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“Waterman's profound respect for the northern lands burns on every page, and his photos and essays prove to us that there is still beauty in this world—beauty worth fighting for.”
North of the sixtieth parallel, the sun shines for less than six hours in the winter, and towering mountains are the only skyscrapers. Pristine waters serve caribou, moose, and bears in an unbroken landscape. At any given moment in this spectacular scenery, there?s a chance that ...
North of the sixtieth parallel, the sun shines for less than six hours in the winter, and towering mountains are the only skyscrapers. Pristine waters serve caribou, moose, and bears in an unbroken landscape. At any given moment in this spectacular scenery, there’s a chance that Jonathan Waterman is present, trekking across the land. A masterful adventurer, Waterman has spent decades exploring the farthest reaches of our beautiful spaces. The essays and photographs collected in Northern Exposures are a product of this passion for exploration and offer an unparalleled view into adventuring in the north and beyond.
Picking up after In the Shadow of Denali, his first book of essays, Northern Exposures collects twenty-three stories from Waterman’s thirty-year career that show the evolution of the adventurer’s career and work, from ducking avalanches near the Gulf of Alaska, to searching for the most pristine tundra on the continent, and from writing haiku on Denali in the depth of winter to decrying oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ninety-six spectacular photographs taken by Waterman during his expeditions lend a broader context and allow readers to fully understand his heartfelt argument for protecting these places. Whether active, aspiring, or just armchair adventurers, readers will be inspired by Waterman’s daring spirit.
This twenty-two-hundred-mile journey across the roof of North America was the most challenging expedition of my life. Amid the rigors of arctic travel and the psychological demands of being alone, I also had to capture a compelling story. I remained vigilant for bears, wolves, or caribou to share the scenes with me so that the pictures and film wouldn't just amount to a lone talking head. I soon learned that in a remote wilderness so rich with wildlife, it wasn't hard to get these species and others to share the show with me. I had so many mishaps and so many amazing wildlife encounters that the Outdoor Life Network stretched my footage into a two-hour time slot on TV. In three villages along the way, a Dutch cinematographer met me and provided crucial support, but mostly I traveled alone and employed tripods and a camera remote. The upshot of this constant work was that the act of photography and journaling gave me a creative outlet that effectively removed me from the crushing solitude and drudgery of repetitive paddle strokes, exhausting portages, and lonely nights. Half mad at times, I talked to the camera as if it were my companion.
I wrote this story for National Geographic Adventure as I composed the book Arctic Crossing: A Journey Across the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture. While it took ten months to paddle, sail, ski, and dogsled across the top of the continent, it took twelve months to write the 120,000-word book. I edited the final draft, including the story that follows, by reading the narrative aloud each night to my wife, June. As I learned from the Inuit, oral storytelling is a revered tradition. Reading aloud also showed me cadence and pacing; whenever June's eyes wandered in boredom, I drew quick excisions over the pages. And to provide more immediacy about such a distant and alien landscape, I wrote the story in present tense.
The year after the book was published, I submitted a thirty-page section (with some of the same prose as the following narrative) to the National Endowment for the Arts. To my delight and surprise, the judges awarded me that year's nonfiction literary fellowship, replete with a large check, which allowed me to take the next year off from writing as June and I built our energy-efficient solar home.
ON A HOT, fifty-degree arctic morning in early July 1998, I ply the wind across the Northwest Passage. As the sail flies tight above my sea kayak, I lean to starboard to avoid capsizing into the icy Beaufort Sea. Along the cliff-lined shore, naturally burning seams of subterranean shale send wavering plumes of smoke skyward like eerie, alabaster tree trunks. Then the wind shifts, fanning noxious, choking clouds out to sea. I steer farther away from shore and tie a bandanna over my face.
When I started paddling this morning, the sea was calm. Then, a few minutes ago, the wind picked up, and I raised the sail. Sailing a kayak without outriggers might seem foolish, but going ashore to inflate sponsons and assemble outriggers is as distasteful to me as capsizing. Along with rockfalls and fumes, the shoreline hazards of the Smoking Hills of Franklin Bay include mosquitoes as thick as schools of herring. I've read that swarms of these arctic insects can inflict as many as nine thousand bites a minute, which would exsanguinate a man in four hours.
