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Virtual Voyages (by Charlotte Gill)

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"My favourite definition of creative nonfiction comes from Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell, who quotes the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, an undeniable master of the form: “Sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase silva rerum: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things, as I've seen it, living and travelling in it.” There’s a bit of silva rerum in all these books on this list, which is by no means an exhaustive collection. Some are travel books, and some explorations stick close to home. But all these stories took me on journeys. When I closed the covers I felt as if I’d been transported." Charlotte Gill's latest book is Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe. She is also the author of the short story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, and many magazines. She lives in Vancouver.
The Golden Spruce

The Golden Spruce

A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Prologue: Driftwood

Small things are hard to find in Alaska, so when a marine biologist named Scott Walker stumbled across a wrecked kayak on an uninhabited island fifty kilometres north of the Canadian border, he considered himself lucky. The coastal boundary where Alaska and British Columbia meet and overlap is a jagged four-way seam that joins, not just a pair of vast – and vastly different – countries, but two equally large and divergent wildernesses. To the west is the gaping expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, and to the east is the infinity of mountains that forms the heart of what some in the Northwest call Cascadia. The coastline where these worlds meet and bleed into one another is sparsely inhabited and often obscured by fog, the mountains sheared off by low-lying clouds. At sea level, it is a long and convoluted network of deep fjords, narrow channels, and rock-bound islands. It is a world unto itself, separated from the rest of North America by the Coast Mountains, whose ragged peaks carry snow for most of the year. In some places their westward faces plunge into the sea so abruptly that a boat can be fifteen metres from shore and still have a hundred and fifty metres of water beneath her keel. The region is sporadically patrolled, being governed, for the most part, by seven-metre tides and processions of sub-Arctic storms that spiral down from the Gulf of Alaska to batter the long, tree-stubbled lip of the continent. Even on calm days, the coastline may be shrouded in a veil of mist as three thousand kilometres of uninterrupted Pacific swell pummels itself to vapour against the stubborn shore.

The combination of high winds, frequent fog, and tidal surges that can run over fifteen knots makes this coast a particularly lethal one, and when boats or planes or people go missing here, they are usually gone for good. If they are found, it is often by accident a long time later, and usually in a remote location like Edge Point where Scott Walker anchored his seventeen-foot skiff on a fair June afternoon in 1997 while doing a survey of the local salmon fishery. Edge Point is not so much a beach as an alpine boulder field that, at this point in geologic time, happens to be at sea level. It lies at the southern tip of Mary Island, a low hump of forest and stone that forms one side of a rocky, tide-scoured channel called Danger Passage; the nearest land is Danger Island, and neither place was idly named.

Like much of the Northwest Coast, Edge Point is strewn with driftwood logs and whole trees that may be a metre and a half in diameter and stacked twenty deep. Burnished to silver, this mass of wood, much of which has broken loose from log booms and transport barges, lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it. Even if a man-made object should make it ashore here in one piece, it won’t last long after it arrives; within the course of a few tide cycles, it will be hammered to pieces between the heaving logs and the immovable boulders beneath them. In the case of a fibreglass boat – such as a kayak – the destruction is usually so complete that it makes the craft hard to recognize, much less find. When a fibreglass yacht was found in a location similar to Edge Point three years after it had disappeared without issuing a distress signal, the largest surviving piece was half a metre long and that was only because it had been blown up into the bushes; the rest of the sixty-foot sloop had been reduced to fragments the size of playing cards. This is why Scott Walker considered himself fortunate: he wasn’t too late; parts of the kayak might still be salvageable.

The beaches here serve as a random archive of human endeavour where a mahogany door from a fishing boat, the remains of a World War II airplane, and a piece from a fallen satellite are all equally plausible finds. Each artifact carries with it a story, though the context rarely allows for a happy ending; in most cases, it is only the scavenger who benefits. Scott Walker has been scavenging things that others have lost here for more than twenty-five years, and he has acquired an informal expertise in the forensics of flotsam and jetsam. If the found object is potentially useful or sufficiently interesting, and if it is small enough to lift, the beachcomber’s code will apply. Walker was abiding by this code when he happened upon the broken kayak and began tearing it apart for the stainless steel hardware.

But when Walker lifted his head from his work he noticed some things that gave him pause. Strewn farther down the tide line were personal effects: a raincoat, a backpack, an axe – and it was then that it occurred to him that his prize might not have simply washed off some beach or boat dock down the coast. The more he noticed – a cookstove, a shaving kit, a life jacket – the narrower the gap between his own good luck and someone else’s misfortune became. This wasn’t shaping up to be a clean find. Walker deduced from the heavier objects’ position lower down in the intertidal zone that the kayak had washed ashore and broken up on a low tide. The lighter objects, including large pieces of the kayak itself, had been carried farther up the beach by subsequent high tides and wind, and it was these that set off alarm bells in Walker’s head. Despite being wrapped around a log, the sleeping bag was still in near-perfect condition; there were no tears or stains, no fading from the salt and sun; the life jacket, too, looked fresh off the rack. Even the cookstove appeared salvageable; wedged between rocks at the water’s edge, it showed only minor rusting. Winter storm season, the most effective destroyer on the coast, had only just ended, so this wreck had to be recent, thought Walker, perhaps only a couple of weeks old. He debated throwing the stove and sleeping bag into his skiff, but then, after considering some possible accident scenarios and recalculating the uncomfortable distance between a stranger’s horror and his own delight, he decided to leave these things where they lay. Besides, he thought, they might be needed for evidence. No one would miss the stainless steel bolts, though, so he pocketed them and headed down the beach, looking for a body.

