North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey

North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey

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by Shannon Polson

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When Shannon Huffman Polson’s parents are killed by a wild grizzly bear in Alaska’s Arctic, her quest for healing is recounted with heartbreaking candor in North of Hope, as she retraces her parents’ final days along an Arctic river searching for her own sense of peace and meaning in the journey.See more details below


When Shannon Huffman Polson’s parents are killed by a wild grizzly bear in Alaska’s Arctic, her quest for healing is recounted with heartbreaking candor in North of Hope, as she retraces her parents’ final days along an Arctic river searching for her own sense of peace and meaning in the journey.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her debut, Polson offers a memoir of her journey down a river of grief, set against the sparkling beauty of the wilderness of her native Alaska. A year after her father and stepmother are killed by a bear in their remote camp, the author seeks solace in retracing their rafting route and visiting the site of the attack. Her unlikely companions are her estranged and volatile adopted brother, Ned, and his colleague Sally, a virtual stranger. Along the way, Polson rediscovers the Episcopal faith she abandoned. The trip also sparks self-discovery, love for nature, respect for many religious beliefs, and memories of her father and his wife, made vivid in journal entries they recorded during their voyage over the same territory, and which the author includes. While Polson shares brutally honest feelings that spark kinship with readers who have experienced grief, her need for details about the mauling itself might, in turn, alienate some. A protracted musical theme, detailing the author’s efforts to perform in a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, interrupts the flow of otherwise breathtaking imagery that captures an Arctic beauty that helps melt a heart frozen by grief. Agent: David Jacobsen (Mar.)

Product Details

Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Shannon Polson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She was a contributing writer to More Than 85 Broads, and her work has appeared in Seattle and Alaska Magazines, Cirque Journal, Adventure Magazine, and Trachodon, among others.

Polson graduated with a B.A. from Duke University in English Literature, an M.B.A. from the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and an M.F.A. from Seattle Pacific University. She served eight years as an attack helicopter pilot in the Army and worked five years in corporate marketing and management roles before turning to writing full time.

Polson serves on the board of the Alaska Wilderness League and sings with the critically acclaimed Seattle Pro Musica. She has looked for adventure and challenge anywhere she can find it, scuba diving, sky diving and climbing around the world, including ascents of Denali and Kilimanjaro, and completing two Ironman triathlons. She and her family enjoy backpacking, any kind of skiing, paddling, and spending as much time outdoors as they can in the Western states and Alaska. In September 2009, Polson was awarded the Trailblazer Woman of Valor award from Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell.

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North of Hope

By Shannon Huffman Polson


Copyright © 2013Shannon Huffman Polson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-32876-6




Hold my hand in this rupture of the planet while the scar of a purple sky becomes a star.

–Pablo Neruda, Canto General

The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska. I braced myself against the seat in front of me. Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky. The airstrip rushed upward with menacing inevitability. Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison's skull just north of the Arctic Coastal Plain. Ice stretched from just offshore to the horizon. The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk, first one wheel and then the other staggering on the rough surface. Our bodies lurched forward and to the side. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels until the sound smoothed into a rhythmic bumping to the end of the runway.

As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece. I stood on the boundary between land and sea, water and ice. It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule.

As much as I pretended that courage motivated my trip, my arrival was a supplication born of a bewildering devastation I could not shake. I came on my knees, begging and desperate. Though I was reared in Alaska, this was my first trip to the Arctic. But it was not the first day of this journey. This journey began a year ago, though I didn't then understand it, when the call came.

I was thirty-three years old, working in a new position in finance at a large company in Seattle. I didn't like finance, though I enjoyed working with my colleagues. I was smitten with a man named Peter, whom I had met three years earlier in business school in the Northeast. He was the first person I had ever thought I might marry. And then, on June 23, 2005, sitting on the couch of my Seattle apartment on a chilly summer evening, we decided things weren't working between us. I left early the next morning to drive to see my brother Sam and his wife in Portland, my dreams running down my face. That was Friday.

On Sunday, Sam, his wife, and I headed to the open-air market in Portland. A warm breeze wafted through the artists' stalls, and my sister-in-law and I strolled among the booths waiting for Sam to park and join us for lunch.

