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Writers Fest: Canoeing in Canada’s Far North

By Susan Belle Ferguson on April 24, 2015

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28.  Apartment613 is previewing some of the authors who will be speaking at the festival in a series of special posts.

Being a keen paddler and partaker of “Chicks in the Sticks” adventures in Algonquin Park, I was eager to read Ottawa-based author Jennifer Kingsley’s account of her 54-day, 6-person expedition via canoe along the Back River in Canada’s far north in the summer of 2005.  After all, it was unlikely I’d ever spend that long in a canoe or do so north of 60, but I was undoubtedly game for such an armchair adventure.

It turns out that Kingsley was raised in a family of generations of canoe enthusiasts.  In fact, she is a seasoned paddler with two previous lengthy expeditions under her belt – one in Northern Ontario and the other in the Arctic.  Moreover, she has worked as a naturalist, guide and conservationist for over a decade, and is a self-acknowledged lover of maps.

All of these skills provided her with a unique lens from which to recount her experience.  To our benefit, she enriched her prose with her acquired terminology and techniques, allowing her to both educate and entertain the reader.  In particular, I learned what is the Mercator projection, which allowed me to understand her comparison of that to her perceptions and recollections of this particular journey.

I was immediately caught up in Kingsley’s storytelling style, which transports the reader into her demanding yet rewarding experience with vivid descriptions of the landscape, paddling conditions, wildlife and – to my surprise – the bugs.  Who would have thought there would be so many bugs up north!  But when I asked her in an interview how she endured the pests, she replied that in a past experience she asked herself what she wanted to remember from her trip, the landscape or the bugs, and she chose the beauty.

I commend Jennifer on the self-control she possessed to not go insane from the volume of insects. I say this having had my own black fly infested canoeing experience in Manitoba during which I slapped myself silly!

Jennifer Kingsley

Jennifer Kingsley

Kingsley also carefully explores the challenges of group dynamics that, on such a long trip, are bound to be testy at times.  Should you be interested in planning your own team adventure, consider trying some of the clever strategies this crew employed to reduce strife and balance the responsibilities.

Throughout her account Kingsley has woven the plights and successes of other adventurers who travelled the same route, along the treacherous Back River, comparing their choices and fates.  You feel her deep appreciation of the history of the North and you gain a greater understanding of the challenges faced in mapping its rugged corridors and hallways.  She has thoughtfully included endnotes should you wish to read further about these historical journeys.

I found her reflections on the various challenges to be quite relatable.  While the frigid temperatures the group endured obviously exceeded the discomfort I experienced during this past blisteringly cold winter in Ottawa, I could still relate!  The truth is, “everyone has their own version of this story because everyone has experienced something that has challenged them.”

As the book title denotes, it is indeed a tale of “adventure, resilience and renewal in the Arctic wild.” This is by no means a trendy confessional tale, but an honest and skilled account of a harrowing, yet thrilling adventure that, as Jennifer declared, was “worth the price of admission”.

Jennifer Kingsley will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Monday, April 27. The event starts at 6:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street). Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free.