Walker never found one, and it was only through the Alaska state troopers in Ketchikan, fifty kilometres to the north, that he learned the story behind his chance discovery. The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman named Grant Hadwin, had been missing – not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime.

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Why it's on the list ...
Perhaps it took a native New Englander to see the magical, mythic potential of a true story set in Haida Gwaii. The book takes place in the temperate rainforest, and it’s a mystery on the surface. Vaillant introduces us to Grant Hadwin, the crazy ex-logger who felled an ancient albino spruce and then disappeared from the face of the earth, seemingly without a trace. Underneath the suspenseful stuff is a fascinating exploration of the background and ecology of the region, the long legacy of resource extraction, and a cultural history of the Haida. Though Vaillant himself is not part of the story, his intelligence and perceptiveness are on every page. I’ve read this book a few times, and it just keeps getting better.
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Last Heathen, The

Last Heathen, The

Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia
edition:Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
Montgomery travelled to the Melanesian archipelago, ostensibly to retrace the footsteps of his great-grandfather. But beyond the first chapter, the story takes on a deeper, fascinating imperative. Montgomery is hunting for magic in a land of totems, spells and curses. The author trips from island to island on tipsy cargo barges, through storms, baking heat, and queasy rolling seas. There are plenty of kava-slurping adventures, not to mention “earthquake stones,” voodoo-style rituals, and hikes in the shadows of active volcanoes. The book is beautifully written, weaving together history and anthropology: cargo cults, war, colonial history—all of which contribute to the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of Christianity and paganism in Melanesia. There is something shadowy and mythic about this world as Montgomery paints it. I felt if as if I was looking over his shoulder, eager to witness something transcendent and miraculous.
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Gold Diggers
Why it's on the list ...
Pre-eminent biographer and historian Charlotte Gray brings the Yukon gold rush to life. The book follows the northern lives of six men and women: a prospector, a priest, a young, entrepreneurial woman, a journalist, a cop, and a novelist. The most compelling part of the narrative for me was the mundane details of those gritty arctic lives, which were full of hardships, lice and deprivation—every kind of inconvenience a person could endure, all in the name of gold fever. The voyage to Dawson City at the end of the 19th century was itself a feat of human endurance. As you'd expect, the book is impeccably researched. I could almost imagine myself poling up the Yukon River while slapping mosquitoes from my neck.
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Pathologies

Pathologies

A Life in Essays
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
The memoir has lately been much-abused, sensational at one extreme and falsified at the other. Olding’s book read to me like a kind of literary antidote. Her book contains fifteen personal essays that are both sharply observant and deeply honest. They chronicle various periods in Olding’s life, with each essay acting like a facet in a prism. At the end I was left with a version of a whole psyche--a complicated, fascinating sensibility. Olding writes about her own life with the gentle impartiality of a surgeon, which is fitting, since medicine and healing are motifs that run throughout. The best essays have to do with the adoption of her daughter from China. They form an eloquent meditation on motherhood.
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Baltimore's Mansion

Baltimore's Mansion

A Memoir
edition:Paperback
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I am foreborn of spud runts who fled the famines of Ireland in the 1830s, not a man or woman among them more than five foot two, leaving behind a life of beggarment and setting sail for what since Malory were called the Happy Isles to take up unadvertised positions as servants in the underclass of Newfoundland.

Having worked off their indenture, they who had been sea-fearing farmers became seafaring fishermen and learned some truck-augmenting trade or craft that they practised during the part of the year or day when they could not fish.

Their names.

In reverse order: Johnston. Johnson. Jonson. Jenson...MacKeown. "Mac" in Gaelic meaning "son" and Keown "John."

My father grew up in a house that was blessed with water from an iceberg. A picture of that iceberg hung on the walls in the front rooms of the many houses I grew up in. It was a blown-up photograph that yellowed gradually with age until we could barely make it out. My grandmother, Nan Johnston, said the proper name for the iceberg was Our Lady of the Fjords, but we called it the Virgin Berg.

In 1905, on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist and the day in 1497 of John Cabot's landfall at Cape Bonavista and "discovery" of Newfoundland, an iceberg hundreds of feet high and bearing an undeniable likeness to the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared off St. John's harbour. As word of the apparition spread, thousands of people flocked to Signal Hill to get a glimpse of it. An ever-growing flotilla of fishing boats escorted it along the southern shore as it passed Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, Tors Cove, Ferryland, where my father's grandparents and his father, Charlie, who was twelve, saw it from a rise of land known as the Gaze.

