WOMAN VERSUS WILD
Writers are devoting book after book to the story of the female adventurer,
In Joanna Streetly’s vivid memoir, Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast (Caitlin Press) we find the avid kayaker on an expedition as tsunami warnings hit VHF radio airwaves. Paddling frantically, she has just enough time to seek shelter in a nearby First Nations community before the Japanese tsunami is expected to arrive. Elsewhere in the book — a chronicle of close calls that spans her thirty years living on the West Coast — Streetly braves midnight paddles in impenetrable fog, violent lightning storms, encounters with bears and wolves, nail-biting boat trips with her infant daughter and dark, foreboding swells on her float house off the coast of Tofino. It’s all part of life in the wild, the life of a female adventurer.
“I haven’t hiked the highest peaks, or crossed the Pacific in a perilously small craft,” she writes in the book’s prologue. “I don’t think my resilience equals that of women who’ve gone before me, raising huge families far from help, with few resources. But there have been times in wild places when things simply became precarious. And when they did, the intensity of those moments opened previously uncharted regions of myself. I found and lost fears, contemplated death, expanded my understanding of humankind, and of history. I felt time telescope from milliseconds to millennia. And I noted points of inexplicable connection between myself and my surroundings.”
Streetly tells the Star that she felt it was important to write about the many fears she’s faced, as a woman living in the remote reaches of B.C.
“How will the expectations of women ever change if we don’t show that we all feel these things?” she says.
It’s an interesting time in history for intrepid women, as wave after wave of books grapple with this very question, celebrating the wilder side of women’s lives and reimaging what’s possible. This publishing trend was, of course, ushered in by Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 blockbuster book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage), about hiking the gruelling route alone. Many wonderful titles followed in its wake, including last spring’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir (Virago), by Jessica J. Lee, aCanadian in Berlin who set out to swim 52 icy German lakes. And, more recently, from Squamish, B.C., Jan Redford’s End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood (Random House), about her climbing capers.
Bernadette McDonald is the author of numerous books on adventurers. She says the tradition of the female adventurer stretches back many years, pointing to 19th century explorers such as Fanny Bullock Work man and Alexandra David-Néel, and 20th century Himalayan climbing legends such as Wanda Rutkiewicz.
More recently, in the years since the literary portion of the annual Banff gathering kicked off, McDonald says she’s noticed a marked uptick in titles by women.
“There’s no question there’s an increase,” she tells The Star, not necessarily because there’s more female adventurers out there, but, she believes, because publishers are more receptive to telling these kinds of stories.
This is a great development, she says. “The kinds of women who do adventures I think are often quite perceptive about all kinds of contextual things that make those stories richer … different places, different cultures, different ways of looking at things.”
Case in point: Kate Harris’s magnificent Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road( Knopf Canada), which details the Rhodes scholar’s tenmonth, ten-country, 10,000-kilometre bike journey along the ancient trading route, cutting through spectacularly scenic regions. The book is equal parts travelogue, adventure yarn and meditation on the role of the modern-day explorer.
“The less focused I was on the brute mechanics of pedalling — aching legs and lungs, kilometres covered and kilometres to come — the more awake I could be to the world around me, its ordinary wonders,” Harris writes.
Such as, for instance, “the face of the whiskery Georgian woman who sat by a wood stove in a small-town shop, her warm smile and watery blue eyes seeming to suggest that no road was long enough to learn all I wanted to know and get where I wanted to go.”
“On a bike, you’re so exposed to the world around you,” Harris tells The Star in a phone interview.
“Every bump in the road, every change in the wind, or change in the weather, you feel it in this really intimate — maybe too intimate — way. I love that about bicycle travel.” It’s also low-cost, she adds, with all the joys of hiking. But faster, so you can “travel further on your own steam.”
The debut author, who lives off-grid in Atlin, B.C., says as a child she was “deeply inspired by the literature of exploration, and the spirit of it.”
She adds: “This idea of deliberately setting off toward the unknown, into risk. And the idea that you can discover incredible things about yourself, and the world, and your relationship to it, through that.”
Harris took inspiration from adventurers such as Jane Goodall, as well as books such as Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge by rower Jill Fredston, and West with the Night by bush pilot Beryl Markham.
All these women coped with extreme levels of discomfort, both physical and emotional, as Harris did on her own marathon ride. She says there’s much to be gained from exposing oneself to such hardships.
“I think you gain humility and maybe a deeper sense of empathy for what other people are going through,” she says. “There’s value in challenging yourself. Even though — and especially when — it’s painful and uncomfortable. I think that’s when you really push at the edges of who you are, and what you are capable of.”