By Kathleen Winter
When Kathleen Winter is offered a chance to journey through the relatively unknown waters of the Northwest Passage, she responds truthfully, “My bags are already packed.” As a writer, Winter is always ready to embark on a journey and she’s fascinated by the mysteries of the Arctic. In her memoir, Boundless, she is joined by researchers, scientists, musicians, artists and members of the Inuit community, learning from each other as they travel to this legendary place.
Winter uses the voyage to revisit and release the ghosts of her past. Her explorations mix with biography as we learn about her life. Winter takes us through the death of her first husband, to whom she said farewell with a Viking funeral; she took all of his belongings out to sea in a raft and lit them on fire, all the while circling the raft in a rowboat and watching this closed chapter of her life burn behind her.
As she travels, Winter also explores the idea of “belonging”, questioning whether a person can really belong to a land or culture outside the borders of one’s birth. As the Arctic landscape deteriorates, she wonders how this impacts the Inuit who call this land home.
There is an element of the spiritual to her voyage, but the physical beauty she describes is striking. Winter’s ship travels past the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, “greatest mother of ice in the northern hemisphere.” She is often overcome by the purple, gold and white scenery, and scrutinizes lichen, tiny flowers, and Inuit art and artifacts.
But the Northwest Passage itself, Winter realizes, is a colonial construct. “Northwest from where?” she asks. Her Inuit companions assure her that no one who lives in the north calls it the Northwest Passage, and Winter attempts to deconstruct her own colonial ideals in order to see the Arctic lands with new eyes.
Winter learns much from her Inuit companions, who act as cultural guides as well as gun bearers, essential for the passengers’ protection in polar bear country. An unexpected detour has these visitors following the path of the doomed Franklin expedition. The realization that these Arctic waters are still, to some degree, uncharted, gives the sense that these travelers are truly explorers.
Boundless is non-fiction but highly readable. Those who love travel will especially enjoy it!