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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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