Self-Discovery in a Canoe

A 54-day Arctic journey teaches deep lessons

In a review of an account of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing adventure in the Antarctic, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker attributed Shackleton’s lifelong passion for the vast white wastes of the South Pole to the explorer’s discovery of “the deep contentments of desolation.”

Jennifer Kingsley is a kindred spirit of Shackleton’s.

Kingsley is a naturalist and guide in Canada’s most remote North. She is also a writer and she has a story: a 54-day canoe journey she made in 2005 with five companions down the Back River to the Arctic Ocean.

Kingsley and her long-time paddling partner Tim Irvin trawled their community for four others, acquiring a third canoeing veteran they both knew well and three others, two women and a man, less experienced in white water and less known to them.

Prior to setting out, the six of them dealt creatively with these disparities by agreeing to shift tent partners and paddling pairs throughout the trip. They also rotated leadership, with the leader-of-the-day empowered to make final decisions. Other agreements were made at the outset: no food drops, no phone contacts, no reliance on outside aid except in dire emergency. They would travel through Nunavut tundra and reach their endpoint in the Arctic Ocean under their own power.

Journeys are a rich mine to plumb, having, as every good narrative does, a beginning, a middle and an end. Kingsley’s words, rising from her diary, read as freshly as when she laid the scaffold for her book nine years ago.

Her writing mirrors the trip’s arc, starting hesitantly as she and her companions find their fit with the still-winter conditions on the river and with each other. “I longed to be my best self and was afraid that person wouldn’t show up,” she writes. Her boat capsizes on virtually the first day, and then never again. By mid trip, she is fully engaged, the writing at its strongest and most confident as she steers through one furious set of rapids after another, the land sprawling around them unbroken by a single tree. When the group reaches the brackish water of the Arctic Ocean delta, the rhythm of the trip judders, tensions surface that were of no account when the trip was in full flow. The group is wind-bound, the world they left behind pressing in, fraying their connection with the land and with each other.

Kingsley’s style is concise and spare, nicely evoking what she loves best:

The diagonal push that came from left to right tried to slam us back to shore. The wind would assist, but I pried us out, mid-tongue, until we moved beyond the black-on-black shadow that waited to toss us over. It passed a hand’s breadth from my hip, and we were home free, for one … two … until I angled toward the boiling eddy line. Chaos.

… Jen reached across the boiling confusion and planted her paddle like a tree in firm soil. She leaned far over, beyond logic, and the whole vessel pivoted around her until we bumped up gently to the head of the eddy.

Hallelujah, finding a travel writer who describes meals. Did ever a group eat so handsomely? Kingsley is six feet tall, 140 pounds. With a metabolism like a furnace she insisted they eat well. “My plastic bowl arrived, heaping with quinoa, onions, pine nuts, and crispy trout. The batter crunched between my teeth … the fish steamed; onions sizzled.”

The river they travel is named for George Back, from whose journal Kingsley, noting his light touch, frequently quotes. A surprising number of explorers and expeditioners, slogging through appalling conditions, were highly literary. (Shackleton wrote verse.) It is an interesting coincidence, these three traits: love of adventure, high arousal and a gift for turning a phrase.

What has changed in adventure literature is the focus. Roughly put, nature used to have the starring role, now the observer has. Travel writing these days reflects the trend everywhere, the great swelling in the use of the first person. Now we expect to know who this person forced to eat their moccasins is. Writers pay attention to the effects of landscape as much as to landscape itself.

A hundred, even 50, years ago, self-exposure was unseemly. John Hunt’s account of the first recorded summit of Mount Everest in 1953 breathes not a whisper of what it cost him to send Edmund Hillary that final distance rather than go himself. Swoops of emotion, the tug of group dynamics were detailed only glancingly, if at all. (That is not to say their effects were not addressed. On his final desperate push to South Georgia to find rescue for his stranded crew, Ernest Shackleton took with him a formidable seaman who was also a lout and a bully, rather than have him trouble those left behind.)

In the unused places of the Earth, nature calls the shots. She unravels humans, wakes us up, rocks us, thumps us in the solar plexus, not to mention kills us. To spend days and days in wild land is to ride a huge animal. The currents set running in a group utterly organize how a trip unfolds. But until lately, we did not hear about it.

Kingsley is a keen observer of both landscapes, interior and exterior. The conflict that arises on the Back River for her group is a worthy one, a split between devotees of “be here now” and those who favour getting the trip done. Moving on caribou time, hanging out on the land is balm for three of the group. The other three weight their lives more in the future when the trip will be over: they want to move along. This divide is temperamental. Stamped on the bone is whether we draw our vitality more from congress with nature or with people.

Another source of tension, noted but not laboured, is Tim’s state of mourning throughout the trip. His mother had died only two months earlier and the effect of his grief on a small, isolated group must have been daunting. For Kingsley, closer to him than anyone and protective of him, his loss was hers as well. Tim’s grief deprived her of his availability and marooned her in the group.

The book is an emotional read, a sense of longing or yearning running throughout. Kingsley is a fine and vulnerable writer. She is a very tall woman in a culture that shames tall women. Being in wild land put her in line with herself in a way she prized. She writes that she came north to feel “both small and strong” and the cold sweeping plains of Nunavut do that for her.

She is the same breed as the American paddler and writer Audrey Sutherland. Deep into old age, Sutherland still spent every summer in Alaska’s Panhandle tooling around in a six-foot inflatable kayak, bottles of wine stowed fore and aft, preparing herself delicious mussel curries in the evenings. Her credo was: Go simple. Go solo. Go now.

That’s Kingsley in 30 years.