So I compromise by sailing a hundred yards from shore, riding the wind just beyond the choking smoke. If I were to capsize in a temperate ocean, I could easily swim to the cliffs. Removing my glove, I dip a hand into the sea: in just ten seconds, my fingers ache with the cold. If I were to drown here, my body would probably never be recovered—not a happy thought. But there would be some consolation: having my remains picked clean and helping to sustain the spacious Arctic would be far preferable to feeding worms in a crowded graveyard.
I haven't seen another soul for more than two weeks. Although crossing the Northwest Passage has long been my dream, the plunge into solitude continues to unnerve me. To help me focus, I remind myself that I'm up here to do something unequivocal. Something that will satisfy me in my old age. While I was explaining myself to skeptical friends and family back home in Colorado, my thoughts seemed coherent, but out here, I often feel lost. Mostly I tremble at how quiet and huge it all is. I haven't spoken aloud in days. I wonder whether I will lose the ability to talk.
When the wind starts to gust, I gauge the strength of oncoming flurries by the size of the whitecaps. At each hit, I loosen the sheet and let the sail swing to the lee. As the wind diminishes, my speed drops to about four knots. Then I sheet the sail back and accelerate to eight knots. As I round a point, a rogue gust surprises me. Before I can release the sail, it's filled with a blast of air that rolls the kayak, throwing me into the sea. I grab the kayak's stern line and begin kicking madly toward shore, towing my boat behind me. Thirty yards out, my arms stiffen and my legs drop. To my relief, however, I realize that I can stand up: my chin is just above the water. With new determination, I lumber up onto a narrow beach beneath the cliffs.
Shivers rack my body, which feels as if it no longer belongs to me. I strip off my clothing, grab a dry bag, a thermos, and some dried fish, then bolt forty yards to the nearest smoking vent. Dressed only in smoke, I try to sip warm tea, but my cold lips feel scalded by the liquid. I drop the cup and towel myself with a shirt. Acrid fumes rasp the back of my throat, but it's worth breathing foul air in exchange for heat. With strange detachment, I watch my weeks' worth of food bob in the surf next to the kayak. Stupid brain, stupid brain, stupid brain. What am I doing here anyway?
My inspiration for attempting the Northwest Passage came from Knud Rasmussen's Across Arctic America, published in 1927. In the book, a shaman named Igjugarjuk provided the Danish explorer and anthropologist with insights into Inuit culture. Igjugarjuk told Rasmussen, "All true wisdom is only to be learned far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitudes, and is only to be attained through suffering. Privation and suffering are the only things that can open the mind of man to those things which are hidden from others."
The shaman's wisdom might elude the average citizen, but any real adventurer eventually learns that suffering is a necessary step along the path to enlightenment. Once you break through your own doubts and discomfort, the world suddenly makes sense. You feel as if you belong to the great solitudes.
I pump my boat dry as a means of purging my spinelessness—a dizzy, breathless feeling that I might not be capable of completing the passage. I clip together the aluminum outrigger poles, inflate and attach the nylon sponsons, rehaul the sodden sail, and stow my wet clothes. Dealing with equipment is curative, if only because it puts me back in control, moving me forward in logical, familiar sequences, as if I actually belong out here. As I head back out to sea, I swear never to sail again without the outriggers.
By early evening, I have cruised twenty-six miles to the delta of the Horton River—slightly more than my average daily distance. Wearily, I set up camp. Instead of contemplating how close I came to disaster, I spread my maps out to dry, then take my binoculars and look through the tent windows for bears.
Like climbing Mount McKinley in winter, crossing Antarctica, or rowing the Atlantic, traversing the Northwest Passage offers long odds of success. It also demands several summers of travel. Only a few kayakers, usually with lots of company, have made it all the way.
On a small-scale jetliner map, I have penned my own version of the fabled route: a twenty-two-hundred-mile line between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Hudson Bay, Nunavut. I plan to travel as much as possible in the Inuit way, by kayak. Muscle power was how these nomads once ranged the Arctic, so by following their advice and legends, I stand a good chance of surviving and learning something "far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitudes."
So far, I've completed 650 miles of my journey. In July and August 1997, I kayaked from Aklavik, on the Mackenzie River Delta northwest to Prudhoe Bay, following the route that British explorer Sir John Franklin took from 1825 to 1827 on his second trip to the Arctic.