My phone rang, muffled, inside my purse. We reached the end of one row of artists' booths and turned the corner to walk down another. I fumbled around in my purse and silenced the ring, expecting to have plenty of time to talk on the three-hour drive home. From a distance, Sam ambled toward us, the same amble our dad had, all long strong legs. Walking among the artists' offerings, the three of us decided on lunch and sat at a picnic table to eat. The late morning sun settled around our shoulders as gently as a blanket. Around us drifted the laughter of children, the smell of cinnamon sugar and honey on elephant ears, and friendly flashes of color from wandering jesters with balloons.

As we returned to our cars, the pain of my breakup two days earlier suspended briefly in the cocoon of companionship, I said goodbye to Sam and his wife. I settled into my blue Jetta, turned the key, and smiled in the rearview mirror, holding my phone on my shoulder to listen to voicemail. I turned toward the highway, where I would leave my brother and his wife behind to head north.

Then the earth trembled.

The earth erupted.

"This is Officer Holschen from Kaktovik, Alaska, calling for Shannon Huffman. Please call me as soon as you get this message."

I didn't know the voice. I could barely comprehend the words. I pulled over. I called Sam and told him to pull over behind me, that I had just had a strange call. He jumped from his truck and strode to the passenger's side of my car. As he climbed into the passenger's seat—his frame, almost as tall as Dad's, filled it—I looked at my text messages and found a number with a 907 area code, indicating Alaska, and three additional numbers at the end: 911. My hand shook as I dialed. I couldn't remember my hand ever having been shaky before, but I couldn't stop the tremors.

"North Slope Borough," said the voice on the other end of the line.

There is a time in each of our lives when we are hurled into the terrible understanding that bedrock can crumble in the blink of an eye. And still, I felt a quiet and surprising steadiness, something wrapping itself around me to shield me from things to come. The shock protects you from the horror for a while, a brief respite from the cutting pain to come, a padding of grace. Even when you think you are feeling the pain, it has yet to begin.

"This is Shannon Huffman, returning Officer Holschen's call."

"Are you related to Richard and Katherine Huffman?" the voice asked.

"I'm Rich's daughter."

"I'm sorry to tell you this," said the voice, "but a bear came into their campsite last night ..."

Every part of what I thought I knew blazed like the brightest sun, extinguishing to blackness. The earth wobbled and spun out of orbit. Gravity no longer existed.

A flash of calculation appeared in the chaos, a shard of clarity thin and brittle as a sliver of glass: I had talked to Dad and Kathy the previous Sunday on Father's Day when they called on the satellite phone from a riverbank on the Hulahula River. They were fine, laughing, loving their trip. I would take care of them. I would need to make arrangements to get them to a hospital. I would need to talk to the doctors.

"... and they were both killed."

Exactly at that moment, Sam whispered, "Are they dead?" I nodded, all at once unbelieving, angry at the question, unable to breathe. In one prolonged instant, I vaguely felt the weight of Sam's head on my shoulder. I heard from him something like a sob. My breath caught in my throat. For a moment, time stood still. Cars driving by froze. People on the sidewalk halted mid-step. Sounds hushed.

I'm not sure how I closed the conversation, the first of many, with Officer Holschen, but it had something to do with having bodies sent to Anchorage. I remember asking him not to release their names until we had had a chance to inform Kathy's family. I registered a muted note of surprise—anything I registered was muted, as though I were covered in a layer of foam—that I knew what questions to ask. The questions that were harder to ask, and impossible to answer, came later.

* * *

Now, only a year later, I arrived in the Arctic to float the Hulahula River, wishing I'd had a chance to say goodbye. Wishing I had spent more time with Dad and Kathy on rivers. Wishing for a sense of deeper connection to them. I had hoped Sam might come on this trip too, but he declined. He had immersed himself in distance cycling and had a 1200-kilometer ride scheduled while I was away on the river. Our brother Max was tied up at work in D.C. I had come feeling hollow, scooped out, empty. I had come because I knew I had to, though I couldn't articulate why.

I'd chosen my two traveling companions for their willingness to make the trip: my adopted brother, Ned, and his work colleague Sally. We stumbled down the shaky steps from the plane onto the frozen dirt runway in the island village of Kaktovik, the only settlement on the northern edge of Alaska between the Canadian border and Barrow. Our journey would start upriver along the Hulahula River on the mainland, just as Dad and Kathy's trip had, requiring a flight south on a yet smaller plane. But first we had to pick up our raft and other supplies.

The few other passengers from the flight to Kaktovik dispersed into the treeless landscape, and we stood alo

Excerpted from North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson. Copyright © 2013 by Shannon Huffman Polson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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