Story last updated at 2:53 p.m. Friday, April 12, 2002

Author rows through life, love and adventure
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Gasper Tringale
Jill Fredston  
Rowing to Latitude; Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge

by Jill Fredston

North Point Press, 289 pp., $24

Adventure writing -- about mountain climbing, blue-water sailing, Antarctic escapades and the like -- has always drawn more male readers than female, in part because the stories are often about little more than the rigors of hard work in wet clothing.

It would be a shame to put Jill Fredston's new book "Rowing to Latitude" in that genre, although she shows no mercy in describing the discomfort encountered in rowing an open boat more than 20,000 miles through northern waters.

But where most adventure writers check their personal lives at the tent door flap, "Rowing" is a lyrical collection of love stories by a gifted writer who happens to spend most of her life outdoors. Fredston loves what she does and the life she leads, and is happy to share the fullness of that life, from the rigors of finding a mate to the numbing sadness of death, from the simple joy in using a strong body well to the cultural complexity of being a white visitor in an angry Native community.

Fredston will share some of the powerful variety in "Rowing to Latitude" when she gives a slide presentation at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Homer Council on the Arts building on Pioneer Avenue.

If her name sounds familiar, it's because Fredston and her partner, Doug Fesler, are quoted in nearly every avalanche story in Alaska newspapers. They operate Alaska Mountain Safety Center in Anchorage, and are often called upon to dig out bodies or comment on fatalities.

To unwind, they row. Fredston has rowed small boats since she was a child on Long Island, N.Y.

"Traveling backward, which most people think of as rowing's greatest liability, has trained me to enjoy looking at where I have been as well as to move toward objectives I can't see, ready to react to the unexpected.... I, of course, think this has had a beneficial influence upon my career, making me flexible, resourceful and willing to shift in less conventional directions. My father would say that it accounts for my season unemployment."

Fredston has a dry humor that keeps the book warm, even as she and Fesler row past glaciers and icebergs, overturn in icy surf and fend off polar bears summer after summer.

Many writers would be content to record the miles, the whale sightings and the airline anecdotes, but Fredston pushes on to more difficult terrain -- the interior life. She doesn't shield the reader from the issues that arise between a couple on a long, arduous voyage, nor from her own issues, such as fear of commitment to a man 14 years older.

"I was afraid of being pulled out of my bubble of youth ahead of time. I worried about disappointing my parents. I was afraid of Doug reaching old age before me, growing a potbelly, going bald, slowly me down, dying, leaving me alone...."

Whether she's writing about romance or her rowboat, Fredston skillfully builds up the readers' information base, then releases the emotion that clings to it. She rages about digging bodies out of avalanches, shares every child's fear of losing a parent, and of course explores the question of why anyone would travel so many miles in such little boats in such a big world. She is far more insightful than adventure-writing enthusiasts have come to expect.

"Why is it that turning around always seems like a failure and death takes us by surprise? Though it has been far from my favorite lesson, Nature has taught me that in my life I must accommodate aging and death... Death is one of the few certainties in life. To my surprise I'm finding that accepting it offers some degree of liberation. If I don't exhaust my energy trying to control what I cannot, I am left with more time to live as I choose."

Yet Fredston is more than a chronicler and philosopher. She is a poet at times, exacting pounds of meaning out of mere ounces of words.

"If I were a place I'd be Labrador: improbable, impossible, tempestuous, serene, thinly populated... I'd be purple sunsets, bedrock that looks like marshmallows and relentless green waves beating against the shore ... I'd be sun one minute and rain like Ping-Pong balls the next, with rainbows that seem to span the world."

"Rowing to Latitude" is a welcome addition to the world's bookshelves, intertwining adventure and romance, natural history and poetic vision, personal saga and cultural examination in a single volume. Fredston may have the mind of a scientist and the body of an Arctic adventurer, but she has the soul of a writer and the wisdom of the heart.