North of Hope


By Shannon Polson
July/August 2013

In a memoir of adventure, tragedy, family and faith, a daughter navigates the wilderness of an Alaskan river and her own heart. When her parents are killed by a grizzly bear in Alaska’s remote Arctic, author Shannon Huffman Polson is forced into a wilderness of grief. Her quest for healing is recounted with heartbreaking candor in North of Hope.

Polson travels from her home in Seattle to the wilderness of Alaska, where she retraces her father and stepmother’s final days along the Hulahula river, effortlessly weaving together the internal landscape of grief with the exterior landscape of the Arctic and the adventure of a remote river journey.  Polson wrestles with memories and sorrow as she paddles the river towards the site of the attack along with her estranged brother, Ned and his colleague, Sally.

The story brings out the unbelievable beauty of the arctic, the complex tangle of relationships that all families have, the excitement and adventure of travelling along remote rivers, and the ever-present hand of God throughout.

Below is an excerpt.  

-ed.

North of Hope
A Daughter's Arctic Journey

We pushed the raft from shore, felt it release from rock and sand, and moved forward into the river.

We were entering the canyon.

From the moment we left the shore, the water surged and sped around the bend where we had perched, diving toward the canyon wall on the other side.

“Paddle both, paddle left!” I yelled. The side of the blue rubber raft came within inches of the canyon wall when the force generated from our paddling pushed it back into the current. We sailed down and through a hole, and the raft popped exuberantly out the other side.

Then a rock: “Paddle right!” A furious slashing of paddles, partly in air, partly in water, as the force of the river bounced the raft forward. The river was alive. She strained and roared and sped. We were at her mercy.

The river was hard and fast beneath the raft, hard and fast and furious and angry and rushing and swirling and crashing and smashing, and we stayed in the raft only by will and gritted teeth and flexed quads and the grace of God. On either side, the canyon walls, undercut by the current, blurred by, unappreciated in our focus on the complexities of the raging current as we paddled and leaned and yelled and paddled, paddled, riding out the wave trains and diving through the holes, soaked by spray and waves, hands slippery on the plastic paddles, until finally the river relaxed just a little and we relaxed with her, and she widened out and the water was more shallow and we scraped on gravel bars. Now we could see the tundra on both sides, and the rocks in the current, and the willows growing, and the pink wild sweet pea and the white moss campion and the green coastal plain stretching out ahead and the mountains soaring behind us, and ahead of us the blue sky that, just beyond the horizon, we knew touched the dark polar seas just recently free of coastal ice.

“I lost it!”

Another paddle jetted away in the current. I wasn’t sure whether to scream or to cry.

“Eddy on the left!” I yelled. Ned paddled forward, hacking at the water. I pulled hard, back-paddled, and we stopped to regroup. “Well, we don’t have another paddle,” I said. I couldn’t look at Sally.

“We’re just going to have to get out and scout each rapid carefully,” Ned said. “It’s a big raft. It’s going to be hard going with two paddles.” None of us made eye contact.

“That other group is just behind us, isn’t it?” Sally asked.

“They probably want to hang on to their own spares,” I said shortly.

 “I’m going to check out what’s around the bend,” Ned said.

I followed. Thick clouds of mosquitoes hung in the air. I waved them away from my face, feeling the physicality of the swarm with each swipe. Walking along the willows, I yelled, “Hey bear, hey bear, we’re out here! Don’t worry about a thing! Hey bear!”

Past the bend, we saw only a set of innocuous rock gardens.

“Looks like we want to stay left starting about there,” I said, pointing at the tongue of river pouring through two boulders at the top.

“Yep.”

“Hey, what’s the deal with Sally?” I couldn’t help myself. “I’d think someone coming on a trip like this would have a little better understanding of where we are. We aren’t on a day trip where there’s extra gear in the car.”

“I know,” he said.

“This trip is to honor Dad and Kathy. I’m mortified that she wants to ask someone else for a paddle. We should be able to make this trip ourselves. But I don’t know if we can get down the river with just two.”

“I agree.”

“Okay, well, I’m not interested in being the one that does the asking,” I said. I set my jaw and bit my lip.

We walked back to the boat, balancing on rocks and swatting mosquitoes.

“We’ll ask Karen when we get farther downriver,” Ned said. “We can pull over for dinner and wait till they float by.”

“Sure!” Sally said cheerily.

“When you ask her, Sally,” I said thinly, “make sure you acknowledge that we understand this is the wilderness — and that the ethic out here is to be self-sufficient, to take care of yourself. I think that’s really important.” I measured each word carefully and then released it slowly.

“Okay,” Sally said. I still couldn’t make eye contact with her.

Something inside of me cringed, believing this crisis reflective of my own failure to plan, my shortsightedness in agreeing to our small party, my foolishness in even having considered such a trip in the first place. I was worried as much about being up to the challenge as about being able to complete the trip, about being good enough to have undertaken such a journey. Dostoyevsky’s words rang in my ears with excruciating clarity: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

“Let’s get going.” We jumped into the raft, and Ned and I paddled back into the current. It was hard work. By the time we’d bounced through the rock gardens and stopped to check the next rapid, Ned and I both were exhausted.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said. I was alarmed by his statement, though I was happy that the next section looked benign.

“Hang in there. We’ll get through it,” I said.

“No, this one looks tricky. I think we should line it.” He spoke flatly.

“Really?” I looked at him hard. His face was set, impassive. “Yeah. I don’t know if I can do it with just two of us.”
“Okay, let’s line it,” I said, aware of a current more dangerous 
than the river.

We attached the line to the raft and walked it through the rapids from the bank, stepping through willows, eyes on the water, eyes on the boat. My disappointment over not paddling this short piece of water paled next to the prickling sensation of danger, the pressing in of emotional and physical exhaustion. It is, or should be, the unspoken rule to go with the most conservative opinion in the wilderness. So our decision to line the boat had been the right one, but it had let in a glimpse of something untoward.

We had left the mountains. Now the river flowed through a series of plateaus with deep cuts. After a dinner stop and the gift of a paddle from Karen’s group, we made our way down smooth water, looking for camp close to 8:00 p.m. We had been on the water for ten hours. 

I watched the shoreline. I gazed across the plain on either side, still as watchful, still as worried. The raft glided downriver under the soft angle of the sun. And then, looking back at the mountains, my breath caught. The mountains sat solidly and with a great gentleness, the foothills draped like fabric over the land, exquisite fringes of willow on the riverbanks, wet rocks glistening in the midevening sun. Just here was pure abundance.

It was not the landscape that held me, though. I was transfixed by the light. It poured over me, filled the corners of the land. It was as eternal as time and as fleeting as days, as infinite as God and as finite as the eyes beholding it. I was immersed and filled up all at once. It lived, it had a being, that light. There was peace in it. There was gentleness and assurance. Its essence was music.

Taken from North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson. Copyright © 2013 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.  www.zondervan.com. To purchase a copy, follow this link to Amazon.com.

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