Yukon Dad!

It can get way too serious writing thrillers and crime books, so it’s great when real life stories get in the way. It’s taken a while, but that Yukon book is finally making an appearance – although, not quite yet. In March, 2018, curious readers will be able to discover how I survived as a surrogate dad on the Yukon River for fifty days.

I’ll bust a myth right from the get go – mum and dad paddled with us – but we shared the kids, one in each canoe, for the entire journey.

Yukon Dad is a story about an ex-outfitter canoe, four adults, and two wild (read “great”) kids, travelling from Canada into Alaska on the Yukon. We survived Search and Rescue attempts, avoided wildfires, navigated the Flats, shooed bears away from camp, and met the locals, and thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the people of the Yukon.

Along the way, I learned a lot about myself, and what it means to be a parent, if only for a short time. Cue chapters on “lessons learned” and “survival strategies” for parents lost in the wild, or just lost.

This honest and humorous story is framed from the author’s perspective – that would be me – and his (mine) lack of experience of travelling with kids, or even being around kids for such a prolonged period of time. If you want a laugh about that, and I certainly hope you do, then you can pick up a cheap pre-order kindle copy of the book at Amazon.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

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It’s Emotional

Okay, I admit, I made my wife cry. Normally I wouldn’t be proud of such a thing, but in this instance it is justified. Before you click away in disgust, allow me to explain myself.

Jane is an avid reader.

I wrote a book.

She cried when she read it.

We’ve been on lots of adventures together, but the time after the Yukon River, when we were touring around Alaska – with a quick visit to Seattle – was important to us. What’s more, when waiting on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Vancouver, I saw a poster for another train: The Coast Starlight, and was inspired to write a book.

I literally plotted the whole thing on the train journey, beat it out chapter by chapter, and sent a copy to my mail as a back-up. When we arrived in England in early September, 2016, I wrote the story that has become The Starlighter. Then I waited a year, sat on it – content with the fact that I had a whole story in the drawer, something I could dust off at a later date. Well, this September, I did just that, and now it is being edited for release.

So this book is personal. The others are too, but this book was meant to be something else. I was meant to write a book about our expedition on the Yukon River, but I wasn’t ready for that. I was, however, inspired by Naomi Klein’s book: This Changes Everything, and the idea that we are all very good at “looking away”. I decided that I was tired of looking away, and I wrote about Jayla Cooper, a twelve-year-old girl who does anything but look away.

Instead of writing an account of the Yukon, I wrote about the places we visited after the Yukon. The action takes place in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in Seattle, Washington, two places that have always been of interest to me, and are now important for Jane and I. So, The Starlighter is personal, just like Greenland is personal, and reading connects the dots. And sometimes connecting those dots makes us cry.

I got emotional when editing the first and second draft of The Starlighter. It makes me wonder, will other people find it emotional too?

Adventurous Spines: Slaven’s Roadhouse

Stayed two nights at Slaven’s Roadhouse. Received an incredibly warm welcome from Randy, Cindy, and Shaelyn. Amazing service in an amazing place. We started in Whitehorse and we’re on our way to Emmonak, as long as it’s safe and fun, we’ll keep paddling! We have two children in our party: Tiuri (9) and Liva (7), and the Rangers made them feel right at home. Keep up the excellent work – we appreciate it so much!
Best regards: Lars, Suzi, Tiuri, Liva, Jane and Chris
www.lifeisgoodfollowus.com

Slaven’s Roadhouse is a halfway house, a little patch of heaven in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. It was also our home for a couple of days and nights, time to recharge before pushing on deeper into Alaska. The Rangers were supercharged with humour, compassion and hospitality. They received us, our gear, and our kids with open arms. They were our heroes.

A little too dramatic for you?

Try a month on the Yukon River, through lightning, forest fires, heatwaves, rainstorms, and mud… lots of mud. Sure, we were having a great time, but a little home comfort was no small thing, and we found heaps of it at Slaven’s.

Slaven’s was also, for me, the culmination of a teenage dream. I had devoured all of Jack London’s books and stories about the Yukon, Klondike, and all things Canada and Alaska, when I should have been studying for my exams – all of them, over several years of school, high school, and university. When I put London to one side, it was only to pick up books about dogsled racing on the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Dreams of the North took me to Alta, Norway, where I worked as a sled dog kennel helper for the very first time, but it was at Slaven’s, as an emerging writer, that I sat in one of the places I had read about, without realising it. There, on the wall, was a Yukon Quest poster signed by the dog drivers, and I realised I had arrived, and that dreams, once again, can come true, albeit not quite how one imagined them.