Thus reassured that I was ready for the rest of the passage, I returned to the Northwest Territories in April 1998 with my dog Elias, who trotted alongside me as I skied from Tuktoyaktuk east to the mouth of the Anderson River. Then Elias and I went back to Colorado, and I waited for the ice to break up. By late June, I was back at the Anderson River, where I began a long solo paddle east.
The day after my dunking, I continue paddling along the bottom of Franklin Bay. My eyes are agog at a charred shoreline where smoke pours out of the smoldering shale. I stop several times to fill my water bottle, but the streams run black and taste of rotten eggs. In a sudden and unexpected delineation, ocherous cliffs give way to hills covered with mauve and pink lupines. Striped as if a giant harrow had plowed the tundra, these gently sloping elevations stretch south for untold miles, the verdant home of whistling arctic ground squirrels and grazing caribou and bears and musk oxen. The green hillcrests are dappled with snow.
After midnight, I find myself paddling through the coruscated light of a sun that rolls along the horizon, never setting. Rounding a peninsula, I find a grizzly sauntering at the foot of a hill pockmarked with squirrel holes. I sail in closer and attempt my first conversation in more than two weeks: "Hello, mister bear."
My voice seems to bring the grizzly straight into the surf. Without changing speed, it slams through two breaking waves and swims after me. Ears wiggling, head held high above the water with its fur ruffled out, the bear is strangely beautiful and harmless looking.
A screeching glaucous gull swoops past. The bear startles and turns its head with sudden aggression: in a split second, the animal has gone from curious to ferocious. I sheet the sail, kick over the rudder pedal, and paddle as fast as I can. Even so, the bear appears to be gaining on me. I paddle harder. Finally, after several minutes, the bear gives up and swims back toward shore. By splaying its legs and paws wide, it catches a gathering wave and rides up onto the beach. The grizzly steps out of the water gracefully, in measured movements, without losing balance. There is no shaking off, no looking back. For the bear, it's as if the whole chase had never happened.
I'm shaken, but I can't stop for the night at the bottom of this bear-filled bay. Although the grizzly's charge is still palpable in my pulse, I feel as if I'm on the verge of breaking through to some previously unattainable connection, tangible proof of what I consider to be a main tenet of Inuit theology—that animals and men share the same souls. I know that I'm lonely and yearn for companionship, and I am convinced that there is a way to reach out to the bear. I want affirmation that I am not prey, that the bear and I occupy some common ground. As the sun scalds the sea beneath a layer of clouds, the wind dies. Utterly exhausted from paddling all night, I pull down the sail and head into Langton Bay, on the eastern shore of Franklin Bay. It's five a.m.; I hope the grizzlies have settled down so that I, too, can get some sleep.
I unroll my tent on a narrow, fetid sand spit that I share with three bearded seals. The matriarch of the group swims back and forth, watching me, surrounded by a brown halo of mosquitoes. I dive into my tent and spend half an hour slapping and brushing. The yellow walls are soon smeared with my blood.
Suddenly, a woman's voice that I don't recognize sends a chill up my spine: "Everything is all right, Jonathan. You can sleep here without fear." Half expecting the voice to belong to a bear, I zip open the tent. Nothing is there. No tracks, either. I glance down the beach at the seals; they look too earnest to try to tease me. I zip up the tent, lie back on my sleeping bag, and drift off to sleep.
The next morning, nothing can convince me that the voice I heard was not real. I have been alone too long. I need to see people again—quickly. And I'm still a week from my next resupply in the village of Paulatuk. By the time I reach the settlement, in mid-July, I've gone twenty days without seeing another person. After Paulatuk comes yet another twenty-five days of solo kayaking to Kugluktuk, a tiny settlement on the Coppermine River. I have learned to cope in the great solitudes, but now I crave companionship. My fiancée, June Duell, joins me for the last leg of the season. In early September, we stop for the year at Umingmaktok, at the northern end of Bathurst Inlet. I am two summers and fifteen hundred miles into my north west passage.
In the summer of 1999, sea ice and wintry conditions delay my departure until mid-July. From Elu Inlet, on the Kent Peninsula, northeast of Umingmaktok, I drag my kayak across a narrow neck of land and start paddling and sailing again at Labyrinth Bay, on Queen Maud Gulf. In ten days, I put two hundred miles behind me, alone, wary about hearing voices and talking to animals.
