Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge


Jill Fredston has traveled more than twenty thousand miles of the Arctic and sub-Arctic-backwards. With her ocean-going rowing shell and her husband, Doug Fesler, in a small boat of his own, she has disappeared every summer for years, exploring the rugged shorelines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway. Carrying what they need to be self-sufficient, the two of them have battled mountainous seas and hurricane-force winds, dragged their boats across jumbles of ice, fended off grizzlies and polar ...

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Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge

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Jill Fredston has traveled more than twenty thousand miles of the Arctic and sub-Arctic-backwards. With her ocean-going rowing shell and her husband, Doug Fesler, in a small boat of his own, she has disappeared every summer for years, exploring the rugged shorelines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway. Carrying what they need to be self-sufficient, the two of them have battled mountainous seas and hurricane-force winds, dragged their boats across jumbles of ice, fended off grizzlies and polar bears, been serenaded by humpback whales and scrutinized by puffins, and reveled in moments of calm.

As Fredston writes, these trips are "neither a vacation nor an escape, they are a way of life." Rowing to Latitude is a lyrical, vivid celebration of these northern journeys and the insights they inspired. It is a passionate testimonial to the extraordinary grace and fragility of wild places, the power of companionship, the harsh but liberating reality of risk, the lure of discovery, and the challenges and joys of living an unconventional life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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A scull seems an unlikely place for romance; but, after peeling back all the muscle-ripping, digit-freezing, grizzly-fearing drama that's inherent to rowing in the Arctic, that's exactly what you'll find at the heart of Rowing to Latitude. Faithful to that classic literary form, author Jill Fredston and her husband, Doug Fesler, are engaged in an ongoing quest to experience the earth's last remaining truly wild areas. Along the way, we share in their various entanglements -- being showered with the nearly-permanent stench of whale spout, watching innocuous snowdrifts morph rather too quickly into hungry polar bears -- all of which Fredston recounts in a vastly readable style marked by a plucky, self-deprecating wit and a feeling of inclusion for the less athletically/adventurously inclined among her readers.

Fredston's powers of observation are remarkable, concomitant with a gift for conveying them into resonant language: Sea swells are "boiling hydraulics," and a border of coastline on a map becomes a "swatch of decaying lace held to the sky." You can also sense the deep and genuine passion Fredston has for nature in, for example, her simple yet scathing indictment of timber clear-cutting practices or through the elevation to an art form of the simple yet infinitely loving act of carefully cleaning up each campsite to let whoever may follow experience the full thrill of discovering pure wild country. That passion is likewise present in the work's episodic structure.

Whether it's the exhilaration of Alaska's "Inside Passage" or another summer's exploration of the more domesticated Norwegian coast, you understand that for Fredston and Fesler, life may go on in the meantime, but that it is only truly lived with oars in hand. And that feeling, so wonderfully common to Rowing to Latitude as it is to any good romance, is something to be savored. (Fall 2001 Selection)

From the Publisher
"As with most trips, Rowing to Latitude rewards you when you finally get to where you're going. Fredston makes you see wilderness as a more precious commodity than you thought, and inspires you to stretch your limits physically and mentally."

—Lynne McNeil, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"An honest and self-aware woman's record of her unusual life...a shrewd analytical look at human existence as a balance of danger and joy."

—Judith Niemi, The Women's Review of Books


—Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

"The book is far more¿than an adventure travel narrative. It also is deeply personal memoir and love story."

—Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune

"[Fredston] sticks to telling good stories about battling, on primitive terms, the weather, the water, the land, the animals and some of the demons that haunt us all."

—Craig Medred, Anchorage Daily News

"[Fredston] provides armchair travelers with a vivid portrait of wilderness rowing...full of intriguing personal digressions and moments of high drama." —John Freeman, The Wall Street Journal

