Jennifer Kingsley is a wilderness guide, naturalist, and conservationist. She has a degree in biology and has published articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers. Paddlenorth, Kingsley’s first book, chronicles her 54-day canoeing expedition on the Back River in the Northern wilderness of the Arctic. She undertook the journey with five companions – a mix of strangers and close friends, experienced paddlers and near novices. (Fans of Canadian literature might be surprised to find acclaimed writer Alison Pick among the travellers.) Unsurprisingly, group dynamics feature as one of the main themes of this wilderness adventure memoir.
During nearly two months living remotely, the paddlers encounter the expected obstacles: inclement weather, rough or frozen water, wildlife, and personality clashes. One of the more intriguing impediments is their discovery of abandoned boats and gear belonging to a group of young female campers (the canoes are marked with the name of a girls’ camp that was flown in just before Kingsley’s group arrived). The teddy bear tied to one of the abandoned packs makes the discovery especially alarming. As Kingsley and her fellow paddlers decide what to do, they nickname the group “The Dead Girls.” Eventually we learn that the girls have all been evacuated to safety, but the incident allows Kingsley the opportunity to discuss the danger of the wild and the ethics of backcountry travel.
As Kingsley reflects upon her experience, she also explores contemporary dependence on communication technology and writes about wilderness as a reprieve from modernity. Descriptions of wildlife form another main focus of the memoir; over the course of the book, Kingsley achieves her long-standing goal of viewing migrating caribou.
Kingsley intersperses the account of her trip with renderings of historical voyages on the same river. The adventures of earlier explorers are not always smoothly incorporated and, though interesting in their own right, tend to interfere with the narrative momentum. Otherwise, Kingsley is at her best in the descriptions of backcountry food, and readers planning to embark on an extended wilderness adventure will gain many practical tips in the pages of Paddlenorth.