North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journeyby Shannon Polson
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
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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.
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North of Hope
By Shannon Huffman Polson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013Shannon Huffman Polson
All rights reserved.
A SCARRED SKY
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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What People are saying about this
Daring, perceptive, and eloquentPolson’s writing is clear and forceful. Like all true pilgrimages, this one is challenging, and well worth taking. Scott Russell Sanders, , author, Earth Works and A Conservationist Manifesto
Polson’s extraordinary journey draws you into the depths of anguish and brings you back out realizing that while not all things fractured can be healed, the soul will gravitate toward beauty, art, and meaning if guided in the right direction. Alison Levine, , mountaineer, polar explorer, and team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition
North of Hope is an enthralling story of loss, courage, and redemption told by a gifted, original, and brave new voice, Shannon Huffman Polson. Robert Clark, , award-winning author of ten books, including Dark Water and Mr. White’s Confession
As Shannon Polson poignantly recounts the loss of family members to a grizzly attack in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, framing her memoir around her own trek into the wilderness where they perished, she comes to believe that there is grace and wonder in the most unlikely places, that the landscape’s wildness can teach you about letting go of control, and that Easter doesn’t arrive until you’ve experienced Good Friday. Anyone who has endured the grief of losing someone or something they loved will identify with the advice Polson was given: “When tragedy comes into your life, the most beautiful thing you can do is keep moving forward.” Cindy Crosby, , former National Park Ranger and author of By Willoway Brook (www.cindycrosby.com)
Shannon Polson brilliantly tells the story of venturing into the Alaskan wilderness to find the place where her parents were killed. Interwoven with that journey is the story of how she auditioned for and sang the Mozart Requiem. This is no ordinary memoir. To read it is to be changed. Jeanne Walker, , author, New Tracks, Night Falling
Shannon Huffman Polson has written a book about loss that is both unique to her personal experience and universal to the human experience. She writes with clarity, honesty, and poise. The end of her story has the surreal feel of fictiona moment so unbelievable and fitting that it must have happened. Readers will find themselves caught up in that poetic end, and in the breadth of story that comes before it. Andrea Palpant Dilley, , author, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt
North of Hope, Shannon Polson’s gripping account of the shattering, traumatic loss of her father, is a must read. In the end, Shannon is faced with a choicedoes she choose the beauty and majesty of life or succumb to the pain and trauma of the loss of her beloved father? It is only after her father’s death that she truly listens to, and embraces, his messageto believe in her own strength and to live a life of meaning and purpose. Shannon’s book is a gift to everyone who reads this powerful, inspiring story. Janet Hanson, , CEO and founder, 85 Broads
North of Hope is a remarkable story about the power of the wilderness both to harm and to heal, and to provide strength and sustenance to the human spirit, no matter what the challenges. Nicholas O’Connell, , author, The Storms of Denali; instructor, www.thewritersworkshop.net
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Alaskan Wilderness. Beauty. The horror of a fatal bear attack. Hatred. Healing. Hope. You have to pick up this book. It will be difficult to put down. Read about one woman’s quest to retrace her father’s final steps. There are no simple answers. Pain is messy. I recommend this book to you even if you don’t usually enjoy memoirs. This one is different. Disclaimer: The publisher provided a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.
