Monday, September 24, 2018

North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild by Nicolas Vanier

Photographic retrospective of a life of wilderness expeditions
French adventurer Nicolas Vanier has made a career out of traveling to remote places and documenting his expeditions in books and on film. Specifically, he has spent over three decades exploring northern wildernesses in such locales as Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Siberia, Lapland, and Labrador. North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild, published in 1997, is one of only a few of Vanier’s books that have been translated into English. This 10” x 12” coffee table book presents a photographic retrospective of Vanier’s northern expeditions from 1983 to 1995.

The book is divided into 15 chapters of from 12 to 30 pages, each of which is devoted to a journey through a northern wilderness that Vanier undertook by canoe, dogsled, pack train, or raft. Vanier prefers to travel using the traditional methods of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, so you won’t find any Gore-Tex, Spandex, or Thinsulate among his gear. He only uses time-honored materials such as wood, leather, and fur, and he prefers to make his own gear himself, including sleds, harnesses, boots, and snowshoes. He sometimes travels in the company of the region’s Native inhabitants, learning their way of life, such as when he makes a trek by reindeer sled with the nomadic Even people of Siberia. In the final chapters, he and his wife build a cabin by hand in the remote woods of the Yukon, where they live with their toddler daughter. Ostensibly the three lived there in complete solitude, though there was also a photographer present to document their lives.

Each chapter begins with a very brief textual introduction stating where Vanier’s journey leads and the methods used to get there. The bulk of the pages, however, are filled with photographs, which are augmented by captions. Overall, the book resembles a series of National Geographic articles without the text. Occasionally there are brief sidebars that offer lessons about a region’s history or its inhabitants. The book also includes many diagrammatic drawings, similar to what you might find in the Boy Scout Handbook, that illustrate Vanier’s tips for how to make your own moccasins, build an igloo, tie appropriate knots, and so forth. These drawings really aren’t thorough enough to function as a how-to manual, but they do give you an idea of what Vanier went through and a fuller appreciation of his methods. The text does not mention any dates for Vanier’s expeditions, and it is sometimes unclear which chapters were stand-alone adventures and which were performed as consecutive stages in one grand tour.

The photographs, though beautiful, are not your typical coffee-table shots of amazing scenery. Almost every image depicts Vanier or members of his team in the act of traveling through the landscape. There are many two-page spreads of dogsled teams, for example. The best images in the book depict the Indigenous peoples and illustrate their way of life. To appreciate a volume such as this, you really have to have a sense of adventure and a desire to live vicariously through Vanier. Perhaps, like him, you grew up reading the stories of Jack London and have always dreamt of an independent, self-sufficient life in the wilderness. If so, you will not only admire Vanier but also envy him. What this book really needs, however, is just more information. While the photos may be stunning, the paucity of text really lessens one’s understanding and appreciation for what Vanier actually accomplished with these expeditions and what he learned from them. Still, it is an enjoyable experience for any armchair adventurer who has ever fantasized about exploring the great wild North.
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