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Arctic Rower Details Chilling Journey in New Book

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2001
 
A U.S. Navy adage maintains that it's foolish to travel north of the
Arctic Circle clad in anything less than a nuclear
submarine.

Most people would agree. For rower Jill Fredston,
however, ignoring such advice has become an intoxicating way of life.




Fredston spends three to five months each summer exploring Arctic and sub-Arctic waterways around the world. So far she has logged more than 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers). Her journeys have taken her along rivers and coastlines in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Norway, all in a craft considerably less substantial than a submarine—a 19.5-foot (5.9-meter) rowing shell.

Fredston's boat, like that of her husband and companion Doug Fesler, is an open-water rowing shell, a design adopted after much trial and error and constructed by a talented friend.

Known as an Amerow, the shell weighs only about 60 pounds when empty but can carry three months worth of food and Arctic gear inside three watertight bulkheads. The craft is constructed of Kevlar only one-eighth of an inch thick—a thin margin of protection from the cold and icy northern waters.

In Rowing to Latitude (North Point Press, 2001), Fredston describes her encounters with freezing waters, ice, fierce storms, and bears, both grizzly and polar, admitting her occasional longing for a hot shower.

"Way of Life"

The journeys are "neither a vacation nor an escape, they are a way of life," Fredston proclaims. The rowing "has evolved from something I do to some way that I am."

Among the joys and satisfaction she derives from the challenge is the tremendous focus involved in the simple act of paddling day after day. Being forced to concentrate on the basics of navigation and survival, she explains, allows ample time for self-reflection and reduces life solely to the present.

Fredston and Fesler are both drawn to wild places, and in all their travels they've found nowhere more compelling than their adopted home of Alaska.

"It took us traveling elsewhere to appreciate how truly wild Alaska is," Fredston says. "Is it because we have better conservation measures in place, or because we have less years of human habitation? I don't know, probably a little of both."

Not all of the coastlines they have rowed, however, are as free from the influences of civilization.

While paddling along nearly the entire length of Norway's coast, the couple noted that while the landscape often physically resembled Alaska's, there was little wildlife. The Europeans they encountered in those areas, however, considered the region relatively pristine wildernesses.

Such experiences convinced Fredston that our perceptions of nature are based in large part on our past experiences, on what we've seen before. And it leads her to a cautionary note on the future of wild lands: "We're not going to know what's missing if we've never known it."

Land of Oil and Caribou

On a marathon trip along the coast of the Arctic's Beaufort Sea, Fredston crossed from Canada to the United States and began rowing along the 125-mile length of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the subject of considerable debate regarding its future. Whether to drill for oil in the refuge has divided Alaska's native communities, state officials, conservationists, and politicians in Washington.

The nearly 20-million-acre refuge—more than three times larger than Vermont—is commonly known as a pristine wilderness that's the calving area of the porcupine caribou herd.

From Fredston's vantage point along the coastline, the view was sometimes a bit different. "Whenever we thought we saw the bulk of a musk ox, it usually proved to be just another 55-gallon drum," she recalls.

The drums are a Cold War legacy, stockpiled from the radar stations that once stretched across the Arctic. Years of storms and waves have scattered them, and although a federally funded cleanup is underway, ANWR's coastline is clearly showing a human footprint.

Yet Fredston found the region hauntingly beautiful—almost magical. "It's a different kind of beauty, a more subtle kind of beauty," she says. "It's lone wolf tracks on the beach, and ethereal lighting and clumps of lupines."

It's the kind of wild place, like the others she journeys past each summer, that inspires her to reflect not only on herself but also on the responsibility that people have for such lands.

"We can chip away at wildness one project at a time, one road at a time, without realizing the cumulative impact," she says. "When will we reach a state of grace where we slow down and stop trying to use every last resource?

"Once you wring the wildness out of a place," she adds, "it doesn't come back."
 

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