Expeditions & Discoveries

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Captain Cook Rediscovered

Captain Cook Rediscovered

Voyaging to the Icy Latitudes
edition:eBook
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Ancient Bones

Ancient Bones

Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human
edition:Hardcover
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Beyond the Trees

Beyond the Trees

A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

My passion was paddling wild rivers and lakes, and wandering silently through quiet forests, indulging my curiosity about plants, trees, and the mystery and enchantment of the natural world. Adventures I’d had and would continue to do so, because it came with the terrain of wandering alone through wild places. But I didn’t anticipate making any particularly long journeys in the Arctic.

Then, in the spring of 2010, I happened to visit a local nature club in the Short Hills—a region of wooded, rolling hills, tumbling streams, and waterfalls south of Lake Ontario—which put in motion a chain of events that led to my becoming windbound alone on an arctic lake. No doubt that’s a common occurrence stemming from nature club meetings, and a prudent reason to avoid them. As far as nature clubs went, this one had a youngish membership, the average age being barely more than mid-seventies.

It was there at the nature club’s meeting hall, after my presentation on canoe tripping had wrapped up, that I first heard the word “sesquicentennial” used in a sentence. I’d been chatting with a white-haired man, a retired professor of chemistry.

“Well, you know,” he said, “2017 is going to be Canada’s sesquicentennial.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. In fact I hadn’t known this.

He kept looking at me, apparently awaiting a further response.

I wasn’t sure what “sesquicentennial” even meant.

“The 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation,” he elaborated.

“That’s right,” I replied.

“It’s sure to be a big deal. Huge celebrations,” he said with emphasis. “I remember the Centennial celebrations back in 1967. We went to Expo 67 in Montreal for that. ’Course, that would’ve been well before your time.”

The connection between my canoe trips and a 150th anniversary, which was still seven years away, wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

“It’ll be a very big occasion,” the old man resumed. “Have you given any thought to doing something special for it?”

“Er, no, I haven’t.”

He shook his head, evidently dismayed at the lamentable failure of my education. “Back in ’67 I remember there were people who canoed across Canada. Maybe you should think of doing something similar in 2017? There’s bound to be lots of funding opportunities and groups interested in that kind of thing.”

“Well, anything’s possible,” I said.

Still, 2017 seemed a long way off, and I thought it unlikely that something as obscure as a sesquicentennial would attract much notice beyond the ordinary July 1 fireworks. I soon put it out of my mind and returned to paddling wild rivers, observing plants and animals, wandering the woods, and, for a while, pursuing a passion I’d developed for the study of rare mosses found on certain rocks, especially the species ptychomitrium incurvum.

But a few years later, the old professor’s supposition proved correct. As 2017 neared, “Canada 150” seemed to crop up more and more in conversations and news stories.

A great many plans were underway. There would be public infrastructure projects. Free access to national parks. A ship travelling around Canada with a hundred and fifty passengers chosen from across the country. Trees planted in every province and territory. Tulips bedded in Ottawa’s public gardens (300,000 of them, a unique species) that resembled the country’s flag. An actual flag (a massive one) raised to the top of a pole (fourteen storeys high). Eventually, the federal government would fund nearly six thousand of these Canada 150 initiatives.

Meanwhile, over three years had passed since my encounter with the old professor at the nature club. I recalled what he’d said about the Centennial canoe trip. Maybe, I thought to myself, another cross-Canada canoe journey might, in some small way, inspire people to care more about the fate of the country’s ever-diminishing wild places. I decided to look up what exactly had been done in 1967. It was fortuitous perhaps, that I did so at a time when I was under one of those spells of wanderlust and adventure that had a habit of stealing over me whenever I was shut up inside for too long.

It turned out that ten teams of canoeists had paddled from central Alberta to Montreal. Dubbed “The Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant,” the journey involved ten people per team; six at a time would paddle on alternating days while the other four rested. The route included stops in cities and towns along the way, where parties and fanfare greeted the paddlers’ arrival. By starting east of the Rockies and ending in Montreal, the hardest portages and upstream travel were avoided. When it was all over it took 104 days to complete and covered 5,283 kilometres, ending in celebration at Expo 67.

Now that’s a remarkable journey, I thought to myself as I sat in my cluttered study on the ground floor of a rundown Victorian house I rented. And to recreate it fifty years later would be quite a thing. But nowadays, given that Canada’s a lot less wild than it was in 1967, I figured somebody could probably retrace that canoe route and stop in at a Tim Hortons every third day. What could I do in 2017 that hadn’t already been done?

I stared at the map of Canada on the wall above my desk (a dangerous thing—staring at maps, that is). What if, I wondered, I shifted the canoe route north? Roughly, say, two thousand kilometres north, beyond the trees to the tundra?

Unlike the 1967 route, a canoe journey that far north wouldn’t have a line of cities or towns to break up the journey and allow for resupply, not to mention hot showers and human encouragement. Instead of travelling through farmland and cottage country, it’d mean travelling across arctic terrain. The elements would be much harsher, with sub-zero temperatures, snow, bitterly cold winds, shifting ice floes, and probably no Tim Hortons. If something went wrong, help would be far away and a long time coming. To further complicate matters, there was no easy or obvious water route across the mainland Canadian Arctic. Four major watersheds would have to be crossed, meaning a lot of overland and arduous upstream travel would be required.