One year after her father and step-mother are mauled to death by a bear during a remote Alaskan kayak trip, Polson takes the same trip herself for reasons she had yet to discover, but intrinsically knew would be a salve to her grief. Polson takes the risky trip with a brother she didn't trust and a woman she had never met before. Polson's trip is laden with flashbacks that reveal her relationship with her father as well as pages from the diary her father and step-mother write on their final kayak trip. This memoir is a phenomenal book in so many ways. In it,s purist form, it is the story of a daughter searching for meaning with the loss of her father. Perhaps, by walking his final steps she will feel his presence and proof of an afterlife. It's a story of tenuous family relationships, a story of finding meaning in life, a story of outdoors adventure and nature exalted. A story of compulsion. You will find yourself grappling along with Polson to determine why she took this journey. Was the trip a Benediction of sorts? Feel her shock as she suspects: "I could move toward their final campground and find them and hold them close... I knew that if I did not break loose, I would be pulled down into the place called death and would not be able to return." Was the trip a Requiem? An Offertories? An "inarticulated plea for peace?" I could feel Polson's supplication: "The river flowed by, running, always running. I wanted it to stop, I wanted it to flow in reverse. I wanted there to be a dam in the river somewhere far back in the mountains, a lake to catch the water and keep it safe for swimming, for drinking, for watching sunlight dancing on the surface of still waters. But the water flowed mercilessly north. There was healing in the tyranny, and tyranny in the healing." Polson has a biting tongue attitude toward her siblings, harsh and conflicted feelings toward fellow travelers. I found myself curious to hear her brother's side of the story. There is an undercurrent of disdain as well as a proprietary stake to her father that I found suspicious. Me thinks she doth protest too much. But even that pulled my heart strings. Shannon Huffman Polson is larger than life. She's an attack helicopter pilot, a singer with the Seattle Pro Musica, a scuba diver, sky diver, climber; a Trailblazer Woman of Valor, she has climbed Denali and Kilimanjaro, completed two Ironman Triathlons and now she's a writer. And a really, really good one at that. Full Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher for the purpose of a blogger review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Shannon Polson truly puts her heart and soul into this memoir. She cleverly weaves the story together while jumping between her journey on the river and the backstory of her childhood, father's death, and grief experience. However, far from being distracting, this technique captivated my attention as I continually wanted to get back to the river (!) and finish the journey. Polson's honest telling of her grief process would surely be a help to others struggling with loss. I remember once in ministry school, hearing that when tragedy strikes, what survivors want is a response. They do not want their loved ones to have died in vain. My impression of Polson was that the death of her father solicited in her an imperative to respond, and her journey on the river was that response. This connects deeply with our human need to act, to do something in order to continue on life's journey. I also loved the book "Wild," in which Cheryl Strayed felt that she MUST hike the PC trail to respond to her own painful life situation. Polson's has the heart of "Wild" but adds an important spiritual dimension. How wonderful for us readers to get to root for such an amazing heroine, all while reading about nature's beautiful wilderness.
In prose as crystalline as the Arctic wilderness itself, Shannon Huffman Polson's North of Hope took me on a journey to a physical place I do not know and an emotional landscape I know only too well. With grace and raw honesty, she shares her story of loss and longing, of eventual and inevitable acceptance, and of the healing spirituality of nature. I felt the warmth of my dying mother's hand as I read Polson's words: It struck me that there is no greater intimacy than sitting with someone traversing that tenuous boundary between worlds, sitting vigil with a spirit trembling on the border, reaching toward the new and releasing the old. It seemed to me that our fragile humanity experiences this intersection only rarely because we are not strong enough to bear it more often, because what we live in those moments will take us a lifetime to begin to understand. A lifetime indeed. North of Hope is a memoir worthy of a long, slow read, a read that allows time for reflection.
There are two groups of people who absolutely need to read this book: those who have lost a loved one, and wish they had a companion to grieve with them, and anyone who appreciates finely crafted prose and well-executed story telling. How is it possible to write so beautifully about such a painful topic? Polson is a gifted writer whose words will bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones. I highly recommend this book for many reasons, not the least of which is the beautifully executed prose. Polson's parents are killed by a grizzly bear during a rafting and camping trip through the Arctic wilderness. Polson eventually responds to this tragic event by retracing their steps, taking the same white water rafting trip herself. The book describes the trip, but also her own journey of grief and healing. She writes: "This was not simply a trip into the wilderness, though that would be challenge and adventure enough. This was a journey over the jagged edge of loss." While it's a heavy topic, the book is ultimately uplifting. Polson is honest about her faith, and her doubts, questions and anger at this senseless tragedy. Her ultimate resolution feels authentic and honest. Interwoven with the travelogue are chapters about another interesting piece of Polson's grieving process: she signs up to sing the Mozart Requiem with the Seattle Symphony. Her descriptions of the rehearsals and the music itself are beautiful, and it creates an interesting counterpoint to the descriptions of her white-water rafting adventure.
This is a beautifully-written and moving book; Polson has taken the time to re-trace her steps of grief, both internally and externally. Her actual journey, down the same river where her father and stepmother were killed, is a vibrant consideration of nature and beauty, of wildness and pain. She is telling the story of loss, telling the story of grief, telling the story of life that must be lived in the face of death. Polson's gift with language and words weaves meaning into every section of the book. Highly recommended.
