Saturday, September 06, 2014

The not-so-big chill: Naturalist's northern reflections feel guarded, routine

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience and Renewal in the Arctic Wild
By Jennifer Kingsley
Greystone Books, 240 pages, $30

These days, Ottawa-based naturalist Jennifer Kingsley builds radio documentaries about encounters with whales and is the on-board naturalist for National Geographic tours through the Northwest Passage.

But, back in 2005, when she embarked on a 54-day canoe trip to the Arctic with five companions, she was still trying to figure out the boundaries of what increasingly was becoming a "wilderness-bound life," saying "most of the people closest to me would never see me in the places I love most, where I am often my best and sometimes at my worst."

The record of this negotiation is Paddlenorth, Kingsley's first book. This is travel writing of an extreme sort, where the narrator describes her numb and cracked feet and bug-bitten skin with a kind of pride.

Unfortunately, Kingsley is unwilling to slip into either the naturalist or confessional modes that are de rigueur for either nature writing or memoir, and the book suffers as a result.

Though she now makes her living as a guide for other people seeking their own adventures, Kingsley seems reluctant to spend too much time describing the landscape around her or to put what she's seeing into context for the reader.

For instance, Kingsley fervently hopes that their journey on Nunavut's Back River intersects with the annual barrens caribou migration, writing over and over that this is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Eventually, their group is surrounded by more caribou than Kingsley can count. But what's missing is the information that the caribou herds were in significant decline even in 2005, and that there were concerns by northern officials over how rising temperatures owing to climate change and the incursions by mining companies in caribou calving grounds were affecting the herds.

Kingsley is also unwilling delve too deeply into the interpersonal relationships among the six companions. And that's a shame, because it robs the book of much of the "resilience" and "renewal" promised in the book's subtitle. We don't really get to know more than one or two of the other paddlers and the conflict suggested by passages here and there is never fully explored.

Kingsley chooses to fill these gaps with descriptions of other travellers in the region, focusing in on British naval officer and explorer George Back, who explored the area in 1834 as well as the disastrous tenure of Catholic missionary Joseph Builiard in the area in 1949.

She also goes into great detail about the ill-conceived 1955 Arctic journey led by Arthur Moffatt, which led to his death from hypothermia.

All of these histories are interesting, but they're exclusively male and Euro-western. (Where are the Inuit and Dene stories from the region, both historical and contemporary?)

They also serve to highlight the fact that, while anyone would agree that spending the summer canoeing in the Arctic is extreme, there is very little privation for Kingsley and her companions. They have space-age fabrics, maps and plenty of food to see them through their trip.

Which leaves us with the subtitle's final hook: "adventure." Yes, Kingsley's group traverses several sets of big rapids and even capsizes a canoe early on. They also have to wait out some nasty weather, which threatens to delay their departure, but everything mostly goes as planned...

Towards the end of Paddlenorth, Kingsley writes "everybody has a different reason for committing a journey to paper, and no one has the same memory." She's talking about George Grinnell's 1996 account of the Moffatt expedition, but she could have easily been discussing her own story.

It's unclear what Kingsley's reasons were for writing about this particular trip, especially as she's since been on dozens of others and because she seems so guarded about what seems to have been a largely uneventful trip.

My wish for her is that the next time she writes an account of her travels—and I'd like to read that next book— that she trusts both her readers and herself a little more.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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