Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge , by Jill Fredston

Book Review


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Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge , by Jill Fredston
Hardcover - 209 pages
First Edition - October 2001
Published by North Point Press
ISBN 0-374-28180-7 / 0374281807
Nonfiction : Travel Memoirs

Rowing to Latitude is written in the first person and mostly in the present tense by Jill Fredston, as she and her husband, Doug Fesler, practice their lifestyle of spending five months per year kayaking and rowing (tens of thousands of miles to date) in the icy waters of arctic regions.

Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill Fredston - Hardcover : Nonfiction : Travel Memoirs

As they trace the coastlines and riverbanks of Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Canada and Alaska, the travelers overcome life-threatening dangers by day, including storms and polar bears, and pitch tents at night. When they aren't too busy struggling to survive, they have the pleasure of meeting local populations and taking photographs.

We see that the task of surviving involves a range of activities. The trekkers prefer "conservative 'go' and 'no go' decisions" in difficult weather and currents [page 180], and on one occasion they "hunkered from the wind inside a circular rock wall." [126] But when they are awakened by the slash of a bear's paw which shreds the tent around them, they can only shout "Hey, bear!" to scare the animal away. [127]

If one doesn't have any dangers to face, the next best thing would be to imagine some. At one point Fredston has the leisure time to relax with a good book, an account of a group of arctic travelers a hundred years earlier, "so frail with hunger that they were forced to eat their boots." [163] That event took place at the same spot where she sits and reads about it.

Fredston and Fesler always travel in separate boats. This is a practical strategy -- it allows them to carry more supplies. Separate boats, said the book review in Publishers Weekly, is "an apt metaphor for their marriage." In fact, they do get on each other's nerves once in a while [66-67], but show me a loving couple who do not.

Of course, the pair have to work for a living to support their rowing hobby. The rest of the year they live near Anchorage, where they direct the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, and teach a curriculum in how to recognize the signs of, and avoid doom at the appearance of, impending avalanches. It was in the latter role that they also wrote Snow Sense : A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard (Paperback, 116 pages, 5th edition - June 2001). Such periodicals as Backpacker magazine and Powder magazine were direct in declaring that reading and rereading Snow Sense will save lives. But Rowing to Latitude is more intended for, as the review in the Wall Street Journal phrased it, "armchair travelers."

Table of Contents
Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge , by Jill Fredston
Preface ix
1. The Pull of Rowing 3
2. Tufluk Kabloona 29
3. Rites of Passage : Seattle to Skagway 51
4. Stream of Consciousness : The Yukon River 85
5. Big Surf and Bad Bears : The Chukchi Sea 107
6. At the Dark Time, Pull the Cord : The Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean 138
7. If I Were a Place: The Coast of Labrador 170
8. The Devil in the Violin : Alaskans in Norway 199
9. A Whale of a Day in Svalbard 224
10. Reflections from a Hard Seat 240
11. Searching for Open Water : Greenland 264
Acknowledgments 287

The brief historical tangents are delightful. One of these is an account of the whaling boats of the 1880s and 1890s [pages 147-150], rich in well-chosen adjectives. I visualize an analogy to the Gold Rush when Fredston tells the story of Little Joe Tuckfield, who, in 1889, sparked an influx of whalers by sending a report that he had found a spot where the whales were "as thick as bees." [148]

Ms. Fredston also has a knack for the poetic phrase. Chapter 7 begins [170] --

"If I were a place I'd be Labrador: improbable, impossible, tempestuous, serene, thinly populated. I'd be smooth boulders carried by great rivers of ice, plopped down at random, and balanced precariously against the odds of gravity for thousands of years. I'd be spired mountains, crumbling ridgelines, and winds that literally make the water smoke. I'd be purple sunsets, bedrock that looks like marshmallows, and relentless green waves beating against the shore...."

The author is also philosophical --

"Person, place, or thing? The games we played as kids had such seemingly simple answers. How can a person be a place? How can a place not become part of a person? We remember a place not just for its beauty but for the way that beauty made us feel; these feelings are woven into an emotional tapestry we call self. The most special places are the ones that give texture to our dreams, that ground us, make us whole, remind us of what is real."

The text thus moves gracefully in and out of encounters with igloo dwellers [147], elaborate description of the flapping of a bird [180], historical storytelling, reactions to immmediate dangers, and the finer abstractions on life.

The book includes an 8-page glossy insert containing 16 color photos. Particularly mouth-watering is the author's photo of a scarlet sunset in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Inside front cover: map of Alaska and northwestern Canada. Inside back cover: map of eastern Canada, Greenland, and Europe. No index.

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

This is an Amazon.com link for ISBN 0374281807 ; 0-374-28180-7
Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge
by Jill Fredston

Book Descriptions from the Publisher

Jill Fredston has traveled to more than twenty-thousand miles of the Arctic and sub-Arctic -- backwards. With her oceangoing rowing shell and her husband, Doug Fesler, in a small boat of his own, she has disappeared every summer for years, exploring the rugged coastlines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway. Carrying what they need to be self-sufficient, the two of them have battled mountainous seas and hurricane -- force winds, dragged their boats across jumbles of ice, fended off grizzlies and polar bears, and raced against the approach of a harsh northern autumn that narrowed their passage to barely oars' width.

Yet they have also been serenaded by humpback whales and scrutinized by puffins, and they have ventured into some of our last, and most breathtaking, unspoiled places. They have glimpsed nature virtually untouched by human experience, and human experience stripped to its essential states: threat and safety, turbulence and calm, solitude and intimacy.

As Fredston writes, these trips are "neither a vacation nor an escape, they are a way of life." Rowing to Latitude is a lyrical, vivid celebration of her northern journeys and the insights they inspired. It is a passionate testimonial to the extraordinary grace and fragility of wild places, the power of companionship, the harsh but liberating reality of risk, the lure of discovery, and the challenges and joys of living an unconventional life.



"After several seasons of being barraged by books about disaster and death in the wilderness, Rowing to Latitude comes as a breath of fresh air. Fredston describes experiences as close to the edge of catastrophe as any adventure book, but she rides them all out with grace, judgment and muscle, and her self-awareness, humor and feeling for the animals, landscapes, and forces around her make for great nature writing. While disaster books confirm our decision to stay on the sofa, Rowing to Latitude will make most of us wish we were Fredston, on open water above the Arctic Circle. She moves through her subject as she moves along coastlines -- like a seal through the sea."

-- Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust : A History of Walking

"There are places left on earth -- fewer all the time -- for real adventure. The Arctic of this remarkable book may someday be only a memory, but these images offer escape of the noblest sort."

-- Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Long Distance : A Year of Living Strenuously

"A tale of personal adventure told with fidelity, insight, and poetry. What literature is all about!"

-- Richard Bode, author of First You Have to Row a Little Boat : Reflections on Life and Living

Amazon.com link for
Rowing to Latitude : Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge
by Jill Fredston - Hardcover Nonfiction - ISBN 0-374-28180-7 / 0374281807

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