WOMAN VER­SUS WILD

Writ­ers are de­vot­ing book af­ter book to the story of the fe­male ad­ven­turer,

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT & BOOKS - TARA HEN­LEY

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.”

MICHAEL BECKER

Author Kate Har­ris has al­ways been “deeply in­spired by the lit­er­a­ture of ex­plo­ration, and the spirit of it.” She now writes of brave women ex­plor­ing the world.

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