At first the islands blocked their view and all they could see was the profile of the Virgin. But when it cleared Bois Island, they saw the iceberg whole. It resembled Mary in everything but colour. Mary's colours were blue and white, but the Virgin Berg was uniformly white, a startling white in the sunlight against the blue-green backdrop of the sea. Mary's cowl and shawl and robes were all one colour, the same colour as her face and hands, each feature distinguishable by shape alone. Charlie imagined that, under the water, was the marble pedestal, with its network of veins and cracks. Mary rode without one on the water and there did not extend outwards from her base the usual lighter shade of sea-green sunken ice.

The ice was enfolded like layers of garment that bunched about her feet. Long drapings of ice hung from her arms, which were crossed below her neck, and her head was tilted down as in statues to meet in love and modesty the gaze of supplicants below.

Charlie's mother fell to her knees, and then his father fell to his. Though he wanted to run up the hill to get a better look at the Virgin as some friends of his were doing, his parents made him kneel beside them. His mother reached up and, putting her hand on his shoulder, pulled him down. A convoy of full-masted schooners trailed out behind the iceberg like the tail of some massive kite. It was surrounded at the base by smaller vessels, fishing boats, traps, skiffs, punts. His mother said the Hail Mary over and over and blessed herself repeatedly, while his father stared as though witnessing some end-of-the-world-heralding event, some sight foretold by prophets in the last book of the Bible. Charlie was terrified by the look on his father's face and had to fight back the urge to cry. Everywhere, at staggered heights on the Gaze, people knelt, some side-on to keep their balance, others to avert their eyes, as if to look for too long on such a sight would be a sacrilege.

A man none of them knew climbed the hill frantically, lugging his camera, which he assembled with shaking hands, trying to balance the tripod, propping up one leg of it with stones. He crouched under his blanket and held above his head a periscope-like box which, with a flash and a puff of foul-smelling yellow smoke, exploded, the mechanism confounded by the Virgin, Charlie thought, until days later when he saw the picture in the Daily News. Even then it seemed to him that the Virgin must have lent the man's machine the power to re-create in black and white her image on the paper, the same way she had willed the elements to fashion her image out of ice.

He had seen photographs before but had never watched as one was taken. She was the first object he had seen both in real life and in photographs. For the rest of his life, whenever he saw a photograph, he thought of her and the man he had been so surprised to see emerge unharmed from beneath his blanket.

How relieved he was when the Virgin Berg and her attending fleet sailed out of sight and his parents and the other grownups stood up and blessed themselves. Soon the miracle became mere talk, less and less miraculous the more they tried to describe what they had seen, as if, now that it was out of sight, they doubted that its shape had been quite as perfect as it seemed when it was looming there in front of them.

They heard later of things they could not see from shore, of the water that ran in rivers from the Virgin, from her head and from her shoulders, and that spouted from wound-like punctures in her body, cascading down upon the boats below, onto the fishermen and into the barrels and buckets they manoeuvred into place as best they could. Some fishermen stood, eyes closed and mouths wide open, beneath the little waterfalls, gulping and gagging on the ice-cold water, their hats removed, their hair and clothing drenched, hands uplifted.

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Why it's on the list ...
This is another memoir, the story of Johnston’s Newfoundland boyhood. It’s a multigenerational family saga, really. An affectionate portrait of a father-son relationship with all its imperfections. The writing is crisp and elegant. I loved that the book’s most profound moments are also the most ordinary. Johnston’s anecdotes unfold as simple, everyday events, without forced conflict or sappy drama. A trip by train across the island. The preparation of a meal of cod tongues. The book also captures Newfoundland society in the years following Confederation. Johnston describes a land struggling to come to terms with its new Canadian identity. It’s an unabashedly nostalgic, sensuous picture of life on The Rock, which was as rustic and rugged back then as the bouldery, weather-battered landscape.
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Chimps Of Fauna Sanctuary
Why it's on the list ...
Andrew Westoll spent three months volunteering at Fauna Sanctuary in Quebec, a refuge for chimpanzees retired from their “careers” as research animals in the biomedical industry. Westoll gives an illuminating and poignant account of the primates who live at the facility, which is equal parts jungle gym, prison and chimp spa. By extension, the story is just as much about their caretaker, the indefatigable Gloria Grow. I was surprised to learn how strong, dangerous and essentially wild chimps are, even when they’ve been “domesticated.” As you’d expect, the story takes an eye-opening look at the complicated relationship we humans have developed with our primate cousins, a contact that has produced some pretty tragic consequences. Remarkably enough, this book is also pretty funny. The chimps, for all their post-traumatic stress, are costume-wearing, smoothie-flinging weisenheimers. I’d fallen in love with them by the end, which I’d guess was the author’s intention.
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