Kathleen Winter: ‘Boundless’

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
Kathleen Winter, August 2014

Boundless_Kathleen_WinterIn 2010, on a last-minute invitation from Noah Richler, best-selling author Kathleen Winter joined an Adventure Canada trip through the Northwest Passage. Winter and her cohort left the coast of Greenland bound for Kugluktuk, Nunavut by way of Ilulissat, Karat Fjord, Baffin Bay, Dundas Harbour, Pond Inlet, Beechey Island, and an infamous uncharted rock off King William Island…

Four years later, Winter’s memoir of that journey, Boundless, appeared in bookstores across the country, garnering excellent reviews. The Globe and Mail praised its “inexorable narrative drive and its keen attention to humanity“, while the Toronto Star noted Winter’s “graceful, poetic, shimmering prose“.

Naturally, I was curious. But having twice travelled a similar route with Adventure Canada as a Zodiac driver and host, I took my time before diving into Boundless. Would my own memories be compromised by reading someone else’s thoughts about places I’ve been to, and people I know?

To my relief, Boundless isn’t the sort of travel memoir that rehashes experiences, day by day and note for note. Winter’s writerly transit of the fabled Northwest Passage (a term she thoughtfully deconstructs) is hers alone. The roles of the various staff, the unique and sometimes frenetic shipboard experience, and all the daily work that goes into making the experience memorable for the passengers really fade into the background in this tale.

Adventure Canada promotes the thrill of Zodiac excursions, the emotion of cultural exchanges, the magnificence of the surroundings. But Winter’s is a journey of the mind, through memories and ideas and the notions we are made of. Taking a cue from the late folk singer Stan Rogers in his anthem Northwest Passage, Winter boldly traces ‘one warm line’ of her own.

Speaking of Rogers: from among over a hundred possibilities among the passengers, staff, and crew, Winter chooses but a few characters on whom to focus. Nathan Rogers, the folk icon’s son, aboard as the trip’s musician, becomes a confidant; we learn that he is tracing his own warm line where his father never went. Geologist Marc St. Onge baffles and beguiles with his enthusiasm for this rocky realm where cataclysm is laid bare. Sheena McGoogan’s watercolour workshops help Winter express what she cannot say. Inuit culturalists Berndadette Dean and Aaju Peter are by turns thoughtful, troubled, resolute, and wise, colouring Winter’s received Anglo-Canadian mythology of the North with insights into Nunavut—Our Beautiful Land.

Kathleen Winter at Karrat Island, Greenland

Kathleen Winter at Karrat Island, Greenland

This very real and contemporary place is more complex and ancient than any myth, as Winter and a few quirky passengers with whom she feels a quiet kinship learn along the way.

Stuffing tufts of musk oxen fur into her journal, donning a woollen beard, sketching an exquisite suit of ladies’ long underwear, Winter colours outside the lines of the classic maps of Meta Incognita.

Dancing on the ceiling of the captain’s quarters, sometimes silly and sometimes serious, Winter subverts the monolithic myth of Exploring the Great White North as she discovers that this journey, like all great journeys, really happens within.

One of the things I love about Boundless is that for Winter, the sublime and the mundane intermingle freely. Surrounded by the splendour of the Arctic, which defies description, she is led instead to remember and to muse over her own earthly passage. As she does, she dissolves the dotted lines across the maps we’ve worshipped, and instead brings the reader into reflection on the things that really matter: what we believe, how we live, whom we love, why we’re here. Boundless, indeed, is the territory of the heart.

Boundless was long-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Winter’s previous book, Annabel, won the Thomas Head Raddall Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Awards in 2010. Annabel was also shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a Canada Reads selection in 2014.

Join Kathleen Winter on Adventure Canada’s voyage to Newfoundland and Wild Labrador, July 5-17, 2015.