- by Carol Standish
Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston (North Point Press, 289pp, $24) is a high adventure narrative based on the author’s many rowing trips on the rivers and seas of the far north. It is also a quiet meditation on the larger questions of life. Sound like an oxymoron? On the contrary. For Fredston, an avalanche expert based in Anchorage who spends summers engaged in wilderness rowing, the relative solitude combined with the physical and mental challenges of functioning in an extreme climate, enable her the time and freedom to consider the big picture.
The book is a study of contrasts. Hair-raising encounters with grizzlies and polar bears, whales and sharks, mountainous waves, hurricane force winds, impenetrable fogs, water temperatures of 30 degrees (the North Atlantic in February hovers around 40), mammoth freighters, careening ATVs and dispiriting human detritus are gracefully interwoven with Fredston’s deeply personal and ultimately serene reactions. “Our boats don’t allow much insulation from the environment; they force us to be absorbed by it.” (Her 60 pound Kevlar rowing boat is under 20 feet long.)
Fredston herself is a study in contrasts. That a woman who spent a privileged childhood in a fancy New York suburb on the shore of Long Island Sound, and was treated to an elite education (Manhattan prep school, Dartmouth and Cambridge) should eschew the conventional social and material rewards of her background is intriguing. How did she get this way? (She readily admits that her parents still ask that question, too.)
She received her first rowboat when she was 10. Various courses and summer jobs exposed her to the “wilds” of the national parks and the thrill of kayaking with Orcas in Alaska’s Prince William Sound during her high school years. She rowed non-committally while in college on two continents. These early experiences may help explain the pattern of her physical life, but shed little light on her remarkable approach to living: “to use…time wisely, to cause as little pain as possible to others, to pay attention, to live and love with few regrets.”
That attitude, shared by her husband, traveling companion and fellow avalanche expert, Doug Fesler, is the direct result of doing what they do. “Wilderness rowing is far more than a sport to me; it has been a conduit to knowing and trusting myself. It is my way of being, of thinking, of seeing."
Rowing to Latitude chronicles nine separate wilderness rowing trips completed by Fredston and Fesler between the mid-1980s and the late ’90s. Together they have explored the inland passage of British Columbia and the coasts of Alaska, Norway, Labrador and Greenland and circumnavigated the island of Spitsbergen (north of Norway).
One idyllic summer they rowed the 2000 miles of the Yukon River from its source, Tagish Lake, in the middle of Canada’s Northwest Territory, to the Bering Sea. “..the longer we stayed on the river, the more its sounds and smells and horizons became the sum of our consciousness. And maybe as a result, the people of the river began to give us more of their time.” Another summer, they tackled the Mackenzie. “For us, the value of travel is in the knowledge that when we go home, we will not return to exactly the same point.” In actual fact, they often camp on their own deck for several days after returning because their house feels too confining.
To Fredston’s great credit, both as a writer and as a clear and practical thinker, the book is not a sloppy paean to nature. Nor is it a polemic; nor a collection of miasmic abstractions. Balance and well-considered choices are the foundations of her unique and independent lifestyle and her writing style as well. The author shares her travels through some of the most exotic and demanding geography on the planet in a genial conversational flow spiced with ample doses of humor (leaving Cambridge she was relieved to be rid of “manicured greens and…overcooked brussel sprouts”) and oddly homey similes, “skinny barrier islands parallel the coast like string beans laid end to end.” The observations and revelations of her quick mind; the challenges and the delights of her arduous physical adventures create a uniquely pleasing rhythm of excitement and rumination. This book is as much to be savored as it is to be learned from.