Rowing to Latitude

by Jill Fredston

Published by North Point Press

288 pages, 2001

Buy it online






Lyrical North

Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa


Arctic coasts seem to have been made for Jill Fredston and her husband Doug, and they for the coasts. As if their income career as Alaskan avalanche forecasters wasn't thrill enough, in summers they airfreight his kayak and her scull from this to that spot in the Arctic, and then row -- yes, oars -- 900 to 1500 miles down rivers, along coasts, around islands so remote that rare few have ever examined close-up the majesty of their unpeopled sides. They've been wined, dined, drank to, photographed, endured the insults of hostile locals, even shot at. Their litany of terrifying waveform to tremulous eddy is why this book is such a page-turner. Yet they keep going -- 20,000 miles worth thus far.

Arctic seas are not for everyone, nor the shores. Times of paeanic bliss are cleft short by howling ice storms from out of nowhere. The inexpressible shoreside beauty of a hundredfold pod of whales is quite another thing if you are in a 19-foot rowing scull surrounded by 20-foot thrashing flukes. The utter peace of standing before a 680-year-old, six-foot-diameter cedar is, a few hours later, a gut-wrenching horror trying to navigate through sucking tidal gyres like tornadoes of the sea, dozens of yards deep and just as merciless. They routinely assail waves that would give a Hawaiian surfer pause -- not eight, not ten, but 15 to 20 feet, whose tops are being truncated to spume by the wind. The Perfect Storm without a motor. The white shape afar in the midst of a skyscape of blue and worldscape of white is just another piece of ice till it rises to 10 feet, has claws and is charging at you, roaring, roaring. It is hard to believe that two 5-by-8-inch pages sprawled across your lap can evoke the same gut-wrenching fear as a Hollywood special-effects epic, but about a quarter of this book does just that. Perhaps they are so fearless because they are so well conditioned. Their resting pulse rate of 37 (versus 60 to 72 for most people) surely has something to do with their icy unintimidability.

Why would anyone in reasonable possession of their wits opt for this as a lifestyle? It's certainly not for merit-badge product endorsements. They are a very private couple, even humble when around people. Not so around sea, wind, ice and cliffs. Fredston articulates her philosophy at the outset:

In the process of journeying, we seem to have become the journey, blurring the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within. Once, during a long crossing in Labrador, we found ourselves in fog so thick it was impossible to see even the ends of our boats. Unable to distinguish gray water from gray air, I felt vertigo grab hold of my equilibrium, and the world began to spin. I needed a reference point--the sound of Doug's voice or the catch of my blades as they entered the water--to know what was right side up. Rounding thousands of miles of ragged shoreline together, driven by the joys and fears of not knowing what lies around the next bend, has helped us find an interior compass.

A little later, using images reminiscent of T.W, Eliot's poem "The Dry Salvages," she becomes that which she experiences:

By the time I reached the sea, I know that I could do far worse than to live life like the Yukon [River]: Keep moving but find places to slow down. Don't go straight at the expense of meandering. Nurture others; accommodate both change and tradition. Savor the element of surprise. Be gracious, accepting, resilient.

Further on she again addresses her sense for spirit of place:

Person, place, or thing? The games we played as kids had such seemingly simple answers. How can a person be a place? How can a place not become part of a person? We remember a place not just for its beauty but for the way that beauty made us feel; these feelings are woven into an emotional tapestry we call self. The most special places are the ones that give texture to our dreams, that ground us, make us whole, remind us of what is real.

Not all is so lyric. Traversing the north coast of Alaska she fell into deep water hardly warmer than the ice blocks all around her. Hers is one of the extremely few descriptions of what it feels like to be in water that cold:

I jumped, but, losing confidence when I needed it most, tried for one last step before I pushed off, breaking through a thin skim of ice near the edge. Falling into 30 degree F water is probably the closest I'll ever come to being vacuum packed. Most of the air was sucked out of my lungs in one long, excruciating, involuntary gasp. The only thought I can remember is: 'It's lucky I'm not a man,' a flashback to Doug's offhand comment at dinner the night before that a man's testicles would shrink into his body with the shock of such cold. I'll never know whether I would have had more profound thoughts, because as my arms and legs turned into sandbags. Doug slid his kayak toward me. I draped myself across the deck, and he reeled me in like a fish.

Rowing to Latitude would be just another human-conquers-nature thriller if it wasn't for Jill Fredston's writing. This is one of those books that is not only a page-turner, when you get to the end you peek under the back cover hoping there's another 400 pages. Erudite, heartfelt, eloquent, adventurous, witty, tragic, liberating, concerned, poetic, blunt -- all this can happen on a single page, and very often does. Her entire book has the quality of the moods of the sea, vividly personalized by her ability to melt the descriptive into the spiritual. She writes rings around the mass-market travel scribblers autographing books at Borders these days. It is a pity that she and her husband are Arctic devotees; there is a whole rest of the world that surely could do with her talent -- with his compassion, with their insights. However, considering the fact that they think a 50-degree day a swelter fit only for basking on a beach surrounded by icebergs, you know they would melt into popcorn oil if they tackled, say, Bali and the Sunda Islands.

Let's hope they don't run out of shorelines, their bones don't give out on them, and Fredston's hard drive doesn't crash. Five more books from them would be just about right. More pictures, too. The 16 herein were a saucer of chip dip compared with the image banquet that is the Arctic. In this environment, where the energy of life is dribbled so sparingly, Fredston sees the underlying spiritual energy of the earth which must be before life can be, just as soul and heart must be before mind can be.

Maybe the publisher could get Vangelis to compose a new CD for her next effort. | February 2002


Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer's paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at