Portland, Maine When newspaper editor Lou Ureneck took his teenage son Adam on a 110-mile river journey through the Alaskan wilderness in August 2000, he had more in mind than observing wildlife and catching salmon and Arctic char.
The fishing trip was Ureneck's desperate attempt to reconnect with his son just before Adam went off to college, an effort to ensure that the angry and alienated youngster, who blamed his father for his parents' bitter divorce, would remain a part of his life.
As the two traveled by raft down the Kanektok River to the sea, a trip fraught with dangerous episodes, nasty weather and repressed emotions that sprung to the surface, Ureneck jotted down his thoughts and observations in a journal. Three years later he decided to write about the trip and realized there was a lot more to the story than he had anticipated.
"As the narrative unfolded, there was this kind of undertow that pulled me back to my own childhood, and it eventually became a book really about paternity, about fatherhood. These two different journeys - the journey down the river and the journey growing up as a boy, as a fisherman, without a father," Ureneck, 57, said in an interview. By examining his past, he was better able to come to terms with it.
His critically acclaimed memoir, "Backcast," weaves the 10-day father-and-son adventure in southwestern Alaska with Ureneck's own back story, beginning with a chaotic upbringing in New Jersey in which his father walked out when he was 7 and disappeared from his life. The family was strapped for money and Ureneck remembers having to move 17 times during childhood, sometimes skipping out on the rent.
As he grew to manhood, Ureneck yearned for a normal life, promising himself that he would keep his family intact. He vowed to never subject his two children to the kind of grief he endured when his father, and later his alcoholic stepfather whom he truly loved, were lost to him because of divorce.
Early on, he found solace in fly fishing. His book draws its title from fishing - when a line is thrown back in order to propel it forward. When the backcast is right, the forward cast is more likely to be on target.
"This was an effort to look back and to know my own story, to tell my story as a child and as a young man and to know what I've been through as a divorcing parent," he said.
The Alaska trip was the fulfillment of a promise Ureneck made to Adam after separating from his wife. His 15-year marriage, strained by his career ambitions, collapsed after he lost his job as top editor of the Portland Press Herald and began work at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he advanced to page-one editor.
To save money, father and son went to the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge without a guide, which can cost as much as $1,000 a day for a party of two. But that made the trip a lot riskier.
The dangers became clear the second day when Ureneck and Adam rounded a bend and came upon a 1,000-pound brown bear standing knee-deep with her cub in a narrow section of the river. A tense standoff ensued along the shore, with Ureneck aiming his shotgun at the bruin as she stood so close he could hear and smell her.
Later in the trip, the gulf between father and son was exposed when Ureneck's sleeping bag got drenched in a rainstorm and Adam refused to allow him to share the waterproof bag in which he'd been sleeping.
That set the stage for a pivotal confrontation when Adam got caught in a dangerous current after jumping out of the raft to play a big char. When Ureneck warned him to never do that again, all of Adam's rage and his father's frustrations boiled up, leaving Adam ablaze with anger and Ureneck fearful that the trip was in ruins.
"It's a turning point in the book. It's the place where I really begin to reassert myself as a father and begin to use the confidence that I've been gaining along the way," he said. Despite long silences over the next few days, Ureneck senses that the relationship has been changed for the better.
The trip culminated in a treacherous ride through the Braids, a section near the mouth of the river that branches into several strands. Which way to turn became a matter of guesswork, leaving Ureneck to wonder if the wrong choice could leave them lost forever.
The sharp-tipped branches that protrude from the river, threatening to pierce and deflate the raft, posed a more immediate threat. Ureneck handed the oars to Adam, the stronger of the two, while he positioned himself in the bow, watching for obstacles and shouting directions well into the early morning. The challenge became a parable for Ureneck's broken relationship with Adam and his attempt to mend it.
"We were lost in Alaska, and I was also lost in my life," he said. "We were lost together, and as father and son we needed to work together and get through this difficult night."
When the trip was over, Adam headed to Bowdoin College in Maine. After graduation, he joined a group of Roman Catholic brothers doing social work in Peru, where he is now studying for the priesthood.
In response to e-mail questions, Adam said the trip was an important event during a painful time in his family's history.
"The fishing was still a clear language between us both. It kept us communicating, even if it was only in arguments. Arguing over where to cast and what fly to use was certainly better than brooding alone. We could always talk about fishing," he recalled.
Adam said the book, which won a National Outdoor Book Award, helped him understand his father.
"Seeing him from the point of view of his history shed a lot of light into who he is and why he set out to organize what should have been an impossible trip," he said.
Ureneck, who left the news business to teach journalism at Boston University, said the time spent with his son in Alaska didn't solve all their problems, "but it pointed us in the right direction."
"Our relationship was altered in small but important ways as a result of the trip," he said. "The bigger change was in me. I came back from the trip feeling more confident, proud of myself for keeping my promise and for having successfully gotten us down that difficult river."