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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