John Freeman
[Fredston] provides armchair travelers with a vivid portrait of wilderness rowing . . . full of intriguing personal digressions and moments of high drama.
The Wall Street Journal
John Marshall
Vivid, even poetic . . . A celebration of wild northern places, but also an examination of the lessons gleaned along the way.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Claire Splan
Fredston provides a captivating chronicle of her lifelong obsession with rowing and the wild, open spaces it takes her to.
San Francisco Chronicle
Publishers Weekly
In this lyrical look at rowing some of the world's most isolated and pristine coasts, Fredston focuses as much on her personal experience and her relationship with her husband, Doug Fesler, as she does on their actual journeys. The two avalanche experts, researchers and rescue trainers canoe the Arctic and sub-Arctic coastlines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Sweden for three months out of each year. They travel together but in separate canoes: an apt metaphor for their marriage. An avid rower since childhood, Fredston ultimately landed in Alaska, drawn by its possibility and wildness. There she met Fesler, the state's leading avalanche authority. They worked and rowed together, and eventually fell in love. Fredston ably describes both the big picture the coastline, encounters with polar bears, the high-stakes game of second-guessing storms and tides and the details of their travels. Her description of the physical act of rowing is rapturous, even sensual: "Sculling is the closest I'll ever come to being a ballerina, to creating visual music." Fredston seems less at ease relating her mother's battle with cancer, near the book's end. Still, the book soars. "Wilderness rowing is far more than sport to me; it has been a conduit to know and trust myself," Fredston explains. "It is my way of being, of thinking, of seeing. In the process, rowing has evolved from something I do to some way that I am. Figuratively and literally I have spent years rowing to latitude." A must-read for armchair travelers, as well as a close and loving look at an intimate relationship. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Growing up in a house on the waters of Long Island, Fredston started rowing at the age of ten, when she got her first rowboat. She and her husband, Doug Fesler, are avalanche experts and codirectors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, but during the summer months they explore the desolate reaches of the North, traveling under their own power in oceangoing skulls and kayaks. This is the story of their 20,000-mile water journeys through Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway. The pair sees the world pass by in reverse as they row, backwards, down remote rivers and along barren, rugged shorelines. They travel along many of the same routes that Jonathan Waterman detailed in Arctic Crossing (LJ 4/15/01), but Fredston focuses more on the trip and only respectfully mentions contacts with the indigenous people and their culture. Like Waterman, the couple encounters fierce storms, ever-present mosquitoes, and abundant wildlife, but Fredston maintains that it is worth facing all this adversity in order to see and experience the natural beauty of the North. Enjoyable and well written, this first book is sure to be popular in public libraries. John Kenny, San Francisco P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In unremarkable prose, an intrepid adventurer recounts her rowboat experiences contending with some of the earth's most beautiful and treacherous waters. Fredston and her husband have divided lives: In the winters they are avalanche experts and co-directors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center near Anchorage; in the summers they take extensive trips (in separate craft, sometimes for thousands of miles) on wild waterways. Paddling, says Fredston, is their favorite way to travel: "It allows us to tickle the shoreline, and opens our senses to the rhythms around us." Fredston begins with a bit of autobiography. For her tenth birthday, she received her first rowboat, and has since used every opportunity to get to the remote waterways of the northern world and advance her considerable skills. She recounts seven long trips (with an interlude about avalanche rescues), the first in 1986 from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska. Then it's a journey down the entire length of the Yukon River, another in the Chukchi Sea, then down the Mackenzie River and along the coasts of Labrador and Norway, with a final trip in Greenland's waters. Lots of miles, bears, and high winds for a little volume, and therein lies one of the problems. Each of these trips offers enough material to fill a book, so there's a pervasive sense of incompleteness, a rush to load another boat and shove it out into the water before we've really figured out, or even thought much, about where we are. Pretty soon we don't care. Fredston cannot resist telling us what wonderful condition she is in, how quickly she learns, how cool she is under fire. She disdains people on cruise ships and those who pollute her playgrounds. But the mostserious problem is her writing, which rarely breaks the surface of conventionality: "Most days were a rich collage"; "the country is a study in contrasts"; and so on. Extraordinary trips; ordinary writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865476554
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 613,780
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Fredston and her husband, Doug Fesler, are avalanche experts and co-directors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. When they are not rowing, they live near Anchorage.

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Read an Excerpt

Rowing to Latitude

I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness.

—Henry David Thoreau, "Walking"


FOR YEARS my husband, Doug Fesler, and I have led a double life. In the winter, we work together as avalanche specialists. Then, with the lighter days of summer, we disappear (though my mother hates that word) on three-to-five-month-long wilderness rowing and kayaking trips. Somehow, more than twenty thousand miles have slid under our blades, a function of time and repetitive motion rather than undue strength or bravery.

Once, far down the Yukon River, which begins in western Canada and cleaves Alaska, an old Athabascan subsistence fisherman hailed us from his aluminum skiff. In keeping with local custom, he was in no hurry to talk, preferring to drift in silence while his eyes appraised us through a poker mask of wrinkles. In time he asked, "Where you come from?" And a minute or two later, "Where you go?" More silence, while he digested our answers. Eventually he pronounced, "You must be plenty rich tospend the summer paddling." Doug leaned back, grinned, and replied without a trace of the awkwardness I feared was lit in neon upon my face, "If we were rich, we'd have a boat with a motor like yours."

Though we are far from rich and occasionally prey to bouts of motor envy, paddling is our preferred mode of travel, at least until our joints completely disintegrate. It allows us to tickle the shoreline, and opens our senses to the rhythms around us. We are more attuned to our surroundings when we are moving at only five miles per hour, maybe six on a good day. With hours to think, it is also a little harder to escape from ourselves.

We always travel in two boats. This gives us an extra margin of safety and allows us to carry several months' worth of supplies. More important, such separation keeps us from hating each other. It would take better people than we are to share a small boat day after day and then to crawl into the same tent night after night, for weeks on end. Until 1994, there was also the practical consideration that we propelled our boats differently. I am firmly committed to rowing, which does not allow any part of my body to ride for free. My legs, when confined by the spray skirt of a kayak, instantly begin to twitch, and my arms feel cast in bronze. Doug favored kayaking for the first thirteen thousand of the miles we journeyed together; oddly, he thought it was important to see where he was going. But at last he converted, reluctantly acknowledging the greater efficiency and speed afforded by a sliding seat and long oars.

