Exploration Done The Right Way
Kate Harris lives in a one-room, off-grid cabin in the bush outside Atlin, B.C. where high-up shelves of books line the gable end wall over her writing table. Propane lights hiss. Her black lab, Daniel, sighs in slumber. Such is the life of an adventurer-cum-writer. Between episodes cycling or skiing in far-flung regions of the world, she settles here to work on manuscripts and magazine pieces.
Harris is considered one of Canada’s greatest explorers, a title she earned after a life-long pursuit of discovery and adventure—and the publication of her critically-acclaimed first book, Lands of Lost Borders, which just won the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize, Canada’s top award for literary non-fiction. But in an age where all corners of the globe have been mapped and charted, often to the detriment of the people living there, the term “explorer” bears mostly negative connotations, especially here in the North. Harris prefers to redefine the term.
“Exploration can be seen more as a poetic endeavour rather than a practical one,” she says. “Curiosity’s best work in the world ends in a deep appreciation and a sense of wonder for everything around us.”
Harris moved to Canada’s North eight years ago to hunker down and write Lands of Lost Borders, a Silk Road cycling adventure-odyssey that goes beyond mere travelogue. Her one-year cycling trip from Turkey to the Himalayas in 2011 with her childhood friend Mel inspired a book full of heart-thumping scenes like their near-capture illegally crossing into Tibet at night. But more often than not the book offers heartfelt contemplation of what it means to be alive right now in the world, and the impact and artificiality of borders.
Her contemplation of borders forms the backbone of the book: cycling through lands where political boundaries shift with the desert sands, wars are fought over arbitrary lines drawn across uninhabitable plateaus, and people and wilderness are invariably affected by senseless land grabbing. “Borders are little more than collective myths,” she writes, “Fictions that a certain number of people for a certain period of time, believe are fact.”
These collective myths are here in the North, as well, where surveyors drew rigid lines straight across watersheds and mountain ranges to define our territories. “You really feel the sense of absurdity and arbitrariness of borders around Atlin,” she says. “The Taku River Tlingit have lived in this area for millennia and yet they are split between B.C., the Yukon, and Alaska and each authority is able to use these lines and this fragmentation to their advantage with say, allowing mining and claim staking on TRT territory.”
She says that mountains, rivers and lakes are the only borders she can respect, which is a notion that lends itself well to the North, where people traditionally travelled along and defined their ranges by geographical features. In the perspective of history, our current geopolitical borders in Canada are very new and very temporary. “There’s nothing the Silk Road teaches you more than the transiency of empires and dynasties and kingdoms,” she says. “I think we’re seeing worldwide right now that the nation state as an organizing principle is failing the planet and failing a heck of a lot of people and privileging an elite. Something so absurd cannot last. It feels like we’re at the end of our version of empire, for sure.”
Shortly after the cycling trip ended, she and her wife Kate moved to Atlin, inspired by a life-altering scientific expedition on the Juneau Icefield she had completed a decade earlier—and motivated by the low-cost, simple living the cabin afforded them.
“When we moved there, my partner Kate was an academic finishing her PhD and I was a writer who hadn’t written anything yet. So there we were, both of us writing, Kate her thesis and me this book,” she says. “We had no money but needed so little money to lead what felt like a very rich life to us—when your main activities are dinner parties with friends or going hiking and your rent is for an off-grid, dry cabin, and your only bills are for a couple hundred bucks in rent and your chores are hauling water and chopping wood. It freed up our time, it made it affordable for me to work on this book over five years. It was crucial in that sense but also in the inspirational sense, waking up and looking out the window and seeing the mountains and the changing blues of the lake. That’s what really fires me up and makes me want to write—when I’m opened up by the world around me.”
Five years working on the manuscript from the tiny cabin cemented a new path in Harris’ life: as both a writer and as a Northerner. Although the couple eventually purchased the cabin property and aim to live there long-term, since the publication of Lands of Lost Borders last year, and its immediate success, Harris has been pulled away on a string of book tours and writer’s residencies. Her wife, since completing her doctorate thesis, now teaches at the University of Toronto, leaving her only five months of the year to live with Harris in Atlin. Still, Harris seems content in her new life as a writer, but this path wasn’t always so clear.
Since she was a child, Harris wanted to be an explorer. Growing up on an isolated, rural Ontario homestead, she devoured books about travel, discovery, and science. She imagined Marco-Polo-style expeditions into unknown lands, a fantasy shattered upon realizing the entire planet had already been thoroughly surveyed and dissected. So she looked to the frontier of space and imagined herself as an astronaut. She was well on this path—a scientist, a Rhodes Scholar, with a two-week Mars simulation under her belt and a PhD started at MIT (the school that graduates the most astronauts), when she decided to drop out and bike the Silk Road.
“I wanted to seek out the world’s wildness and plumb my own in the process,” she writes in her book.
But it was the long process of sitting down and writing the book that truly defined her identity as an explorer. In her book, she refers to Charles Darwin as an inspiration and compares her own five-year writing process as being the most potent time of discovery for her. “It was during this transition from restless to rooted that [Darwin] elaborated the theory of evolution by natural selection.” She also takes heart in Thoreau, who never had to leave his small cabin in Concord, Massachusetts, to “travel widely” through his writing.
“Literature can wake us up and make us pay attention to what’s around us but don’t necessarily appreciate,” Harris says. “I hope that’s the main feeling people get reading my book, not that they have to travel to the far-flung ends of the world but just a reawakening to the wonder and absurdity of life.”