Author recounts wet, wild adventures

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Where is the step that began author Jill Fredston's journey? When she first put her hands to a set of oars as a child and discovered freedom on the waters of Long Island Sound? Or when she and her husband, Doug Fesler, sailed out of Seattle bound for Skagway, some 72 days and 1,410 miles in the distance?

"The moment of launch, when at last we are standing by the water, our boats loaded with all that we will need in the coming months, is one of tremendous potential," Fredston wrote in her new book "Rowing to Latitude."

For readers, the invitation to join her comes with the words of Henry David Thoreau: "I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness."

In the pages that follow, Fredston recounts navigating more than 20,000 miles of Arctic and sub-Arctic shoreline, beginning with the Seattle to Skagway trip.

Close encounters of the whale variety that left them laughing hysterically. A storm that struck near the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound and held Fredston and Fesler tent-bound prisoners for days. A constantly drizzling rain that challenged waterproof barriers and seemed destined to penetrate their bones.

Along with those experiences, Fredston also wrote openly and tenderly of the couple's deepening relationship, two people bound together by the confining walls of a small tent and the openness of the Inside Passage.

"We encountered the emotional equivalent of wind against current -- a collision that often results in steep, pushy, drenching waves. In the end, we knew that we needed to paddle right next to each other, cook dinner in a single pot on a single-burner stove and share the same tent at night."

After they completed the initial voyage, the Yukon River was next, followed by navigating the shore of Norton Sound and avoiding polar bears between Kotzebue and Point Lay. Beginning at the mosquito-infested Hay River area in Canada's Northwest Territories, the Mackenzie River carried them to the Beaufort Sea. Turning west, they edged the top of Alaska. After traversing 1,100 miles of open water and being challenged by 900 miles of ice, they finally sighted the village of Wainwright. Word of their arrival preceded them and a welcome party cheered the couple to shore.

Then there were the coastlines of Labrador, Norway, Greenland and Spitsbergen.

While Fredston added miles to her daily log, she was careful to leave the environment undisturbed. What she carried away as she and Fesler shoved from shore, heading around the next point or charting a course toward a dot on a map, were personal insights and lessons in living.

"By the time I reached the sea, I knew that I could do far worse than to live life like the Yukon: 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."

There are no dividing lines between Fredston's experiences on the water and other areas of her life. Her family. Doug's family.

Their lives as directors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. The safety lessons they've learned and the search and rescue efforts they've organized. It is all the same, running together with the fluidity of the water on which she rows.

Throughout the pages is a repeated call to awareness. Of immediate surroundings. Of life. Of death. Of others. Of self.

One day, off the coast of Spitsbergen, Fredston was caught in winds of 60 mph. Battling to keep from being separated from her companions, she was peripherally aware of a nearby iceberg.

Suddenly, the wind shoved her up against it and she found her boat and one oar being shoved under a chunk of ice "the size of a large motor home." With her face pressed against it, she remembered inhaling the smell of death.

A few pages later, she compared recovering bodies of avalanche victims and efforts to prevent accidents to the chipping away at an iceberg.

"Every time we look up, the iceberg appears larger than ever, and we wonder if we have accomplished anything."

"Rowing to Latitude" is the seamless reflection of an integrated life. One where compartments and walls have dissolved and the traveler becomes one with the journey. Where, as Fredston wrote, there is a blurring of "the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within."

With the lessons from miles traveled stored securely onboard, her firm grasp of the oars comes from an acceptance of life's certainties and a willingness to make the choices required by whatever challenges await her.

"In the process, rowing has evolved from something I do to some way that I am," Fredston wrote. "Figuratively and literally, I have spent years rowing to latitude."

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