As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.
In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.
When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’
People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.
Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.
I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’
The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’
Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’
The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.
The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.
I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.
Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.