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Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Adventuring sure ain't what it used to be. The problem is everything has been done by now, which makes it nearly impossible for thrill-seekers to etch a permanent mark in the record books. Even climbing Mt. Everest isn't much of a challenge any more. So many people have climbed the world's highest peak (more than 2000 at latest count) since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it first in 1953, that by the 1980s, it had become all the rage in the mountaineering world to climb the Seven Summits--the highest mountain on each continent. By now, nearly 200 people have managed that feat, including Davo Karnicar, a Slovenian who went one step further by skiing down all seven.
So, when Vancouver-based adventurer Colin Angus decided he wanted to accomplish something that no one else had, he was setting a stiff challenge for himself. Challenges, however, were nothing new to him. After all, in 2000, he became the first Canadian to raft the Amazon River from source to sea. He followed that up in 2001 by travelling the length of the Yenisey, a little-known river that runs from Mongolia through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, and just happens to be the world's fifth longest, at 5,500 kilometres.
The fact that he nearly died several times on those expeditions didn't deter Angus. Rather, it spurred him on to attempt something truly unique. But what great adventuring challenge was left undone? As he writes in the prologue to his new book, Beyond the Horizon , "it was with great surprise that I learned, after a quick Google search, that one of the most basic quests remained incomplete: nobody had ever circumnavigated the earth solely by human power."
That's when the light bulb went off in his head--an environmentally friendly light bulb, that is. Angus realized his human-powered circumnavigation "would garner much publicity, and this media attention could be leveraged to promote zero-emissions travel," increasing awareness about the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming and climate change.
Beyond the Horizon describes his two-year expedition beginning in May 2004, which entailed cycling from Vancouver to Alaska, rowing across the Bering Sea, trekking through Siberia in winter, cycling to the coast of Portugal, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, and finally cycling back home to Vancouver--covering 43,000 kilometres in total.
Along the way, Angus faced death several times and suffered an ignominious split with his travel partner, Tim Harvey, halfway across Siberia, which nearly scuttled the whole expedition. Angus continued on to Moscow alone, where his fiancée, Julie Wafaei, joined him. Together, they completed the second half of the circumnavigation, including a 145-day rowboat crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, during which they were hounded by three separate hurricanes outside of hurricane season and in areas of the ocean where cyclonic storms normally do not form. Signs of climate change in action? Perhaps.
The point of a book like this for the reader isn't the suspense of whether or not the author makes it to the end of his journey. We all know he did; why else would anyone publish the book? Rather, the thrill of reading comes from the details of that seemingly impossible quest: the harrowing account of Angus' narrow escape from death in a Siberian blizzard; the perplexing breakdown between Harvey and Angus; the descriptions of rugged wilderness locales few readers will ever have the chance to see; and the connections made with locals along the way--even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where Angus and Wafaei had meaningful encounters with wildlife, a freighter that nearly ran them over, and one serendipitous sailboat bearing cold beer and junk food.
Condensing this two-year expedition down into one book was a huge endeavour in itself, but Angus does an admirable job, focusing on the most interesting anecdotes and skipping through the less exciting intervals. Being forced to pare down his story probably served Angus well because the writing here is a notch above his two previous books, Lost in Mongolia (2003) and Amazon Extreme (2004), as in this example from their heinous winter trek through Siberia:
"I thought of the millions that had perished from cold and hunger in this harsh land, and wondered if we would make it through unscathed. It seemed the roar of the wind in my ears was the voice of Siberia whispering secrets of cold, agony, and death. If we were sensible we would heed her warnings and return to the comforts of civilization, but instead we were driven by our foolhardy ambitions, and we continued into the unknown."
This expedition was nearly scuttled by the partners' split, and Angus does not shy away from that controversy. He tells his side of the story without raking his ex-partner in the mud, only rising to defend himself against Harvey's accusations, which were published online and in this newspaper's Travel section during the trek. Angus treats Harvey respectfully throughout this book, and even thanks him prominently in the acknowledgments.
While the author is courteously objective in his portrayal of Harvey, he cannot hide his deep love and admiration for Julie Wafaei, his fiancée. She did not circumnavigate the entire globe herself since she only joined him in Moscow, but did become the first woman to row across the Atlantic from mainland to mainland. He dedicates the book to her, and much of its second half reads like an extended love letter. Her own book about the experience, Rowboat in a Hurricane , will come out in 2008 from Vancouver's Greystone Books.
In addition to adventure, drama, and romance, there is also humour to be found here. During their trek across Siberia, Angus required an emergency medical procedure in a backwater Russian hospital. His depiction of the communication breakdown between him and the Russian-speaking medical staff is hilarious--and harrowing, especially one scene when he describes re-inserting his own catheter.
Although Angus promised in an interview before leaving in 2004 that this expedition would be his last, it sounds like his adventurous spirit has infected Wafaei. According to his website, www.angusadventures.com , the couple are planning a rather unusual honeymoon--next spring, they intend to row from Scotland to Syria, connecting their ancestral homelands. One would think they'd be tired of rowing by now.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.