When I first came across North of Hope, I had mixed feeling about reading it. One part of me was very interested in learning the story of Polson and her parents, another part of me was not sure how much I would appreciate it. I will now have to say that North of Hope is completely not what I was expecting. I have been left with lingering memories of Polson's emotional and spiritual voyage, in her commemoration of her father and step-mother. Polson exhibits powerful and compelling strength during her journey to experience what her father and step-mother encountered during their rafting trip in Alaska before their death. It is as if she is being driven by a powerful force, unknown to her, in reclaiming those feelings and emotions her father and step-mother experienced during their excursion. North of Hope is much more than just a story of death and tragedy Instead Polson shares the memories of her childhood, her life before the divorce of her parents, her relationships with her family and her passion of nature and singing. The reader gets a personal glimpse into her close relationship with her father, the gripping pain, confusion and her struggles to understand her feelings of grief after her loss. North of Hope is a beautiful passionate journey in Polson's quest for spiritual awakening during her grief, loss and depression.
I really enjoyed North of Hope! As the other reviewers mention, the book chronicles Shannon's journey through grief, and part of her healing journey is a trip down the Arctic Hulahula River. Having spent many months myself on rivers in the Arctic, I really appreciated the descriptions of landscape, the villages, the weather, the wildlife, and even the quality of the light. The writing brought back many memories of my time spent on northern rivers. Shannon's clear style will bring images to life for people who haven't been to the Arctic. While Shannon tells her story through the lens of her religious faith, the book is not evangelical or preachy. As a respectful agnostic myself, I found the book appealingly spiritual, but not so religious that it would not appeal to a wide range of readers, religious or not. The story travels back and forth in time, always coming back to the river trip as Shannon paddles the river. I love how the story flows forward along the trip down the river, but flashes back to her memories and experiences in the past: of Shannon's own life experiences, about her memories and thoughts about her dad and stepmother, and about the natural history of the area. Shannon is clearly an accomplished athlete, scholar, and adventurer. She mentions completing Ironman Triathlons, climbing Mt. McKinley, being a helicopter pilot in the army, skydiving, finishing an MBA, and being a serious musician (piano and voice). Rather than derailing the story by spending too much time on each of these things, she picks the appropriate details of these facets and times of her life that pull the story forward. She focuses on parts of her life that taught her important lessons; for example, learning to surrender control while learning to connect in formations while skydiving. Looking back on her experiences through the lens of learning to live with pain of her father's death, Shannon fits the pieces of her life back together in a way that makes sense to her, and that as a reader, I applauded as I read. I love how Shannon's initial flailing around to try and get through her grief makes sense to her in retrospect. Her imagery of the braided Hulahula River as her tangled path through grief is a beautiful one. Each of us grieves in a different way when we lose important people in our lives, but her story is an inspiring and brave one.
The book North of Hope, written by Shannon Huffman Polson, is many things . Let me start saying that in it the reader will find a person telling the world one of her precious memoirs. If you pay attention this book tends to be a poem, where eloquence and rhyme interlace together concluding in a cascade of details that will make you perceive as if you were part of the story. The work itself teaches a lesson of human values without exaggerating the quality of the personas. Although, it seems to me, that if you get carried away by the way language is applied one might think the story the book is about belongs into a fiction section of a bookstore. Along this lines, I have to admit, this is not the type of reading that I am passionate about. But it is just my own taste. Do I recommend the book? Yes, I do. This could be a nice gift to those that have a book in every corner of their house, a good companion in a long trip, or a good book to read while nobody is nearby. If you like people like I do, most definitely you will enjoy the journey the author took and engrave in her story. In general terms, my analysis of North of Hope, ends with a satisfactory grade: A good thing to read.
