Shannon Huffman Polson went looking for something in the Arctic.
Pain and curiosity, confusion and grief pulled her there. She was still in great emotional turmoil one year after her father and stepmother were killed by a grizzly bear along a remote Alaskan river, the Hulahula. Setting out with her adopted brother, Ned, and his friend and co-worker, Sally, who perhaps signed on for more of an adventure than a tribute, Shannon recognized that she needed their willing participation to undertake this journey.
Guided by her parents’ journal recovered from the scene of the attack, complete with details and coordinates of each day’s journey and each night’s campsite, they set out to follow the path of the last days of Rich and Katherine Huffman’s life, a happy adventure of long, joyful days cut tragically short in a few unspeakable moments of horror.
She recounts the journey in “North of Hope.”
Starting in Kaktovik, the only settlement on the northern expanse of Alaska between Canada and Barrow, they picked up kayaks and other gear. Staying at the same hotel her parents had stayed in exactly one year before and talking to the same pilots and guides, there was an eerily familiar feel to their preparations. The weather forced them to stay overnight and forced Shannon to begin to confront her own grief and the very real danger that could be lurking ahead for their relatively inexperienced little troupe.
Though Shannon and Ned had lived in Alaska as children, the Arctic presented a very different, somewhat alien face that invoked respect and fear. The time spent waiting for the clouds to lift and the plane to ferry them to their starting point enabled the doubts to begin to descend.
“What was I doing here? How did I think I was in any way qualified for this trip?” were questions that began to unravel her. She realized that her incredibly busy life up to this point had really been a kind of escape where “perpetual motion excused avoiding emotional engagement. This expedition, though, was taking me to one of the most remote areas of the world, and also to the darkest recesses of my pain. I didn’t have nearly enough experience in that landscape. My resolve flickered like a flame in a gusty wind. I willed the wick to hold on to that tiny flame. It was all I had.”
The riveting story that ensues will keep you turning the pages, but the underlying story, the universal one, is how we cope with loss in our lives. That will stay with you long after you finish the book. Do we disconnect emotionally, fill our lives with busy-ness, become angry, sullen, silent? Or do we allow the pain we all encounter in life to teach us important lessons of honesty, compassion and the need for community?
There is much to think about as Shannon expresses her raw emotions and gathers strength in the pursuit of answers she may never find. Recording her experiences and weaving deftly into the narrative with references to music, quotes from favorite books and observations from nature, this book brims with hope amid the sadness. Encountering dangerous rapids, lost paddles, personality friction and even bears, the water itself becomes the means to find healing.
• Shannon Huffman Polson lives in the Pacific Northwest, serves on the board of the Alaska Wilderness League and sings with the Seattle Pro Musica. She was awarded the Trailblazer Woman of Valor award from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. She will speak at Oak Hollow Gallery at 5631 Summitview Ave. at 7 p.m. today (Nov. 21), sponsored by Heritage University and Inklings Bookshop.
• “North of Hope” by Shannon Huffman Polson was published in April by Zondervan. It retails for $16.99.
• Susan Richmond owns Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.