Family Lines

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Month: December 2013

Memoir horror story

Members of the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Photo  taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images.

Members of the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Photo taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images.

Finally. I finished the 598 page tome, The Worst Journey in the World, that I’ve been tackling in the evenings for at least a year now. It has taken me a while to read because often I had to put it down. Some passages were too much to take in right before I shut my eyes to go to sleep.

The Worst Journey in the World is a non-fiction book written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard about the race to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard was part of a British expedition team in the early 1900s that planned to be the first to travel all the way to the pole before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. (Amundsen did make it to the pole about five weeks ahead of British expedition captain Robert Falcon Scott and his party of four men.) Cherry-Garrard’s story was created from journals he had written, along with the memoirs of his other team members.

The Worst Journey is a horror story, a horror story not many of us can imagine today. It’s about extreme cold and ice and forcing your body into completing intense feats of endurance. It’s about frozen feet and hands and noses and snow blindness and scurvy and starvation. It’s about you and the elements and fighting for your life with no hope of a helicopter swopping in to save you.

Five explorers died on the 1,440 kilometre Antarctic mission. Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans perished on their way back from the pole. Evans went first after suffering a concussion by falling on ice. Oates was next – walking out of the tent into a blizzard in an apparent self-sacrifice. He’d been battling gangrene and frostbite and yet never complained once. How is this possible?

Scott, Wilson and Bowers were the last to go. They spent three days in their tent, unable to push their bodies onwards to the food cache only a few kilometres away. Their bodies were found by a search party, including Cherry-Garrard, months later. He referred to the scene as something that can never leave his memory.

The expedition leader Scott and teammate Wilson both left accounts of their travels and travails during their last days. Cherry-Garrard incorporated these diary entries into his book so readers have the full picture. Cherry-Garrard pointed out some factors where he thought the team went wrong but never played the blame game. He left that up to each of us to figure out. He did say this:

Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore… If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards need to prove their bravery.

Excerpt: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

To me, the British explorers were not cowards. Their mission

The five men who died during Scott's South Pole mission: Evans, Oates, Wilson, Scott. Photograph taken by Bowers. (© BAS/NERC)

Five men died during Scott’s South Pole mission. Here are four of them dragging a sledge: Evans, Oates, Wilson, Scott. Photograph taken by Bowers. (© BAS/NERC)

was a dangerous one and five men didn’t come back. They were explorers pushing the limits for science. They took risks at a time when there weren’t any satellite phones or GPS units. Who would do that today?


Tom Crean was part of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911–13 South Pole expedition. Crean is a clear hero in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World . As one of the supporting team members in Scott’s attempt to the South Pole, Scott decided to take only four men and told several others to turn around and go back to the base camp.

Heading back, Lieutenant Edward Evans (not to be confused with Edgar Evans) got gravely ill from scurvy. Evans couldn’t march any further and was on his death-bed. Crean walked 56 kilometres, alone, to get help. He had some food but nothing warm. He went literally through ice and snow, falling hard many times until at last, he found help. A team of men went out and saved Evans.

Crean was also on the search party for Scott and his four men. And if that wasn’t incredible enough, Crean went on to be a part of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in 1914. Crean boarded the expedition’s ship, the Endurance, only to have it get stuck in ice and be crushed. Now stranded, he spent months on the ice with the men until Shackleton decided to strike out for help in a lifeboat.

Six men were chosen and Crean was one. They had a terrific journey through heavy snow squalls to a sparsely inhabited island, South Georgia. Unfortunately, they landed on the uninhabited side so Crean and two others hiked 48 kilometres to find help at a whaling station. What an amazing man. He died from a burst appendix when he was 61.

There is a present day Scott expedition going on right now. Click here for their blog:


Writing in pencil

An Alpha House participant’s story written in pencil.

Most writers nowadays use a computer to write their stories. But what if you’re a homeless writer and you don’t have access to a laptop or an iPad? Then you use paper and a pen as several participants do in my memoir writing workshops.

I’ve been volunteering with the Calgary organization: This is My City (TMC) for just under a year now. TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status. This past November I started facilitating a four-week life writing workshop at Alpha House, a shelter in the city that gives those whose lives are affected by alcohol and other drug dependencies a safe and caring home. During my workshops here we use paper and pen to write.

Writing longhand may be old-fashioned but the words still get out. In black or blue or red pen, sentences on the page are strung together to make paragraphs and the paragraphs form into the shape of a story. It could be a light story about what Alpha House participants hope for the future or a dark story about what they wish they could have changed in the past. Whatever the direction, it’s on the page.

I go to Alpha House on Tuesday mornings for an hour. In the detox centre I have between one to seven people at a time writing short snippets of their biographies. Almost all of them, except one, use a pen. Last week though, a woman used a pencil.

That’s OK by me, as long as she was writing. And she was. She wrote three good stories but didn’t want to keep them in the end. She passed her lined paper over to me and said I could have them. I put the anecdotes in a folder amongst scrap paper I collect for people who need something to write on.

Taking out the stories almost a week later, the penciled words have faded, they’re smudged. The tale is still readable but not easily. The paper looks like it’s dirty and I furrow my brow and squint my eyes as I attempt to read some of the middle lines.

The first word is clear. The only thing not blurry. I thought this was an interesting analogy to life and the paths we take. We are all born innocent babies – at the beginning of our life we are new and fresh. As we begin to grow we take on experiences, both good and bad. Lessons are learned the easy and the hard way. Some of us manage to only get a few bruises while others end up bumped and blemished and fade into the background. Like the woman’s handwriting. But her words are there, even if they’re pale and cloudy. She and her story exist. We just have a hard time seeing them and need to take a bit of extra time to decipher them.

Canada Writes Bloodlines contest

Rabbit Lake, Sk.

Rabbit Lake, Sk.

I submitted a story for Bloodlines a Canada Writes contest. It asks you to dig through the pages of your family’s past and share a compelling story from your bloodline. Well, I’m not sure if this is what they’re looking for but this is what I wrote:

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