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
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
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.