Columns > Published on December 22nd, 2016

The Fictional Wilderness: 5 Books for a Cold Winter

I'm not really a hiking, outdoors kind of guy, but I love reading about it almost as much as I love reading about haunted old mansions. Now whether you're someone like me, who'd rather read about it than experience the real thing or someone who actually gets out once in a while, there's something here for everyone. Both informative and inspiring, the following books should keep you entertained until Spring comes along and you can hit the trails.

For something short and quick (and free!), you can read Jack London's To Build a Fire.

1. 'Barkskins' by Annie Proulx

Took me two days to finish this book, and that's because it's 736 pages long. The journey is worth it, for the most part. What we have here is a family epic that begins in New France in the 17th century, as two men arrive bound to a feudal lord. We then follow their exploits and those of their descendants for close to 300 years, with the extensive deforestation of native lands as a backdrop.

While it loses steam in its later half and some of the plots ventures into unbelievable territory, it's easily excused; it's hard to sustain a narrative through centuries and multiple protagonists as effectively as Proulx does.

If you're a writer, the sheer scope will blow your mind and probably teach you a thing or two, as well as inspire a character or scene.

If you're not daunted by the length, absolutely get this now.

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2. 'Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout' by Philip Connors

It's been a while since I've read this, but if you have any interest at all in firewatch towers and wilderness lookouts, this is probably the best book out there. What with being a kind of memoir, there's not a whole lotta "action" or excitement, but the description of the forest and musings on solitude more than make up for it. The chapters dedicated to the history of national forests and how we fight fires were a bit dry, but interesting nonetheless.

It's a nice leisurely read, easy to pick up and put down if you're commuting, as the chapters are somewhat unconnected anyway. You're bound to learn something too.

For the purposes of this book list, this one is a must have.

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3. 'The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir's Greatest Adventures' by John Muir

John Muir was a Scottish-American naturalist and writer. He explored the American wilderness and fought to preserve it. This book collects his wildest adventures in a short, fun volume. Stories about weathering freak storms, surviving avalanches and falls on Alaskan glaciers delivered in Muir's simple, well-crafted prose.

You could also check out Wilderness Essays for a more serious read. Actually, you probably should. Muir is a great writer and if you care about this kind of thing at all, you'll enjoy it. 

Probably a good choice for teens as well.

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4. 'The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense' by Christine Carbo

A crime novel set in Glacier National Park, The Wild Inside deals with special agent Ted Systead trying to solve a murder-by-bear: Somebody tied the victim to a tree and the bear did the rest. 

Systead's father was mauled and killed by a grizzly during a camping trip when he was just a kid. Ted survived the encounter, but was heavily traumatized. 

While the premise is a bit on the nose, the setting is very well realized and the mix of murder mystery and the bear as murder weapon angle sets up an interesting narrative. 

A solid debut novel that's a worthy entry in the "nature noir" subgenre.

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5. 'The Last Season' by Eric Blehm

A non-fiction novel about the disappearance of veteran Sierra Nevada mountain ranger Randy Morgenson. Morgenson failed to check in after a routine patrol, prompting an extensive search of the perilous mountains.

Eric Blehm's extensive research into Morgenson's life paints a vivid portrait of the kind of man who essentially gives up everything for his love of the wilderness.

The mystery of his disappearance itself is fascinating as well and Blehm weaves a compelling story. He also outlines the work that rangers do and issues they face from an organizational perspective.

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What's your favorite wilderness read? I'm always looking for more. And please forgive me for not including more Jack London.

About the author

George Cotronis lives in the wilderness of Northern Sweden. He designs book covers and sometimes writes. His stories have appeared in XIII, Big Pulp and Vignettes from the End of the World. He is also the editor in chief at Kraken Press and Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic. You can see his work at or read his rants over at his blog.

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