When Jonathan Waterman set out to cross the Arctic Circle by way of kayak, cross-country skis, and a dogsled, he was less interested in conquering the 2,200 miles between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans than in learning to live as the Inuit had before him (Inuit
, for The People
, is the name Canadian Eskimos prefer). Good thing, for the Arctic, as revealed in this candid and engrossing travelogue, is no place for jock-style adventure. Over the course of three summers, Waterman paddled through storms, capsized in 39-degree water, blacked out, and was bitten by thousands of mosquitoes, smoked out by exploding underground seams of coal, and chased by a grizzly bear. The land was so vast and empty that swans and bears vanished before him, ice chunks appeared as kayaks, and driftwood morphed into people in a disorienting series of mirages. Perhaps most challenging of all for Waterman was spending weeks at a time in this setting without seeing another soul. Under these circumstances, he had no choice but to draw on remnant instincts to avoid disaster, forget about time and goals, and to connect deeply to "the Earth and Its Great Weather," as the Inuit say. "Any committed adventurer eventually learns that equipment and performance are just a means to that greater end of finding your place in the natural world," writes Waterman, who proves he is willing to go the extra thousand miles for a moment of insight.
Of course, he also experiences moments of unparalleled serenity--caribou trotting out to his boat, belugas spouting around him, grizzlies on the shore--and creates warm friendships with the Inuit themselves, who have changed radically since their own days of traveling by kayak and dogsled. Waterman works admirably to understand The People without judging them, though he is discouraged by what he finds left of the culture he emulates--communities caught in a "depraved limbo, somewhere between paradise and tuberculosis." As with the Arctic itself, the Inuit turn out to be more complex in reality--and ultimately more appealing--than in mythology. Waterman's stark and satisfying account excels in its ability to grapple with the human condition while illuminating a mystical world inaccessible to the rest of us. --Lesley Reed