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.

The allure of the Arctic

We’re delighted to be welcoming Dr. Stephen Cumbaa—vertebrate paleontologist, veteran Arctic researcher, Canadian Museum of Nature rep, and children’s author—aboard our 2014 Northwest Passage: West to East voyage this summer. We asked Steve to tell us what excites him about a return to the Far North aboard an expedition cruise.

SC fording river

Fording an Arctic river

You’ve spent lots of time up in the Arctic over the years. What’s the allure?
As a former museum scientist, I’m one of those lucky people who feel as if I had one of the best jobs in the world: being paid to explore remote places and to share my fossil discoveries with other paleontologists and with the public through exhibits, articles, talks and interviews.

My expeditions to the Arctic were particularly memorable; each trip north an absolute adventure. Over and above the excitement of discovering more evidence of ancient life, the clean, clear air, the amazing quality of light, and the remote, pristine wilderness of the Arctic still captivate me.

Undeniably, a big part of the allure is the promise of discovery; the secrets of Earth’s past accessible to those who look a little closer, or walk a little farther. Little is truly hidden in the Arctic. At times the landscape itself can seem almost aware; for example, the feeling of being among the first to set foot in a particular spot is heady, but even those footprints sometimes seem intrusive. The Arctic is vast; the potential for significant discoveries immense, and the number of scientists working there is pitifully small.

What sites/sights are you looking forward to seeing on this particular journey?
I’ve spent several months doing fieldwork and camping in the Arctic islands, ferried about by Twin Otter airplanes and helicopters, but I’ve never seen the High Arctic from the unique vantage point of a ship, and its Zodiacs for shore excursions.

The opportunity for wildlife sightings is amazing with this kind of travel. Years ago I worked with archaeologists from Parks Canada, examining bones and other food refuse relating to Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition and the subsequent search parties, but other than Beechey Island, this will be my first opportunity to see some of those storied localities first hand.

Dialipina

Fossil fish found in the Far North

All along our route there are paleontological localities, such as near Kugluktuk, where Ice-Age fossil fishes have been found; the eastern coast of Somerset Island with its 400+ million year-old fish fossils; Beechey Island with its beach composed largely of fossil corals and other tropical invertebrates; and Bylot Island, opposite the community of Pond Inlet, where the fossil remains of dinosaurs, birds and marine reptiles have been discovered.

In terms of your own work, what are you most looking forward to sharing while aboard?
I’d really like to help give my fellow passengers a sense of the time depth of life in the Arctic, and the way the islands have moved about the globe as a result of what geologists term continental drift.

Today, we think of the Arctic as defined by glaciers, icebergs, seals and polar bears. But four hundred million years ago, most of the Arctic was a shallow tropical sea near the equator; its iconic animals were primitive fish, trilobites, and shelled, squid-like creatures. No animals existed on land.

Between then and now, the Arctic islands gradually moved toward their present location, over time populated sequentially by dinosaurs and birds with teeth, forests with 100 foot-tall trees, rhinoceroses and lemur-like primates, camels, and yes, even primitive beavers. I look forward to sharing these and more stories through presentations and informal chats on board and on our shore excursions.

SC & stumps

Steve with the petrified remains of an Arctic forest

You’ll be representing the Canadian Museum of Nature aboard. How does this trip relate to the work of the CMN?
One of the museum’s great strengths is its Arctic expertise. Our exhibits and collections contain plant, animal, fossil and mineral specimens brought back by researchers over the last 150 years or more, and are still growing.

These are hugely valuable collections for researchers all over the world. Under an agreement with the government of Nunavut, the museum also houses and curates Nunavut’s collections. The museum currently has a big Arctic science initiative, with active field programs focusing on biodiversity and response to climate change in vascular plants, marine and freshwater diatoms, and in my area of expertise, vertebrate paleontology.

Finally, what do you hope our visitors to the Arctic come away with, after their journey?
I think we will all return from the voyage with a sense that we’ve experienced extraordinary places, and learned a great deal about the special nature of the Arctic, its history, its plants and animals through time, and its people.

My own appreciation for and admiration of the Inuit people and their predecessors as well as the early European Arctic explorers grows with each visit to this often-harsh environment.

It’s impossible to see the evidence of rapidly melting glaciers and the tenuous hold that plants and animals have on life there without becoming aware of the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem, the human impact on it, and worrying about its future. However, I also hope our visitors will come back with a renewed appreciation of long-term ecosystem evolution and change over the last few hundred million years. The Arctic, whether tropical or polar in nature, has always been a special place, a resilient place.

This resiliency – the ability of life to bounce back from the severe stressors of environmental change – is clearly demonstrable in the Arctic, and is cause for hope.

Photos courtesy Steve Cumbaa – Canadian Museum of Nature.

Picture-perfect Passage

The crow's nest was the perfect place to capture movement around ice.

Gregory Coyes’ perch was the perfect place to shoot icebergs.

Travelling aboard the Sea Adventurer to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic is a documentarian’s dream come true. Cameras are everywhere on our trips, of course, but other, less common methods of capturing the moment were in evidence too on our recent trip Into the Northwest Passage: an old fashioned sketch book, a hi-tech remote controlled video helicopter, and a newfangled audio recorder all played their parts.

Here are a few documents of documentarians in action, capturing aspects of their amazing Arctic experience—a picture-perfect Passage.

Staff archeologist Lisa Rankin in Sisimiut, Greenland

Staff archeologist Lisa Rankin in Sisimiut, Greenland

Bill Freedman had a scientist's love for the natural world.

Bill Freedman had a scientist’s love for the natural world.

Musician Charles Spearin gathers found sounds in Greenland

Musician Charles Spearin gathers found sounds in Greenland

Shooting for a Chinese reality show, near Uummannuuq, Greenland.

Shooting for a Chinese reality show, near Uummannuuq, Greenland.

The ice off Karrat Island, Greenland was a wonder.

The ice off Karrat Island, Greenland was a wonder.

A sketchbook captures impressions a camera may miss.

A sketchbook captures impressions a camera may miss.

Noah Richler with Resolute Bay bulletin board

Noah Richler wanted to remember the Resolute Bay bulletin board

Filmmaker John Houston is pretty handy with a camera, too.

Filmmaker John Houston is pretty handy with a camera, too.

How do you do justice to a 16km2 tabular ice floe in Baffin Bay?

How do you do justice to a 16km2 tabular ice floe in Baffin Bay?

The ill-fated remote controlled helicopter videocam was brilliant while it lasted.

The ill-fated remote controlled helicopter videocam was brilliant while it lasted.

Former HBC post, Dundas Harbour, Devon Island

Former Japanese governor Akiko Domoto at HBC post, Dundas Harbour, Devon Island

Supply cupboard, Dundas Harbour HBC post

Supply cupboard, Dundas Harbour HBC post

Barney Bentall gets creative with his camera

Barney Bentall gets creative with his camera

Searching for musk oxen, Croker Bay, Nunavut

Searching for musk oxen, Croker Bay, Nunavut

At the foot of Executioner's Cliffs, Icy Arm, Nunavut

At the foot of Executioner’s Cliffs, Icy Arm, Nunavut

Ice off Greenland was endlessly fascinating.

Ice off Greenland was endlessly fascinating.

National Geographic's Bruce Bi documenting a drum dance

National Geographic’s Bruce Bi documents Lynda Brown & Lamech Kadloo’s drum dance

One of the great photogenic plants: Arctic cotton.

One of the great photogenic plants: Arctic cotton.

Icebergs are nature's own abstract sculptures.

Icebergs are nature’s own abstract sculptures.