My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
However fascinated any of us may be with the Arctic (and Antarctic), eager to watch TV specials and maybe one day to go there ourselves, few of us would think of sailing north at the end of the summer with the intention of being frozen into the ice to spend an Artic winter alone. Yet that’s exactly what American Alvah Simon and his wife Diana did in 1994 when they took their 36-foot steel sailboat to Tay Bay, north of Baffin Island, Canada.
Diana had to leave as winter began to care for her father, leaving Simon alone – and many miles from the nearest Inuit settlement – for almost six months. His book about the experience –North to the Night, A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic – is a wonderfully evocative story that melds adventure and personal pilgrimage. The mere thought of being so isolated and exposed to dangers and cold may send shudders down your spine, but the book may well strengthen your own resolve to live a fuller life than visits to the shopping mall.
“I am here because in the landscape of each and ever human imagination lies one special place. Our inner compass keeps pointing us toward this spot, which is magnetic, mysterious, exotic, and alluring but, alas, always fringed by a frontier of our fears. still, it is to this specific place that we are compelled to travel in order to know ourselves and, in so doing, call our lives complete. I am here in the search of wholeness, for in my breast, hiding just beneath each breath, lies a hollow, and always it has cried out to be filled,” writes Simon from his freezing sleeping bag inside his ice-covered sailboat freezen in the sea ice.
Simon writes with such intimacy throughout the book – for example, of loneliness for his wife, and fear of re-entering human society as spring comes to the North, and of his need to confront ultimate danger.
“I had come here specifically to experience life as the Inuit do. I had come to the Arctic to intimately understand their land and animals before I could even pretend to understand the people. I had endured the dark, the cold, and an aloneness that perhaps only a handful of human beings have ever known. But I had not stood before the Ice Bear. Each time I felt myself inexplicably drawn forward I had pulled back, wisely perhaps, but this had left me just short of the defining, quintessential experience of Inuit manhood.”
Simon was to get his chance, of course, and survives. The danger of all such books of adventure and personal odyssey to know oneself is that too easily they can fall into one of two traps; allowing the author to get in the way of his or her own story or beating the drum of the great adventure ad mauseum.
For example, Paul Theroux’s ego so often blocks out any view of the country, people and culture he is visiting (his dismissal of Afghanistan in The Great Railway Bazaar is typical) that though his writing is sometimes amusing his “travel” stories are chiefly concerned with himself.
The danger of sensationalism has become worse with television. We’ve all seen programs about fascinating places or experiences that are marred by the narrator’s constant boosterism with meteor showers of superlatives about everything and everyone, instead of letting the experience or the information speak for itself.
Simon avoids both these traps. His account of his eventual encounter face to face with a polar bear is all the more powerful because his story-telling is low key and unmelodramatic.
“I took one more step. The bear grunted and rocked forward. I opened my arms, turning my palms to the heavens. The bear stepped toward me. He rose above me, a horrible mountain of fang and claw, crushing power, and lightning speed. The moment hung in its own eternity. And then the bear spun around and slid away in great strides over the tundra. I stood stunned and faint, my soul indelibly embossed with the bear’s message: “Here, I give you back your life. It has been washed pure by your fear. enjoy it deeply, learn from it daily, and use it wisely, for there is a purpose larger than yourself.”
Whether it was Simon himself or more likely his eiditor and publisher who decided to omit them; it’s unfortunate and a shortcoming of the book that there’s nothing at the back of the book; no appendicies with information about equipment, special preparations made, food carried, no bibliography with all the many books and authors mentioned in the text, no index to check people, places and subjects. This is a serious omission in any adventure book – the technicalities are fuel to the reader’s imagination, as well as a disservice to others who might learn from the author’s advice.
However, this failing does not obscure Simon’s remarkable achievement both in terms of the experience itself and this book. Warm in the safety of your own home, perhaps before a woodburning stove, Simon’s book is a perfect read for all armchair adventurers whatever challenges you intend to allow yourself this summer.
North to the Night, A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic by Alvah Simon, published by Broadway Books in 1998.