I received this book from the author and publisher, Zondervan, in exchange for a fair and honest review. North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson is a memoir of a time in Shannon's life when her world came crashing down, and she tried to get it back to normal. Shannon's father and stepmother, Kathy, were traveling on an Arctic hiking/river trip. A bear came onto their campsite and killed both of them. This tragedy was too much for Shannon to deal with, and after a year of trying to do just that, she set out on her own Arctic adventure on her parents' path. Shannon, her adopted and troubled brother Ned, and his coworker, embark on this journey that follows the same path that her father and Kathy took. Along the way, Shannon is able to not only mourn properly and come to terms with the tragedy, but she is also able to take control of other parts of her life that were afflicted. In addition to the main story of Shannon's journey into the wilderness, she also provides information about her time in between the death and the trip, where she tries to find solace through music and various religious teachings (although the religion part is more spiritual and encompasses many faith's ideas). A few quotes jumped out at me: "My resolve flickered like a flame in a gusty wind. I willed the wick to hold on to that tiny flame. It was all I had." - p. 31 "One of the thoughts I could never shake the year after he died was that I no longer had anyone to check on me, no one making sure I was okay. Who would ever know what might happen to me, and who would care?" - p. 51, Shannon thinking of her father's death North of Hope was a touching read showing Shannon's growth as an adult mourner coming to terms with her father's death. It's a good book to pick up in any phase of your life, but especially if you enjoy outdoor adventures and stories of people finding themselves. And on a total side note, Shannon taught me something that I felt was very important! Waaaay back in high school, there was an MXPX song that had a foreign word that totally boggled my mind! I googled it, but couldn't figure out what it was (turns out, I was spelling it wrong). And in the text, Shannon actually talked about it! So, thanks, Shannon, for helping me solve a lyrical mystery! Are you an outdoorsy type of person? Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Shannon Huffman Polson is a virtuoso. She writes with such brilliance, as she weaves her story of loss and hope. She takes you on her pilgrimage through the Alaskan Artic in search for answers. Her experiences will leave you breathless, in wonder and awe. I love memoirs like this one, written with such depth, thoughtfulness and creativity. Besides which, Shannon Huffman Polson is an extraordinary writer. I highly recommend North of Hope, it is brilliant. One of the best memoirs I have read in a long time.
This is such a powerful book!! When Shannon's parents are killed, she is sent reeling and searching for something - perhaps closure? When she decides to take the same trip that her father and step-mother have taken (and were killed on!), I was in shock and wondered why. However, this trip is what keeps me on the edge of my seat and brings clarity to Shannon. This book is a memoir and while there are some slow areas when she shares in detail about bears and the Alaskan indigenous peoples, but I actually enjoyed learning this information and I thought it gave me a clearer understanding of the remote area she was in. She also skips around between time lines - remembering the past while then taking us back to the present and her Alaskan trip, however, this did not distract me but helped me to understand her thinking a bit more. I really enjoyed her frankness as she shared her thoughts and feelings. While this may not be a book for everyone, I really enjoyed it. It wasn't an easy read, by any means, but it was an excellent story and I enjoyed it. *This book was provided to me by Handlebar Marketing
This is a beautiful compelling book that I could not put down until I finished. The book begins with the author's loss and her attempt to finish the Arctic trip her parent's did not. The literary prose used to tell this story and the style she uses to take you through different times while moving the story forward is breathtaking. This journey through grief will grab you and pull you into memories of personal loss. However, most importantly it will remind you of the light that does one day return. Shannon Polson's connection with the outdoors and her description of it is a piece of art she has released into the world. In this book about grief she leads us on the long sojourn of healing and how we all one day recover. She succeeds in doing this through an appreciation of the physical beauty in the world around us that exists in nature and within music that we can all create. Although, this path clearly was the correct one for the author you are left with the feeling that we are all free to find our own way through grief but are reminded that hope exists. I highly recommend this book and have to share one passage that transported me. In this passage Shannon Polson is describing the never ending sunset of the Arctic summer. "Have you ever watched something so beautiful for so long that for just a minute you became a a part of it? I watched until I was a part of that light, part of the land. A part of creation and creator. What shocked me was not my dissolution but the relief it brought. It was like a quiet rising of water. It was not erasure; it was inclusion, a connection so complete it mingled molecules. I was here, and I was part of the Arctic, and it was part of me."
Shannon’s parents were killed by a bear and she retraces their trip through the wilderness of Alaska. She does this to help heal her pain. In telling her story, she also remembers things from her past that had been important events. This trip helped her to accept that things don’t always go the way we would like. It was hard at first for me to get ‘into’ this book, but as I kept reading, I enjoyed it more. If you enjoy stories involving the wilderness then this is a book you will love.