Saturday, October 08, 2011

Paddle to the Arctic/ Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak

In the early 1980s, Don Starkell and his son Dana paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river in Brazil. For an encore in the 1990s, Don attempted to kayak the fabled Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic, from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territory. His first attempt in 1990, a solo attempt, ended quickly after a disastrous spill on his third day of paddling. It took him nine days of paddling through wretched conditions to return to his starting point. Despite vowing never to return, in 1991 he returned for another try, this time with two other paddlers. One soon dropped out of the expedition but the other, Victoria Jason, continued on with Don and together they paddled as far as Repulse Bay on the northern shore of Hudson Bay. Despite the utter incompatibility of their personalities, they returned to Repulse Bay in 1992 to continue the journey. They set out from Repulse Bay attempting to follow Don's plan to pull their kayaks on sleds across the frozen ice until they reached open water from which to launch from. The two of them pulled their kayaks across the ice for almost three weeks, until Vicki had to withdraw due to injuries. Don continued on alone, pulling his kayak for another three weeks before reaching open water. Injuries, bad weather and bad choices worked against Don, and he almost met his demise just miles from his destination. He was rescued, but severe frostbite cost him most of his fingers and some of his toes.
There's enough adventures here for more than one book, and in fact two did grew out of this expedition: Starkell's Paddle to the Arctic, and Jason's Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. And if you've ever wanted to experience a "he said, she said" version of how a kayaking expedition can go wrong, this is as probably as good as you're going to get.
It's clear from his book that Starkell was a driven man, and seemingly would let almost nothing get in the way of completing his expedition. Not even his paddling partners. He consistently and often rudely ignored advice from his partners and from the local residents and indigenous peoples who knew how to survive in this remote and dangerous part of the world. Despite years of planning, he made mistakes like neglecting to pack all the charts required or checking that his kayak compass was working correctly before setting out. In one notably gaffe, he lead himself and Jason over 100 km off course by paddling east when he though he was paddling west. Even the sun rising from the totally opposite side of the horizon than it should was not enough to convince him that he might be wrong. I lost count of how many times in this book the phrase "Instead, I decided to play a hunch" was followed a page or so later by "It didn't go the way I expected."
I'm not suggesting this isn't a good book -- it is -- but you will be pulling your hair out as Starkell's situation goes from bad to worse. To be fair, Starkell seems to realize that many of the obstacles were of his own making, and he is a much humbler man at the end of the book.
Victoria's story doesn't end when she pulls out of the 1992 expedition. Her book covers not only the 1991 and 1992 expeditions in all their exasperating details, but her return to Arctic in 1993 and 1994 when she kayaked down the McKenzie River from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean and then continued along the northern shore, duplicating the final leg of Don's trip but in reverse. And it's here that her book really shines, with wonderful descriptions of the scenery and people she meets along the way. She returned in 1996 to paddle the parts of the original trip that was accomplished by sled in 1992, and returned to the Arctic again over the next couple of years. She was working on another book on her further Arctic adventures when she took ill and passed away in 2000.
These books are the classic example of what can happen when not understanding your partner's motivation to for paddling. In this case, one was paddling for the experience of it, while the other was paddling it apparently just for the sake of doing it. As Neil Peart once wrote in a Rush song, "The point of the journey is not to arrive."

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