It is another 180 miles across the gulf and through Simpson Strait to Gjoa Haven, my next resupply point. I sail in wave troughs as long as possible, then quickly rudder downwind before the waves break. In the calm lee of islands, I compose myself with deep breathing, some cheese and tea, and a quick nature call—courtesy of a waterproof fly on my new customized dry suit.
One afternoon, my toes go numb. With no sheltering islands in sight, I can't stop. Holding the sail sheet in my teeth, I pry off my boots to expose neoprene socks. I undo my fly and fill my boots. As I pull them back on, my icy feet quickly return to body temperature.
Snow geese bleach the hillsides. A black-headed Sabine's gull cries melodically. Squadrons of brown-shouldered jaegers perch like shamans on red, rocky atolls. Every time I'm ready to quit for the day, I spy another bird flying with such verve against the wind that I can't help but be inspired.
Finally, my nerves strung tightly, I drive my kayak up onto boulders padded with scarlet seaweed. Rain pours from the sky. Walking fifty yards up a bouldered hill winds me. All potential tent sites are too rocky, so I close my eyes, dip my fingers into a jar of emergency peanut butter, and try to figure out what to do. In this state, beyond rational thought, I sense the presence of another being. It's here somewhere, smelling me, approaching steadily. I wheel around and see it lumbering along the shore toward my kayak: a huge grizzly.
I run down the hill, racing the bear to my boat. Twenty feet from the kayak, I throw the peanut butter jar onto the seaweed in front of the bear, then push the boat through a breaking wave. I flip the boom and take the next wave in my lap, which half fills the cockpit. As the grizzly works over my peanut butter, holding the jar between its forepaws, I drop the sail and suck out the water with a bilge pump.
Bouncing out in the chop, I try to remain calm. After pulling the sail up the mast, I bow slowly and, out of respect, hold the position for another minute as I try to imagine the bear's thoughts. When I sit back up, the bear shows no interest in swimming after me.
For another two hours, adrenaline buzzes in my fingers, but my toes are so wooden that I am forced to perform the boot trick again. As I weave in and out of big breakers, I whoop with exhilaration—and think about my new connection. Whether it was smell or intuition, I sensed the bear before seeing it. I'm elated: Being alone out in the Arctic is sharpening some long-dormant instinct.
For the next few windy days, I eke out a dozen to two dozen miles a day as I weave through the vaguely charted islets of Queen Maud Gulf. Then, in early August, I sail across a wide, nameless bay in a hard breeze.
Halfway across, an ice fog blows in, and I'm forced to sail blind. I careen past an islet thrumming with surf. Defended by arctic terns, the rocky hump bristles with stone cairns called tammariikkuti, some of which the Inuit use as directional markers. I steer south, taking my cue from the tammariikkuti until an island suddenly looms out of the fog. I tack abruptly and land broadside on a steep, steel-gray beach. I stagger out of the boat to study the map and my GPS device, but I can't place the island. I tie the kayak to two boulders, then jog uphill to get warm.
All afternoon, I sail through fog and big breakers as the humanoid forms of stones pass in a blur. Thousands of molting old-squaw ducks paddle on the frothing seas, gabbling and croaking like frogs, jumping from under my bow. I have to stop two more times on islets to run in place until the shivering goes away. In the early evening, by sheer luck, I land at a protected cove on the mainland.
After I pitch my tent, I notice that I have set up for the night in a circle of half-buried rocks that were once used to hold down skin tents. I lift one head-size rock and finger a crusted swatch of caribou skin that probably dates back hundreds of years to the Thule culture. I am camping with the ancient ones.
Excerpted from Northern Exposures by Jonathan Waterman. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Waterman. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. Arctic Solitaire
Letter to Mom
Serious Writers Never Oversleep
3. Sheep’s Clothing
Never Cry Wolf
Winning the Climbing Lottery
Price of Adventure
5. Rain of Avalanches: Finding Religion on Mount St. Elias
6. Arctic Refuge Essays
What We Would Lose
7. A Walk Across Mount Logan
8. Book Reviews
All Fourteen Eight-Thousanders
Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali
Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island
9. The Perfect Shot
11. A Near Miss on Mount Fairweather in Winter
12. The Kayak and the Cruise Ship
13. Northern Exposures
14. Divine Wind: Masatoshi Kuriaki
15. Final Refuge
16. “They Did Everything Right”