Book Review: Paddlenorth

The arctic canoe trip that reshaped Jennifer Kingsley’s life

Kingsley bow-paddling across the arctic plains. Photo Tim Irvin

Kingsley bow-paddling across the arctic plains. Photo Tim Irvin

By Conor Mihell

Reading Ottawa-based writer Jennifer Kingsley's new book, Paddlenorth (Greystone Books, $26.95), you can't help but envision an idyllic place: The endless expanse of the Canadian tundra, the relentless flow of a wild river, and iconic megafauna roaming free in one of the last great wilderness on the planet. But Kingsley's tale of a 54-day canoe trip on Nunavut's Back River in the summer of 2005 also recalls a not-so-distant time when six young people had the time and motivation to embrace a canoe journey far removed from the technology and stress of modern life—and to reap the rewards of adventure.

In Paddlenorth, Kingsley reveals her aptitude in natural history interpretation as well as wilderness philosophy. Through her own ups and downs—joyous wildlife encounters, terrifying whitewater runs and personality clashes amongst the group—Kingsley challenges romantic stereotypes about "wilderness as healer, transformer, provider, paradise." The North is all that, she contends, but only to those who go into the wild with an open mind and are prepared to live in the moment.

Ottawa-based writer Jennifer Kingsley, author of Paddlenorth

Ottawa-based writer Jennifer Kingsley

Paddlenorth is compulsively readable—in part, for the emotional drama and inward soul-searching reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed's bestseller, Wild. Kingsley adds meat to the narrative in contrasting historical figures like Captain George Back, the Brit who first descended the river in 1834, and 1950s northern missionary Father Buliard with modern-day dilemmas, such as how to effectively integrate technology into a wilderness experience. Her prose is lean, raw and inspiring—the hallmarks of great travel writing.

We caught up with Kingsley to learn more about the trip and the personal reflection that went into sharing its memories.

CanoeKayak.com: The likelihood of six young people coming together for an eight-week canoe trip seems old-fashioned and impossible in the world today. Yet the trip you describe happened only 10 years ago. What brought it about?

Jennifer Kingsley: I'm fortunate to be in a community of people who find this sort of thing appealing. There was a certain amount of technology back then, but we purposely steered away from it. That's a lot more difficult today. For me, the idea of being away from people and the trappings of modern life continues to have appeal. In one way or another, we all saw that challenge or romance back then and made the commitment to embrace it.

The story is as much about your own personal journey as it is about a canoe trip. What were you expecting going into the trip?

I tried really hard not to have expectations, but when I put myself back there I realized there were many. Mainly they revolve around the expectation that in the wilderness, I would automatically become my best self. I would be strong, carefree, have lots of energy and a clear head. I got there on this trip but it was a challenge.

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What did you learn about group dynamics on the Back River?

I'd done a lot of outdoor stuff before so being in a group wasn't new to me. But looking back, I know myself a lot better now than I did then. I couldn't see the forces that were acting on me. I tried to be as honest as possible in Paddlenorth. At some points I was irritated or protective or attached to a certain outcome. I've had some interesting feedback about the way that plays out in the book, like, "Jenny Kingsley doesn't sound like a nice person!" But as much as I portrayed some difficulties, we were always functional as a group. I hope readers understand that I have nothing but respect for all of the people I traveled with.

Can you share some tips for making a group trip work?

To share the decision-making and responsibility we had rotating "leaders of the day." Especially on a canoe trip, where there's such an emphasis on pairings, I think rotating social partnerships is a good thing. We rotated tent and paddling partners. In the evening, go for a hike with someone different. The number one thing in choosing a group is safety. Attitude is more important than skill. On the Back River, we had people with little experience in whitewater and long trips, yet everyone did fine. The last thing is to accept the people you're with. That's your group and they're great. Be positive about it.

Was this a summer you cherished?

Something about this trip wouldn't rest. It kept recirculating in my mind. The experience wasn't complete until I shared it. That's when the journey finally ended for me.

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