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The Relationships of Rowing

Judyth Willis reviews Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill Fredston

Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill FredstonWhen reading Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge, take time to study the endpaper maps when you begin. They are perfect for tracking the 20,000 miles of rowing along the ocean's edge that the author, Jill Fredston, shares with you. From the endpaper maps to the last page, you experience the bravery, the discomfort, the wonder, and the risks taken on her journeys.

Fredston begins with a short biographical section, where we find that her passion for rowing developed early in life. Her parents gave her a boat when she was ten and the rest, as is the case of most passionate people, is sheer hard work and dedication. Luckily, she met her life's partner, a man who was not daunted by the idea of hundreds of miles of rowing during the Arctic summers and together they have rowed the shores and rivers of Alaska, the outer edges of Labrador, Greenland, Norway, and Spitsbergen. She writes:

Most often, though, people question why we undertake these trips at all. They might as well ask us why we breathe or eat. Our journeys are food for our spirits, clean air for our souls. We don't care if they are firsts or farthests; we don't seek sponsors. They are neither a vacation nor an escape, they are a way of life.

The first journey stretches from Seattle to Skayway. The couple rowed 1,4l0 miles in 72 days. And so it goes from one summer to the next, long days of rowing, nights spent in a tent, and up to row more miles the next day.

Though each chapter tells more about Fredston's relationship with her partner and her family, the two best chapters for her involvement with "place" are "Stream of Consciousness: The Yukon River" and "If I Were a Place: The Coast of Labrador." In the former, Fredston writes of the people living on the edge of the Yukon River. She writes with great care and respect and she does not hesitate to tell the truth about the grief the Indigenous people endure in trying to live with the changes brought from the outside. "The Coast of Labrador" introduces a third member of the rowing party: Sunna, Fredston's stepdaughter. There is a lovely feeling of the passing of the mantle, the instilling of the same passion in a younger person for the physical, spiritual and adrenalin-pumping excitement of rowing the edges of the Arctic lands.

While overcoming the fear of whales tossing their boats into the air, to sharks biting holes in the hulls, bear attacks, storms, crushing icebergs, to the despair over the garbage defiling the coastlines everywhere they went, Fredston speaks to the conundrum of how to live without destroying the earth. She offers no answers other than the impossible edict to leave no marks as you go.

All the way through the book, I was looking for an echo of nature writers like Richard Nelson and his intimate knowledge of his Pacific Northwest island in The Island Within or Barry Lopez, whose book Arctic Dreams left me with a fervent desire to see an iceberg. Fredston's book, though it did not instill the desire to row the ocean's edge, does share a well-told, personal story of fortitude and endurance.


Judith Willis teaches English at Vail High School in Tucson, Arizona. Her essay, "A Panegyric," appeared in Terrain.org's Issue No. 13.
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Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge

by Jill Fredston

   North Point Press
   October 2001
   ISBN 0374281807



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