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Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Review: Water and Sky


Water and Sky: Reflections of a Northern Year
(review by Bob Holtzman)

Why review a book nearly 20 years old? Aside from the obvious answer (that I just read it), because it's a fine one that, if not quite invisible, has certainly been overlooked or forgotten by those who care about canoe literature.


Kesselheim is a fairly well-known canoeing author (various magazines, The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook, Camp Cook's Companion, etc.). At the time of the adventure he writes about in Water and Sky, he and his now-wife Marypat Zitser were unmarried but a secure couple of many years. Both had significant wilderness tripping experience, but like most of us, their trips had all been somewhat limited in duration. This one would be different. Without analyzing their motives too closely, they decided upon a really extended trip that would take them some 2,000 miles through Canada, much of it wilderness, and would last over 400 days.

Launching at Jasper, Alberta, on the Athabasca River, Kesselheim and Zitser paddled a couple of months to Lake Athabasca, where they wintered over, serving as caretakers of a fishing camp empty for the season. After a 7-month winter spent almost entirely alone, they were met at ice-out by Kesselheim's brother and sister-in-law and, now with two canoes, traveled north out of Lake Athabasca, up the Dubawni River into the Northwest Territory, then through a series of portages to the Kazan River and downstream to Baker Lake, an arm on the western side of Hudson Bay.

Kesselheim strikes just the right balance (to my taste) of straight description of events with meaningful reflection. His use of detail is enough to give a surprisingly vivid sense of what life is like under the circumstances he describes, without overloading the reader with a day-by-day, mile-by-mile account of what happened on the river. He doesn't go into detail on gear or provisioning -- this isn't a how-to book by any means -- but neither does he get all philosophical or, god forbid (snicker), spiritual, on the reader. Even entirely nonspiritual wilderness travelers, though, have their deep reasons for going, and the author examines his forthrightly. If a thinking person spends 7 months holed up in a cabin with just one other person, there had better be some interesting thoughts going on if they are to retain their sanity.

The last part of their journey, above the treeline in the Northwest Territory, is particularly eloquently told. There are musk oxen, migrating herds of tens of thousands of caribou, evidence of occupation by the inland Inuit of years past, and now and then a good rousing drop over a ledge in the river. The tundra Kesselheim describes is tremendously appealing to read about -- appealing enough to make one want to, if not follow in his footsteps, then seek an equally remote and unexplored river and do something similar -- but Kesselheim also makes the hardships sufficiently clear so that few readers will actually follow that romantic impulse.



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