Canadian science writer and outdoor adventurer Turk (In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific, 2005, etc.) explores metaphysical and anthropological territory on the far side of the Bering Strait.
At the turn of the present century, writes the author, he began a quest to visit the remotest parts of the Kamchatka Peninsula as part of a long kayak journey along the Arctic rim of the Pacific Ocean. On that daring journey—as he notes, “a kayak is the smallest oceangoing craft and the North Pacific is one of the most tempestuous seas in the world”—he met a Koryak shaman, an elderly woman named Moolynaut. Through Moolynaut and other members of her family and tribe, the author learned firsthand about the lives of native people in Russia under communism and its successor—Moolynaut says they were forced “to move into villages and become ‘mouse eaters.’ ” Mice figure in the Koryak world, but so do bears, wolves and ptarmigan, all of which have lessons to impart. Turk also learned culturally important truths, sometimes reluctantly delivered, about native views of life, death, the afterlife and other issues that, sadly, were crowding in on him at the time. He proves a sensitive traveler between two worlds, though he mentions once or twice too often his status as an outsider “learning to discard my Western prejudices and to open myself to a mysterious way of thinking.” One hopes that his account is more anthropologically accurate than the works of Carlos Castaneda, whom Turk cites approvingly. Regardless, the author offers a sort of higher truth in his passing observation that we are losing a great mass of knowledge with the erasure of the old ways, the victims, in this case, not just of communism but of modernity as a whole.
A moving account worthy of shelving alongside Vladimir Arsenyev’s Dersu Uzala (1923), Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) and other explorations of native ways of life in the Far North.