When Her Father Died in Alaska’s Wildlands

68b_3I’ve cruised and hiked in Alaska, and marveled at its land and people. but until recently my knowledge of this amazing state was quite limited–gleaning from Michener’s ALASKA: A Novel and musings of store keepers or guides on “shore visits.”

In NORTH OF HOPE, A Daughter’s Arctic Journey Shannon Huffman Polson opens up Alaska’s geography, lore as she literally navigates its wild lands as well as her father’s death by grizzly. A journey of finding healing and faith in the midst of profound loss. It’s a book of adventure and hope, a memoir rich with research and knowledge gained from years of Alaska-life.

Cultures fascinate me. Every land and people group has its own, and Alaska–vast state that it is–is also rich in cultures. I read this true account with an eye to how Polson poignantly, with gorgeous turns of phrase, reveals much of the ferocity and ethos behind the beauty of this great land and otherness of its peoples.

Alaska is not contiguous to fifty states–like its comparable partner and near opposite, Hawaii–and neither is its ways of life and thought. On my visit there a decade ago, a guide on a mountainous hike told how she and her partner “lived off the land” as many do, foraging for berries, catching fish and supplementing this with occasional work. They’d built their small abode from trees they’d felled, walked to an outhouse they’d made for toileting, and in their kitchen used water they’d carried in from the river nearby. My guide was an educated, articulate professional. Someone I’d expect to be teaching, researching or staffing a park. Someone comfortably living with running water and a toilet. Instead, what she valued was independence, a rugged life intertwined with nature, and a commitment to gather what they needed directly from nature–far removed the stores and glam of dense urban areas.

The sharp spice of such distinct values also comes through in Polson’s story. One particular incident she tells of stayed with me. As she and her brother and his girlfriend paddle a river in the back country, his girlfriend loses an oar. Polson is irritated by this carelessness, and–worse yet–the culprit’s unapologetic attitude. But Polson says nothing. They pull out their one spare. Later, the girlfriend drops yet another oar and it swirls away in the river, unattainable. Now they are in real trouble since steering this strong and wild river with only two oars will prove yet more difficult. Still cordial relations are key, and must be maintained, as they depend on each other in this environment so far from stores, phones, autos, and help. Polson struggles with her anger and how to direct both her emotion and this ignorant woman. Read yourself to see what Polson decides needs to be said what is best to leave unsaid.

In story, we city-dwellers can start to comprehend the culture of Alaska where everyone is responsible to take care of him or herself, a mistake can mean a death, and one must not rely or take from others carelessly.

The memoir explores another geography as well: Polson’s journey from fierce mourning (at the loss of her parents to a grizzly bear attack) to a misty resolution. It’s clearly and subtly articulated through jumps in time and location. This probing look into her relationship with her dad, other family members, Nature and God made sense of her proud independence and risk-taking ventures. Polson is an unusual and brave high-achiever. How many young women want to become a helicopter pilot for the armed forces?!! I loved as well the way the author describes her involvement with music – both its great comfort but the limits of what it could do for her inner well-being as she mourned her shocking loss.

I marveled too at the portrayal of Polson’s father navigating his relationship to his bright and adoring daughter before and after divorce and remarriage. It’s rare read for me that takes me so far under the surface in a real-life situation father-daughter connection. I wondered how many of the surprises were due to the one-of-a-kindness of Alaska and how much to the uniqueness of this family–a question probably no one can answer.

Read this for a rare, in-depth look at a different mental and physical geography as well as a precious and complex daughter-father relationship.

Note: the photo above does not depict exactly where Polson ventured. It was found on www.homeshore.com/alaska_kayaking_photos.htm

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