerful and painful to read, and must have been agonizing to write. In it, Brechlin details the death of his twin brother, Carl, on what was supposed to be a lazy tube ride down a southern river.

“The irony is, I wrote about it because I couldn’t talk about it, and now, people are talking to me about it [because of the essay],” Brechlin said.

Brechlin said helping to celebrate the special parts of a state he has adopted as home was important. Preserving the woods and waters alone isn’t enough. He feels exploring the connections between people and the natural world is essential.

“Hopefully, the book can remind people that it’s not just rocks and trees up there,” Brechlin said. “There are stories, and there’s great humanity there as well.”

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