Exploration is for Everyone

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AC passengers enjoy the midnight sun while exploring Ragged Island, Nunavut

The June issue of Canadian Geographic magazine names Canada’s Greatest Explorers. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the minds of those who seek new horizons—and return to tell the tale.

In our epoch, the poles, the peaks, and even the moon have all been visited, mapped, and made familiar. Exploration is no longer just about being the first one there (and back). As editor Aaron Kylie, diver Joe MacInnis, and author James Raffan all note, today’s explorer also has a responsibility to tell stories.

Director, diver, and documentarian James Cameron understands this implicitly. Having created two of the great popular myths of our time in Titanic and Avatar, he has also delved the ocean depths, whose stories most of us can only know through such work.

Likewise, Jill Heinerth, who has explored the iceberg caves of Antarctica and swum with Team Sedna, an all-female snorkelling expedition from Labrador to Greenland. Team Sedna brought back a story of disappearing sea ice that affects us all.

It’s important who tells the story—and where the story came from. Louie Kamookak gathered oral history from Inuit elders that would prove essential to finding the Erebus, Sir John Franklin’s flagship, off King William Island. Louie’s work reminds us there is a vast web of indigenous oral tradition only now being given its due.

Too frequently, we picture an ‘explorer’ as a bearded man, pitting himself against the unknown. Women like ocean rower Mylène Paquette are changing that perception. We must remember that some of history’s greatest feats of exploration have been undertaken not by lone trekkers, but by family units, migrating, on foot or horseback or by boat, all over the world. The umiaq, or ‘women’s boat’ played a pivotal role in the pre-European exploration of the Arctic.

We must consider that when known places are visited in novel ways, new and important stories are born. Think of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour, or the empowering trek of the Cree youth who walked from James Bay to Ottawa, at the height of Idle No More. Are artists who plumb the human experience, like Buffy Ste. Marie or Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood not explorers, too? What of the philosophical journey of Jean Vanier?

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

AC passengers at Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Most importantly, we must remember that exploration is not just for heroes. Every one of us faces the terra incognita of his or her own life, an exploration we symbolically enact when we travel. We are forever exploring not just the new places we may visit, but the vast frontiers of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual geography as well.

As with the living legends among the 100 Greatest Explorers, it’s the stories we come home with that matter most. That’s what makes exploration for everyone.

Adventure Canada is proud to have worked with Louie Kamookak, James Raffan, Jerry Kobalenko, Mike Beedell, Edward Burtynsky, Geoff Green, Bill Lishman, David Pelly, Peter Rowe, Mark St-Onge, and David Suzuki—all listed among Canada’s 100 Greatest Explorers. Congratulations to all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Farley Knew

The late Canadian author, environmentalist, self-promoter, and shit-disturber Farley Mowat was born on this day in 1921. Nearly ninety-two years later, on May 6 of 2014, he died. Between those dates Mowat led a legendary life. A polarizing personality, he was widely loved and yet frequently reviled.

Pinocchio MowatIt’s Mowat’s storytelling that will remain his greatest legacy, and drew his most vociferous criticism. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” was his mantra, and Mowat was duly dubbed “Hardly Know It” by many serious scientists, experts, and ordinary folk—especially Northerners—fed up with his penchant for myth-making. Saturday Night magazine depicted Farley Mowat as Pinocchio in a cover story that catalogued his errors, exaggerations and outright fibs.

For his part, Mowat claimed his wildly popular books—he sold 17 million of them, all over the world—brought much needed attention to serious causes: the starvation of the Ahalmuit (People of the Deer); the demonization of wolves (Never Cry Wolf); the plight of whales (A Whale for the Killing), seals and other marine life (Sea of Slaughter).

The factuality of Mowat’s work may often be sketchy, but his skill as a storyteller is undeniable. As Up Here noted in a reevaluation in 2009, (Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?) the North has been hard on its writers at the best of times, and Hardly Know It might well have been reviled for his unpopular stance even if he’d been a stickler for accuracy.

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Certainly, if history judges his books by their emotional substance, Farley Mowat’s legacy will be a favourable one. Sympathy for wild creatures was once considered sentimental. Criticism of British and Canadian patriarchal authority in the North was weak-kneed. And advocacy for the Inuit way of life was anything but common when Farley Mowat first put pen to paper.

These were ideas Mowat introduced, and stood by, early on in his career. All are clearly in evidence in his Top of the World Trilogy. This compendium of old explorer’s journals, spanning several centuries, edited with commentary by Mowat, is well worth re-reading now: it’s vintage Mowat, and yet, published in 1973, it was well ahead of its time.

Favouring overlooked, underdog explorers like Samuel Hearne, Francis McClintock, and Captain Thierry Mallet, Mowat’s selections and commentary subvert the typical hero narrative, heaping scorn on hapless colonizers of the North acting on orders from far away, including the otherwise iconic Sir John Franklin.

Such views are common, if not dominant today, even in the South. Would that be the case without Farley Mowat? Clearly his most egregious missteps and misstatements will not stand the test of time, nor should they. But on what would have been his ninety-fourth birthday, perhaps we can admit that on some subjects, at least, Farley Knew It after all.

Editor’s note: the late Farley Mowat travelled as a special guest aboard Adventure Canada expeditions in 1995 and 1997. Among his many contributions he taught us invaluable lessons about garnering cheap publicity.

For a definitive take on this issue, see Ken McGoogan‘s thorough and beautiful overview of Farley Mowat’s literary legacy from the National Post.