Shannon Huffman Polson’s North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey (Zondervan 2013) is at least three books in one, and each of them is a great read. The first two are in the genre of nature and adventure travel writing.
One paints a portrait of arctic Alaska, including off the path destinations such as Walt Audi’s Waldo Arms “hotel” in Kaktovik, which is a coastal island town that serves as a northern gateway to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Based on my own visits to the Waldo Arms, I have described it as a cross between Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca and the alien cantina in the bar scene from Star Wars. In Kaktovik, you might say, everybody comes to Walt’s. Shannon’s description brought back a lot of amusing, and largely pleasant, memories – including of the velvet couch she describes, which was already ancient when I sat on it in 2001.
The second is bracing outdoors adventure writing, describing a trip that Polson made down one of the Refuge’s iconic rivers with all the internal drama and informative digressions of a John McPhee narrative, including his description of a river trip in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. The excursions into natural history range widely, from the formation of arctic polygons to cave paintings of bears in Chauvet, France. The writing is vividly descriptive, as in this evocation of an arctic river valley: “Skeins of river wove loosely back and forth on the tapestry of the tundra, braids voyaging through the landscape, returning to the main channel, venturing out again.”
The third internal book is just that – internal. It is by far the most eloquent, moving and important of the three. In it, Shannon explores deeply personal experiences, including but certainly not limited to the death of her father and stepmother in a bear encounter on the same river a year before. This is honest and searching writing, elegantly crafted. She is masterful at interweaving her exploration of her father’s death, and his life, and her faith, within a narrative context of rafting the arctic river. As the father of a daughter myself, I couldn’t help seeing her relationship with her Dad through a very personal lens.
Shannon also touches on one of my favorite subjects, which is the sustaining value of friendships formed in wilderness. “The companionship of wilderness girds the soul,” she writes, “but human companionship in the wilderness warms the heart.”
There are other books peeking out from between the covers of this volume as well: the author's complex relationship with her brother and the structure provided by Mozart's Requiem Mass. Each is a nuanced and moving story in its own right.
North of Hope is a must read for those who enjoy adventure travel, especially involving arctic Alaska, but it reflects a triumph of spirit that is equally critical for anyone who searches for meaning and renewal of hope in the shadow of tragedy.