The kids had fun too. Tiuri and Liva explored the cabin, the outhouses, the woods, the dredge. They panned for gold, got nailed by mosquitoes the size of small aircraft, and we talked about bears – good eatin’, apparently. Or was it the skins that were good? It didn’t matter. We were on an adventure, staying at a roadhouse built for the purpose.

Suzi and Lars chilled out too, although the sting of a Yellowjacket almost ended Suzi’s Yukon adventure. We had talked about bee stings back in Denmark, before the trip. We had not talked about wasps. Suzi was stung earlier in the trip, with no reaction, but these Yellowjackets – about twice the size of a “normal” wasp – well, it took her out of the game for a while. Once again, the Rangers were on the case. She couldn’t have been stung at a better location.

Jane and I enjoyed Slaven’s too, although Lars’ boots introduced a percussive element to the experience that we had not prepared for – damn big boots, mate! But the Roadhouse was a chance to spread out and dry out. We hung our gear on the same lines with the same pegs used by dog drivers. We sat at the same table, slept in the same beds, and lived the Alaskan life I had talked about on trips in Scotland, in our home in Greenland. This was everything Greenland was supposed to have been – that is, an Arctic environment, with trees!

Adventurous spines drive one to find adventure in far-out, remote, and exciting places. I sent a copy of The Ice Star to the Rangers in Eagle, Alaska, and hope they can wedge it alongside their gear to leave it on the bookshelf at Slaven’s. I found adventure there, in the wilds. The thought of a dog driver dipping into my book during a layover… well, that’s another dream come true.

It’s Written in the Stars

It’s not all blood and guts, Arctic inspiration can lead to other stories too, though no less dramatic. In my first book for younger readers – aged 9 and up – I am going back to Alaska, as Jayla Cooper and her friends, Watson and Cherry, do their very best to save the world from The Starlighter.

It’s a race against time with plenty of obstacles in the shape of busy fathers, FBI Agents, scientists, politicians, and the President of the United States herself – no, not Clinton. But, ultimately, it is the story of a tough 12-year-old who just wants to be “useful” when her dad buries himself in his work to get over the loss of his wife, Jayla’s mother.

Enter The Starlighter, in the form of a strange alignment of stars in the night sky, and, all of a sudden, Jayla’s world is spinning to a frightening end. It’s up to Jayla to save the world, as she tries to reconnect with her father with a little help from the spirit of her mother.

Too fantastical for you?

I understand.

Fortunately, there’s plenty more action on the way at the end of the year in the third and final installment of The Greenland Trilogy, when Fenna returns in The Shaman’s House.

But, if you’re curious, The Starlighter will be available at a special pre-order price on Amazon.

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Until then, there’s words to be written, drafts to be edited, and books to be published.

Adventurous Spines

A lot of books get an awful lot of abuse, but the best-loved and most abused, in my opinion, are the ones squeezed onto hastily-erected shelves in frostbitten huts plunged into darkness for three to four months each year. The Ice Star has yet to join the hallowed spines of polar greats, but it is on its way to the Arctic, in the library of an Aurora Expeditions adventure cruise ship – they just posted about it on their Facebook page.

I have discovered interesting books in remote cabins in the far north of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Tracing a finger down the cracked and splintered spine of a much-read, and much-abused book evokes a sense of adventure for it takes an adventurous spirit to reach such cabins in the wilds.

In the same way that frost can often eat into a book in a remote cabin, books can eat into the miles taken to reach such places. When the stove is burning, your wool socks are thawing on the line looped between the rafters, and you’re kicking back in a bruised-wood chair, a sleeping bag wrapped around your knees, a cup of cocoa in one hand and a book in the other, well … you get the picture. There’s nothing better after a long trek, paddle, climb, or ski than following the path of another adventurer through the pages of a book.

I plan on sending more books into the wilds, perhaps you’ll find one someday.

Photo of Shackleton’s bookshelf from The Smithsonian.

But how many words for ice?

