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Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture

Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture. Jonathan Waterman. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2001. 360 pages, 85 black-and-white illustrations, 8 pages color, endpaper maps, hardcover. $29.95.

Arctic Crossing chronicles Jon Waterman’s 1997-99 adventure traveling under human power (kayak, foot) and other non-motorized forms of locomotion (wind, dogsled) along the northern coast of North America, via a variation of the fabled Northwest Passage. The 2,200-mile odyssey done in six stages over three summers went from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the Gulf of Boothia in the new Canadian province of Nunavut. It was, according to the account (and the accompanying television documentary that Waterman produced), a wildly dramatic and dangerous journey—more committing than any of his demanding mountaineering exploits. He experienced everything from capsizing his kayak several times (deadly in such frigid northern waters) to polar bears chasing him in the open ocean (again, deadly). Huge, daily physical stresses were complemented by the even greater mental challenge of what he’d set out to do and the ever-present question of whether he had the fortitude to complete it.

Waterman’s exhaustive research, combined with his unique writing style—in which events are described slowly and with great detail—yields a story with many layers, not unlike a tapestry. Observations of the environment, Waterman’s own state of mind, the flora, fauna, weather, and seasons, are interspersed with information on the history of the area and the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Yet, there is a whole lot more to Arctic Crossing.

At 45, Waterman has written seven other books about adventure, most of which have been focused on his experiences with Alaskan mountaineering. Arctic Crossing offers more because at its core it is an anthropological treatise. By detailing what he knows, then learns, about the Inuit (and that is a considerable amount of information), Waterman paints a wholly consuming portrait of an underdocumented race of people.

When Waterman began his epic, six-stage trip, he assumed he would learn a few things from the Inuit. He saw “The People” as holding the secrets to survival on this far northern land. He was not prepared for the harsh realities he witnessed and heard about during his trips, including the mistreatment of children, women and animals, the sexual abuse, the murders, and all sorts of cultural aberrations. “For example, they can tell you everything about that soap opera,” Waterman told me during an interview about Arctic Crossing. “But most don’t even know their own native language. I had kids ask me ‘What is that, that boat that you’re paddling?’ Their forefathers invented kayaks and they’d never seen or heard of them before.”

On the other hand, Waterman also came into contact with a life force that could not be denied. This book tells it all, in riveting detail, capturing the full range of Inuit experience. It is definitely not a romantic wide-eyed portrait of an indigenous culture often considered more innocent than our own. But because it doesn’t shrink from describing cultural practices—such as the beating of dogs—that even many Inuits themselves despise, it treats the people as wholly complete beings, and the culture as the complex set of behaviors it really is, rather than the idealized form of life we would prefer it to be.

“Time and time again I’d just be brought up short. I’d be tempted to come to a [negative] conclusion about these people,” said Waterman, “and then suddenly they’d do something wonderful like feed me, or offer me help. Which really showed me they had my best interests at heart. I’d show up in a camp, and while they wouldn’t ask questions, they were gracious and made me laugh and gave me a place to sleep.” Waterman became more than just a student of The People. He became a curiosity, an inspiration, and finally, a friend.

There’s no hiding it: I’m a fan of Arctic Crossing, and of Waterman’s style. He’s a careful, considerate writer, with a keen eye for detail and the ability to mix his own story into a picture that is far greater, longer, and deeper.

Cameron M. Burns