Ruzesky treks for beauty, obsession

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage

By Jay Ruzesky

Nightwood Editions

239 pp, $24.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

“A map reveals through silence and quiet white space; monsters fill the places that have never been seen. When the earth was a plate there were gorgeous waterfalls at the edges and serpents all around. In the Antarctic, the empty landscape on maps is not snow or lack of geographical character. Those thousands of square kilometers are blank because they have still never been visited.”

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage captures Jay Ruzesky’s fascination with Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. In 2011, Ruzesky set out on his own expedition to Antarctica, wanting to see and experience just a bit of what Amundsen had seen and experienced a century earlier.  The story moves between Ruzesky’s contemporary voyage from Vancouver, BC, down through South America to Antarctica and Amundsen’s historic expedition from Christiana (Oslo), Norway, down the globe to the South Pole. Ruzesky brings alive the historical men (and dogs) who made up Amundsen’s expedition and contrasts travel in 1911 with travel in 2011.

Ruzesky can be forgiven for his obsession with Amundsen, who is one of his ancestors. His experience in Antarctica is deeply emotional and his poetic language enlivens the beauty of this far-away place. He says of his trip, “What I am looking for is not icebergs and penguins and humpback whales; I am looking to travel through a myth that is my own, a story of ice that is mine to dream and to know.”

That desire to make the story our own is, I believe, what each of us seeks as we pick up a book. As I read, I found myself comparing this story to that of Ernest Shackleton, another Antarctica explorer whose journey has been told in books and IMAX movies. I also thought of my own trip to Glacier Bay, Alaska, a place of ice and rock and cold and water that only hints at the vast beauty contained in Antarctica.

Ruzesky extols the beauty of Antarctica but also comments on what this hard-to-reach place means to our modern world: “Much in the way Christmas reminds us to want to be our best selves, the Antarctic reminds us to want to change our lives. Here is the world before we messed it up. No cigarette butts on the beaches, no graffiti carved into the glaciers. Pristine is a word I keep hearing.”

In Antarctica is a beautiful melding of the personal and the public, the past and the present, research and emotion. Ruzesky presents the facts of Amundsen’s life and work, yet also captures Amundsen’s dreams and despairs. Just as Amundsen was foiled in his goal of being the first man to reach the North Pole and had to change plans, so Ruzesky also failed follow exactly in Amundsen’s footsteps and reach the Pole. Both men adapted, doing what they were able to do, and creating compelling stories in the process.

Bonnie Way has a BA in English (2006) and a BA in Creative Writing (2014). She blogs as The Koala Bear Writer.