I was a teacher in Greenland. There were lots of highlights. Second to the amazing, and, at times, exasperating kids, was the role of external invigilator for the spoken English exams. Greenland must be one of the few places where the invigilator is flown by helicopter to schools in the remote settlements. Greenland is vast – something you understand when trying to get your head around distances – but from the air… well, Greenland can be a humbling experience. As it should be – something every invigilator should be exposed to before an exam. “You live here?” is a common thought to have when approaching the gravel landing square, marked with a rusty oil drum in each corner. Exams are one thing, but almost everything can have the flavour of a test in Greenland, and the results are not measured in grades, and they can rarely be captured in words.

You may have heard that the Inuit have a lot of words for snow. Honestly, I don’t know how many, and it is difficult to know when pop culture ends and the practicality of describing snow and ice begins. Until, that is, you’re standing on thin ice, with a kilometre or more of black sea beneath you. Then, as you begin to imagine sinking down in the black depths, I guarantee you will begin to imagine all kinds of words for ice, as if your life depends upon it, which it does, actually.

Once, when accompanying a hunter to check his long fishing line, my Western feet broke through the ice.

Despite weighing a good twenty kilos more than the hunter I was with, it wasn’t my weight that was a problem, it was my attitude, my angle of attack. Admittedly, the ice was only a centimetre or so thick – we had left the dogs behind. Apparently their attitude was similar to mine, although they were safe. No, the problem was that I didn’t glide or shush across the ice with flat feet, I walked, putting weight on my toes and breaking the ice. The hunter noticed, gave me a few words of advice, and shushed on ahead of me. I followed, pushing the sledge, skirting the bad ice, the really thin stuff, and taking a torturous route back to the village.

Rarely have I been more scared.

Rarely have I felt more alive.

If you spend time in Greenland, if you spend time on the ice, you’ll experience that feeling – that moment when you struggle to understand how you can have a cheesy grin on your face, while fighting the urge to pee, wondering if your heart is going to explode out of your chest, amazed that is hasn’t already.

Greenland, like Alaska, does that to you. Something I hope to have captured in my first Greenland thriller, and now as I edit the second.

If you’d like to know more you could try out The Ice Star – available in paperback and on Kindle or for Kindle apps from Amazon, or pre-order book two: In the Shadow of the Mountain, here:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Alaska does that

Alaska happened, almost a year ago, and a lot has happened since. I thought it was time, for me anyway, to reflect. You, on the other hand, might want to go get a coffee… or stick around for a moment. It won’t take too long. I promise.

The Yukon River family expedition that Jane and I were a part of was an amazing experience, but, from a much more personal perspective, it was just the beginning of a deeper experience, the stimulus for change and a change of purpose.

I suppose and hope there are a lot of people out there, young teens like I once was, that dream of Alaska. I really hope there are. I hope they read Jack London stories, and stay up late at night trying to breathe the pine sap, imagining the heat of the fire warming their hands around a small campfire in the snow, smiling at the pop and snap of twigs burning. That’s what I did most school nights when I should have been sleeping.

Some twenty-eight years or so later I finally made it north, to Alaska.

I wasn’t alone.

Jane and I went together.

We shared the adventure, in the wind, the rain, in a canoe drifting down the river, on a train clacking through the wilds, on ships lurching and rolling through Prince William Sound, and on foot in the shadow of Denali.

And now I miss Alaska.

I miss the campfires, the wolf prints on the riverbanks, the fireweed bringing colour and life to the burnt-black stumps of the fire-swept swathes of wilderness along the banks of the Yukon River. And I miss those coffees with Jane in quirky Alaskan cafés, book stores and National Parks. I miss the wash houses in the Yukon villages – strangely, I do. And I miss the vibrant cultural motifs painted on the walls, and the people – perhaps the friendliest we have ever met on all our travels.

I was surprised at that. The Alaskans we met, for all their stereotypical toughness, are incredibly kind, generous people, making their living in a wild and awe-inspiring part of the world.

Food for thought.

Alaska was the real impetus for getting The Ice Star finished and out there – the litmus test for my emerging career as an author. It was also the inspiration for The Starlighter – working title – a book for younger readers about love, loss, and the end of the world. The Starlighter is gathering mental dust for the moment, but thoughts of Alaska blow that dust into clouds of creativity, tinged with a sense of guilt and the need to revisit and revise.

My Alaskan journey started with a book. Our Alaskan adventure ended with two more – and, more recently, a third, a secret project that is gathering snow, moss, and twigs as it hurtles downhill to crash into our house, to shake the foundations, and yes, give me the necessary kick to get it written.

Alaska does that.

Perhaps it is time to go back?