As a lover of solitude, I was drawn to this book by its title and then the cover cinched the deal. My dog Bea is a retired sled dog and I thought it would be interesting to get a glimpse into her former profession.
I like a good outdoor adventure story, especially those about women. Keith became enraptured with Alaska after reading Arctic Daughter by Jean Aspen when she was ten years old. Growing up in Minnesota she’d camped with her brother and dad which grew her love of nature.
After marrying at a young age, Keiths’ world is rocked when she starts having unbearable nightmares of abuse. She turns to harmful physical behaviors to mask her emotional pain. After divorcing, Keith turns for relief to the wilderness.
The first 20% of the book was a challenge for me to read. Keith’s rawness resonated and I needed to put the book down for a few days. I’m glad I picked it back up because the story took off for me as Keith writes about her move to Alaska. She purchases an old ice cream truck that doubles as her home and heads north. She’s no trust-fund baby, but takes odd jobs along the way to pay for food and gas.
Throughout the memoir Keith mentions some of the ways she’s made money to make ends meet: kayak guide, selling guns (she had a federal firearms license), putting on bake sales, going on wooly mammoth ivory hunting expeditions, to name a few. The issue of money is, I imagine, a big question for people who would like to live a similar lifestyle.
Surprisingly, Keith doesn’t mention the prize money for dog sled races. She instead focuses on her love of being out with her dogs. Perhaps it is isn’t intentional that she doesn’t mention the prize money because, really, just surviving these races sounds like her primary goal. But since she mentions other modes of income, I did wonder why prize money wasn’t mentioned (unless I missed something, which is entirely possible). She doesn’t shy away from including the fact that races are protested by animal rights groups.
In the Lower 48, Keith had found a balm in nature excursions, but in Northern Alaska, she finds deeper healing:
Here, above the Arctic Circle, my life is no longer a living nightmare. The threat of self-extinction seems far off, obscure, and absurd. Certain words or phrases still trigger flashbacks, but they have become more manageable. Arctic solitude highlights all shortcomings and sensitivities. My thoughts can get trapped in the past, leading to a few days of total exhaustion, negativity, and pain. Dark periods exist, but instead of months they now last only days. I hope that perhaps even these will pass. Flashbacks and self-harm don’t belong in the life I am building.
Alaska helps her deal with old demons even as the unforgiving conditions of camp life create new horrors. Keith learns the hard way that naive optimism can kill in an environment as harsh as the Arctic Circle.
After the death of her infant daughter and then her husband, Keith heads to the University of Alaska, gets her degree, a pilot’s license, and becomes a musher.
I study the art of running a team of dogs and surviving the Arctic winter. A month after I arrive, I drive a small dog team for the first time solo. Two weeks later, I am on the runners of a fourteen-dog team. There is no turning back. The lifestyle completes me and transforms all my past goals and dreams into something better.
The chronology of Epic Solitude is confusing at times because the writing isn’t always clear and the structure of the story goes back and forth in time between sled-dog races and other life events. This didn’t terribly distract from the reading because Keith’s story is so compelling, but stronger editing could have helped make for a smoother read.
The Arctic Circle is a land of extremes that suits Keith perfectly as she is a self-confessed woman of extremes. Her descriptions of daily life way — way — off the grid and her sled dog race experiences are epic. She’s completed both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. The volunteer support at rest stops for these races sounds amazing — from people who clean up after the dogs to veterinarians and medical personal for the humans — but for the most part, mushers and their dogs are alone out there. (The Yukon Quest doesn’t allow mushers to carry two-way communication devices. Mushers have an emergency transmitter that once pushed sends help and automatically eliminates them from the race.)
You can’t read this memoir and not admire Keith’s tenacity. What she’s been through is jaw dropping. Her physical determination as a musher and Ironman athlete is buoyed by the love of family and friends as well her exploration into spiritual traditions. She’s written this memoir to help others get through their own hard times:
No words have the power to take away the pain and emptiness all people carry from the impact of loss. I share my story to empower others to search for their way to live life to the fullest despite that pain. Find the beauty. It’s epic.
Author: Katherine Keith
Title: Epic Solitude: A Story of Survival and A Quest for Meaning in the Far North
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing, February 4, 2020
Bottom line: I highly recommend this memoir to outdoor adventure enthusiasts, memoir readers, and folks working on healing their own demons.