Friday, May 08, 2015

Reader's Diary #1152- Dave Olesen: Kinds of Winter

It's been years since I read Thoreau's Walden and if I were pressed to recall any details, or even how I felt about it, I'd have said that I have no idea. I don't recall having strong feelings about it one way or another, nothing specific, nothing except having read it. I'd have assumed that it had little impact on me. Yet not far into Dave Olesen's Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada's Northwest Territories I started to think, "you know, this reminds of Thoreau."

And it turned out I was right! Very shortly after, Olesen reveals that he reads Thoreau often and continues to drop his name or a quote on what seems like every other page. And that's not a bad thing. Those familiar with Walden will know to expect a lot of nature and introspection, but not the fancy existential stuff, more the philosophical musings that derive organically from solitude but never losing site of the practical side of life (it's hard, for example, to wax too poetically about a frostbitten dog penis-- which, as it turns out, can become a very serious issue.)

Olsen set out every year for four years for a long solo journey in the four cardinal compass directions. The directions, or rather the choice to go in these directions, was somewhat arbitrary, as was the point on each journey when he'd decide to turn back. Likewise were his choice of materials brought on the journey. While a winter journey in the north has the potential for much peril, Olesen was no amateur and doesn't romanticize the idea-- in fact even warning against it for the ill-prepared. Still, he acknowledges that none of this "needs" to be done now. He calls his trip "selfish" at one point, referring to the fact that for these trips he was abandoning his daughters to the full responsibility of his wife. He also eschews too many creature comforts yet is cognizant of the remaining "luxuries" on his trip (which, from my perspective, still weren't many). It was at such times, and his reflections on the limits we put on ourselves, that I was most enraptured by Olesen's writing. For creatures that claim to value freedom, there's a paradox in the fact that we often use that freedom to live by our own rules.

In some ways, reading the book reminded me of a long dog sledding journey. There were periods when it felt slow going, monotonous even. But oddly, I felt myself embracing such moments, as it seems Olesen did some days on the back of a sled. Life was slowed down and the mind could just wander. Of course, there were other times when it was more difficult to compare his journeys to reading. When he's worried that his worn runners are not going to last? Getting his feet wet? Okay, then I'm thankful that reading doesn't have such life-or-death moments. What's the worst that could happen when you're reading? Paper cut? Still, I wouldn't have wanted my mind wandering all the time and I was thankful for the dramatic moments that popped up, the unfamiliar details of dogsledding, and Olesen's grand take on it all.

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