the experience of travel? These four books use four different approaches to digest and recount the "truth" of their journeys within the best techniques of storytelling.
David W. McFadden is well known as a poet and for his literary accounts of jaunts around three of the Great Lakes. An Innocent in Ireland (McClelland & Stewart, 3 10 pages, $19.99 paper) recounts his quite literal "curious rambles and singular encounters" on the trail of the famous British travel writer of the 1930s, H. V. Morton. Morton wrote some 21 volumes, each entitled In Search of.. England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, etc. (His book on Rome remains one of the best on the Eternal City.)
McFadden is not overawed by Morton, a man he describes as "just a normal hack writer with a popular touch, and he knew it. Those were difficult times, but he had a certain spirit." Instead, this modem Canadian scribe, with a sardonic sense of humour and a lyrical touch, wanders from Letterkenny to Portmagee, partly in the company of a Spanish poet and waitress, in search of anything beautiful or idiosyncratic.
This is no plain diary of five weeks of holiday. As with most tales from Ireland, what was intended to be non-fiction becomes fiction in the telling: one real-life character gets chopped into two, sometimes two people become one, and McFadden admits that "in a few instances characters had to be invented." The aim "is a sort of purity, random and anonymous. It's my style," he writes. It all sounds very Irish and made perfect sense to me.
The result is a engrossing yarn in the voice of an after-dinner monologue. On a winter's night, turn off the phone, curl up on a sofa and meet Elizabeth O'Leary at inch, near Castlemaine, whose favourite topics of conversation are the Potato Famine and the Black Death. "I didn't go to Ireland to have the Irish listen to me, I went to listen to them. And I'd been lucky. One fascinating person after another for our delight," writes McFadden. These are pleasures he shares freely with the reader.
Pleasure is not the first word to come to mind in contemplating a 2,000-mile canoe journey from Grand Cache in Alberta north to Baker Lake in the Northwest Territories. Alan Kesselheim and his wife, Marypat, came north from their home in Montana to travel for two summers and a winter down the Smoky and Peace rivers, along Lake Athabasca and, after a hop in a plane, down the Kazan River to its delta on the Thelon. Both are seasoned northern-wilderness travellers -- from Quebec to the Yukon -- and in Going Inside: A Couple's Journey of Renewal into the North (McClelland & Stewart, 282 pages, $28.99 paper) Kesselheim recounts their hazardous journey with clarity and skill, never imposing a sense of "having an adventure" on the land and people they encounter. He shares the journey with gentleness and generosity.
However, this outward voyage is less than half the tale. Alan and Marypat start paddling at a place in their marriage where they grate on each other, despite their mutual understanding and love. They are a couple breaking apart and in need of the restorative effects they've often found before on wilderness travels together.
This time they aren't sure it will work:
We couldn't leave the emotional knots in our
partnership the way we could our belongings, the
bills, the rest of civilization. They
came along for the ride, as real as the
canoe that would carry us down the
Their difficulties centre around an apparent inability to have a child. Many tests, use of a fertility drug, and two miscarriages have left them emotionally drained and, writes Kesselheim, with "a sadness Marypat couldn't surmount, a lack in life we never before knew existed."
The author tells this intimate story as threads of a pattern intimately woven within the fabric of their lives in the North. He writes clearly and interestingly, but it remains his story. What's missing, or what might have added to an already enjoyable book, is Marypat's record of her own experience of both the inner and outer journeys.
Imagine spending the winter in an isolated cabin in deep snow, with a wolf occasionally coming to gnaw books stored in the cabin next door. Sitting at the table, a kindly man is talking about his marriage while his wife makes bannock bread not six feet away. Naturally, one wants to turn to Marypat to hear her voice in the story; perhaps on their next outing -now with two sons - she will write or contribute pieces from her own diary.
Ian Gill and David Nunuk use a different approach in Hiking on the Edge: Canada's West Coast Trail (Raincoast, 128 pages, $22.95 paper). The trail is probably the country's best known, and hikers young and old come from across Canada and around the world to experience the week-long passage through some of the last old-growth temperate rain forest in the world. It was my first walk in Canada, and a journey I enjoyed so much in summertime that I went back a few months later to walk in the winter on my own.
The book tries to cover all the bases, offering the sort of fabulous photographs expected of a coffee-table book, an informed and literate account of a hike on the trail, and basic how-to information.
The only unsound advice, frankly, is Gill's suggestion to pack this beautifully produced soft-cover book in your backpack. The result, on the phenomenally wet trail, is likely to be something resembling oatmeal-and-raisin porridge. A better suggestion might be to keep Hiking on the Edge clean and safe as a fine record of the majesty of the place and of the experience of having been there. Or send copies to friends to show what they're missing.
Alec Ross's Coke Stop in Emo: Adventures of a Long-Distance Paddler (Key Porter, 256 pages, $22.95 paper) is the least successful of these new Canadian travel books because it remains so much the diary of one man's remarkable voyage. There's just no room in the canoe for the reader.
Ross's cow-age, stamina, and sheer derring-do are undoubted. What an adventure to paddle alone from Lachine, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River, north across five provinces, and down the Fraser River to Vancouver. The journey took three summers, with Ross returning to Kingston, Ontario, each winter to earn money to pay his expenses.
As an armchair voyageur, I wanted to vicariously enjoy his journey. But it remained his alone, and the reader is excluded from feeling the anxieties and frustrations. For example, in searching for hours for the mouth of the North Saskatchewan River from Cedar Lake, west of Lake Winnipeg, Ross writes, "I hope that whenever I breach the next thicket I'll discover an unobstructed stretch of water." By that stage in a journey, it's usually best if everyone involved has a stake in success.