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Book Review - Paddlenorth

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

By Kate Riordon, Collections Processor & Digital Technician

I did not really expect to resonate with Paddlenorth when I first picked it up, my only experience with canoeing being limited to putzing around Lake Louise, but the adventure of long-distance river travel and the sweeping grandeur of the Canadian North caught me tight and held me fast.

Paddlenorth book by Jennifer Kingsley being held by a hand with brick background.
Image 1

Jennifer Kingsley’s brilliantly written book follows a 2005 trip she and five others took along the Baillie and Back River systems of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, a route more than 1000 km long that ends with the Arctic Ocean. Part expedition log, part memoir, part history lesson, I found myself voraciously following the turns of the story as Kingsley and her five companions made their way through a landscape dominated by big sky, big rocks, and bigger clouds of biting bugs. I worried that as a mountain-bound land-lubber, the language of canoe travel in the far north would leave me stranded, but Kingsley’s approachable and charismatic style helped me keep my head above water. Her anxieties about being one in a group, the demands of the environment around her, and the desire to fulfill this goal are all incredibly relatable to anyone who spends their free time outside doing something some people might think is insane. Plus, as a hiker, I was extremely jealous of their ability to bring all that food with them without worrying about throwing out their backs.

Mixed in with her story are those of people who have lived in and traveled through this harsh yet beautiful world before them. Sir George Back, for whom the river was named, features heavily and becomes a spectral seventh member of the crew. His early voyages with Lieutenant John Franklin and later surveys of the Arctic coastline in the mid-1800s serve as a touchstone and cautionary tale throughout the book. Abandoned missionary cabins and circles of Inuit camp stones dot the shores of the river where roving packs of wolves and herds of migrating caribou now dominate.

Even a component of mystery enters the book when the team discovers a freshly abandoned camp complete with canoes, backpacks, and tents. Knowing another group preceded them on the river, they attempt to piece together what clues they can with the aid of a found satellite phone – the full story, though, wouldn’t be revealed to them until five years later.

For Kingsley, the tundra was a place to escape to and explore, but also to be found in. When they finally reach the ocean after 40 days of paddling she says, “The river… cut a path for us to follow; others had followed it, and still more had attempted it, but water makes no trails and so lets you feel like the first visitor.”

Despite the trails we follow on foot, by bike, or by ski, I think we can agree that the sentiment behind her words still rings true. While I still have no desire to go out and purchase my own canoe, I was happy to go along for the ride.

Pick up a copy of Paddlenorth for yourself at the Whyte Museum Book Shop - stop by to visit us at 111 Bear St. in Banff!

About the Author

Jennifer is a National Geographic Explorer and a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

In 2015, she founded Meet the North, a project that shares personal stories from some of the four million people who live in the global Arctic. By sharing different perspectives from these places, Jennifer’s work transcends stereotypes. She has published and presented extensively on her travels through Iceland, Greenland, Nunavut, Alaska, and Norway. Jennifer was sponsored by the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Alliance and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

With support from the National Geographic Society, Jennifer traveled to small communities in Russia’s Far East in 2017.

In 2018, she expanded her work to include communities in French Polynesia.

Jennifer holds degrees in both biology and fine arts. She is a winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for Paddlenorth, the story of one of her 50-day canoeing expeditions across the Canadian Arctic. Her radio documentaries have been broadcast internationally and recognized by the New York Festivals, the Gabriel Awards, and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Her writing has appeared in various outlets including National Geographic Magazine, the BBC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

She lives in Ottawa, Canada.



Image 1: Cover of Paddlenorth.

Image 2: Image courtesy of Jennifer Kingsley.


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