I suppose it was a mad idea. On the other hand, it was exactly the kind of undertaking that appealed to me, or at least appealed to me in my more adventurous moods. After all, as I often remarked to myself, you only live once.

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Magdalena
Excerpt

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a European woman asks a pro­fessor from Bogotá what it means to be Colombian. The man hesi­tates before replying, “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.” Colombia is like that. Nothing is as expected. Magical realism, celebrated as Colombia’s gift to Latin American literature, is within the country simply journalism. Gabriel García Márquez wrote of what he saw. He was an observer, a practicing journalist for most of his life, who just happened to live in a land where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.
 
Only in Colombia can a traveler wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests, and reach in a week Andean valleys as gently verdant as the softest temperate landscapes of the Old World. No place in Colombia is more than a day removed from every natural habitat to be found on earth. Cities as cultured as any in the Americas were for most of their history linked one to another by trails traveled only by mules. Over time, the wild and impos­sible geography found its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments tortured and twisted, like a mountain that shakes, crum­bles, and slips to the sea. Magic becomes the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Reality comes into focus through the reassuring lens of the phantasmagoric. A god that has given so much to a nation, as Colombians never fail to acknowledge, always gets his piece on the back end.
 
Certainly there was some kind of magic at work in the genesis of this new book, which celebrates the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s river of life. In 2014, I was invited to Bogotá by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, both acclaimed journalists from Medellín, to help pro-mote the Amazon volume of their series Savia Botánica. With the backing of Grupo Argos, one of Colombia’s most prominent corporate citizens, they had assembled teams of botanists, photographers, and journalists to survey the five major regions of Colombia with the goal of producing an elegant illustrated book on each—the Llanos, Amazonas, Chocó, the Caribbean coast, and the Andean Cordilleras. These Savia Botánica volumes were not to be sold, but gifted as complete sets to every library in the country, all with the goal of sending a message to a new generation of young Colombians that theirs was not a land of violence and drugs, but rather a place of unparalleled natural wealth and beauty, home to, among many wonders, more species of birds than any other country in the world.
 
One day, as we wrapped up a discussion of the latest Savia Botánica volume, I casually mentioned that, having focused on the Colombian landscape, perhaps it was time to pay attention to the rivers. I proposed, half in jest, that we do a book on the Río Magdalena, the Mississippi of Colombia, the vital artery of commerce and culture that runs a thousand miles south to north, traversing the entire length of the nation. To my surprise and delight, my new friends embraced the idea without hesitation, as indeed did Grupo Argos, which immediately offered its unconditional support for the project. That whimsical remark turned out to be a defining moment, for the research and writing of this book would in the end consume nearly five years.
 
Colombians think of the Magdalena as having three sections—Alto, Medio, and Bajo—divisions with overlapping and even shifting boundaries that nevertheless reflect geographical, historical, and cultural distinctions far more profound than the simple terms high, middle, and low would imply. Thanks to the generosity of Grupo Argos, I was able to explore the Magdalena in all its dimensions, from source to mouth, in all months of the year, with every shift of the seasons, from the uplands of the Macizo Colombiano to the sand and stones of the Caribbean shore. Altogether, I made five extended forays to the river: two with the Savia team, led by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, surveys that covered the entire drainage, and two subsequent explorations that concentrated on the Medio Magda­lena and the musical traditions of the lower river and the Caribbean coastal plain. The fifth brought me back to the Arhuaco mamos, old friends from my time in the Sierra Nevada, as we returned to Bocas de Ceniza to make ritual payments at the mouth of the river, even as the streets of Barranquilla erupted all around us with the magic and joy of Carnaval.
 
The Río Magdalena is not just the country’s main artery; it’s the reason Colombia exists as a nation. It is the lifeline that allowed Colombians to settle a mountainous land that geographically may well be the most challenging place on the planet. Within the Mag­dalena drainage live four of every five Colombians. It is the source of 80 percent of the nation’s economic wealth, the engine that drives the economy, the river that powers the lights of the great cities. Like the Mississippi, its shadow to the north, the Magdalena is both a corridor of commerce and a fountain of culture, the wellspring of Colombian music, literature, poetry, and prayer. In dark times, it has served as the graveyard of the nation, a slurry of the shapeless dead. And yet always, it returns as a river of life. Through all the years of the worst of the violence, the Magdalena never abandoned the people. It always flowed. Perhaps, as this book suggests, it may finally be time to give back to the river, allowing the Magdalena to be cleansed of all that has soiled its waters. Colombia as a nation is the gift of the river. The Magdalena is the story of Colombia.

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Friends, Foes, and Furs

Friends, Foes, and Furs

George Nelson's Lake Winnipeg Journals, 1804-1822
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
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Two Years Below the Horn

Two Years Below the Horn

Operation Tabarin, Field Science, and Antarctic Sovereignty, 1944-1946
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback eBook
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