Onlookers frequently remark that they would love to do similar trips if only they had the time, or the necessary experience. No matter how often I've heard these comments, they still give me pause. As for time, we give it a high priority; if we wait too long, we will be unable to row. And we've gained the experience by doing, stroke by stroke.

Most often, though, people question why we undertake these trips at all. They might as well ask us why we breathe or eat. Our journeys are food for our spirits, clean air for our souls. We don't care if they are firsts or farthests; we don't seek sponsors. They are neither a vacation nor an escape, they are a way of life.

On a trip down the Yukon River in 1987, we made a habit of asking Native people who lived along its shores how far up- and downriver they had traveled. Usually they had ranged less than fifty miles in either direction—some a little farther in these days of snowmachines and skiffs with hefty outboard engines. Just over halfway down the river, however, at about the twelve-hundred-mile mark, we met Uncle Al, an Athabascan elder. He was slightly stooped with age but straightened when he answered, brown eyes aglow. As a young man, he said, he had traveled by canoe all the way to the headwater lakes, and had also followed the river a thousand miles from his home to the sea. When we asked why, he looked puzzled. "I had to know where the river came from and where it was going." We give a version of the same answer. We do these trips because we need to. The world of phones, computers, and deadlines cannot compare with singing birds, breaching whales, magnificent light shows, and crackling ice.

If, on the day I took possession of my first ocean shell from the canopy of a dusty truck, someone had informed me that I would row more than enough miles to take me to the far side of the world and back, I would have marveled at the notion. As with most burgeoning ventures, this book also began innocently, as a holiday letter sent annually to friends, family, and those who had helped us along the way. The letters were evidently passed along through a maze of unseen channels. Before long, we began to receive requests from people we'd never heard of to add their names to our mailing list. If laziness or a hectic avalanche season caused us to miss a year, we'd end up fielding phone calls fromobscure corners of the world from people who were sure we had met one too many polar bears.

Still, I shared the skepticism of the round-faced Inupiaq man who, weary of passing visitors to the Arctic declaring themselves instant experts, invited us to his house for whale blubber only after I had assured him in good faith that I was not writing a book. It was not until our stories began to take on a life of their own—retold to us by people unaware of their origins and unlikely ever to find themselves experiencing the expanse of the Arctic firsthand—that the stirrings of the book within became much harder to ignore.

In the last few years, I've felt increasing urgency to give voice to the caribou that graze without fear along the Labrador shore, to the wide-shouldered brown bears of the Alaska Peninsula who depend upon the annual migration of salmon, to fjords uncut by roads or power lines. Doug and I are drawn to northern latitudes not out of sheer perversity, as our families claim, but because we seek wild country. The prevailing nasty weather of the sub-Arctic and Arctic can be a great deterrent to both dense settlement and tourism. But during our travels, we've witnessed the lengthening shadow of our civilization's influence over remote corners of the natural world. What finally galvanized me into writing, though, was an even more tangible reminder of the fragility of all that surrounds us. When my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer, she said, "You have to write this book before I die." I responded, "All right, but you have to live a long time."

In the process of journeying, we seem to have become the journey, blurring the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within. Once, during a long crossing in Labrador, we found ourselves in fog so thick that it was impossible to see even the ends of our boats. Unable to distinguish gray water from gray air, I felt vertigo grabhold of my equilibrium, and the world began to spin. I needed a reference point—the sound of Doug's voice or the catch of my blades as they entered the water—to know which way was right side up. Rounding thousands of miles of ragged shoreline together, driven by the joys and fears of not knowing what lies around the next bend, has helped us to find an interior compass.

Doug and I have awoken many Alaska winter mornings inside cabins so fogged with the warm vapor of our dreams that we couldn't tell if the dark shape outside the window was a moose or a tree. To bring the object outside into clearer view, we had to start within, scraping a hole in the frost with our fingernails. This book begins much the same way.

Copyright © 2001 by Jill Fredston

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2006


    I wish I could be as adventuresome as Fredston. She does what I couldn' in live without the luxury of bathrooms, tweezers, shaving cream, etc. I enjoyed living though her eyes in a very cold sounding adventure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2003

    Highly recommended

    This book is funny, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Well written with a fast moving pace. It is part non-fiction adventure, part humorous travel story, and part philosophy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2002

    Arctic Pleasures

    I took this book out of the library, along with several others. I wasn't particularly interested in it but decided to glance at it just before going to bed. Big mistake. I couldn't put it down and found myself carrying it in the car, to the bathroom, etc. - you get the idea. I particularly loved their encounters with polar bears. "Hey bear!" I'm sorry it's finished and that there are no other similar books to read by Jill Fredston. She takes a subject that could be very technical and makes it into a facinating tale of real-life adventure. It is also a wonderful, intimate story about her own life as well as a love story between a husband and wife. Read this book and find out more!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2002

    Very adventurous people

    I read you book as fast as I could. It was well written. I would like to hear more of your stories about your life. I walk out in the raining, cold and wonder how you made such trips with bears wanting to snack on your heads. May God be with you in your travels.

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