Book review: Odyssey Among the Inuit, Jonathan Waterman

Tremendously engaging book, fantastic kayak journey through NW passage, self contained chapters tangenting off in all directions of inuit life and history.

book cover

Amazon link

 This is chronologically a third great book on kayak traverse of the northwest passage. Previous expeditions were undertaken by Don Starkell, and Victoria Jason.

Waterman’s remit to himself is to boat through the NW passage unpowered, and to that end, his craft is a Klepper sea kayak, fitted with removable sail. The journey can only be undertaken during the summer months, and Waterman spends several summers chasing his dream, in the winters returning to his native US.

 The three authors are very different in character and temperement. Starkell is a battler, utterly honest about his disagreements with paddling partners, and powered by supreme determination. Jason is a people person, despite her independence and love of solo paddling and her own company, she quickly makes strong friendships with folk she meets and shares with the reader insights into how she summons her inner strength. Jon Waterman is a “The People” person, fascinated with every aspect of Inuit life and history. (The People, is, we learn, the translation of the word Inuit.) The resulting books are, in turn, vastly different so that the reader has to remind himself that these kayakers are all talking about the same place.

We learn from Waterman that the history of this region is not a rosy one – each wave of incomers – whalers, Hudson Bay company employees, anthropologists, polar explorers, Greenpeace activists, Canadian government officials – have had striking effects on the status quo, sometimes bringing in technical innovations, but at the same time changing the ecomic landscape in ways which discourange traditional skills and decrease the independence of people living there. In the most heart-rending episodes, Waterman recounts the history of the accidental introduction of diseases to which inuit had no resistance wiped out whole villages.

The style of the book is nicely crafted, each chapter is not only a journal entry and a packet of the journey, but also an opportunity to look further into a topic – myths of Sedna, descriptions of Franklin disaster history, sociology of modern Arctic towns, family histories, natural history and wisdom of elders, all these topics are fascinating, and Waterman’s writing never descends to a catalog of only his journey.

Jonathan Waterman is utterly in love with the inuit lifestyle, people and history.  This could get a bit much, as old methods, as practiced by The People are praised, while outsiders are necesarily going to take all the “baddie” roles available. However, this is an open-eyed adoration. Waterman does not shy away from the more unlovely aspects of modern day Arctic society. The alcoholism and other social problems stemming from the lack of purpose which has itself come about from both the original exploitation of the area, and also sometimes, ironically, from the attempts at reparation, are set down in a factual way. He tells the reader what things are like, and successfully (just about) avoids telling the reader what to think about it.

As to the journey itself and the physical and psycological challanges of travelling alone, this is a thread where Waterman, in common with Jason and Starkell, is totally honest with us about the minutiae, the mistakes, the joyous feelings and the worst moments. The mind-tricks where a lonely brain invents companions to talk to, the beauty of scenes which can’t be put into words, or, in any case, shared with anyone anyway, and the constant bartering between risk assessment and journey progress.

Right now, another team, called Arctic Voice, are undertaking their own journey to the Northwest Passage, and perhaps they will provide yet another varying view of this amazing part of the planet.


One Response

  1. Great review.

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