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Bookmonger: One man’s cure for midlife crisis is photogenic polar bears

Paul Souders’ ‘Arctic Solitaire’ a riveting read

Published on September 19, 2018 2:46PM

Last changed on September 19, 2018 3:39PM

A self-portrait of photographer Paul Souders atop an iceberg, beside an ice-trapped expedition boat along Frozen Strait on Hudson Bay.

Paul Souders photo

A self-portrait of photographer Paul Souders atop an iceberg, beside an ice-trapped expedition boat along Frozen Strait on Hudson Bay.

The cover of Paul Souders’ ‘Arctic Solitaire.’

Courtesy Paul Souders

The cover of Paul Souders’ ‘Arctic Solitaire.’

Here is how Seattle-based wildlife photographer Paul Souders used to go about his work: “Get up in the morning. Go out and take some pictures. Go to bed a happy man.”

But then life got complicated. He got married. He turned 50. And instead of getting complacent, he developed an obsession for photographing polar bears in the wild.

In his new book, “Arctic Solitaire,” Souders describes how his quest transformed him from a fairly standard professional wildlife photographer into someone who was “more like a twitchy and compulsive survivalist.”

His winters in Seattle became a flurry of equipment purchases and packing lists and complicated itineraries covering land and sea — only to submit to the vagaries of Arctic summers: mosquitoes and icebergs and dodgy weather, not to mention locals (both bear and human) who didn’t take kindly to being messed with.

But he persevered. For four summers between 2012 and 2015, Souders headed to Hudson Bay to cast off in his C-Dory (christened “C-Sick”) and search for photogenic wildlife — not only the sought-after polar bears, but walrus and narwhals, too.

This account is, by turns, delightful and harrowing. One minute, you’ll be chortling about the cocky way Souders executes makeshift repairs. The next, you’ll be hyperventilating over yet another close encounter with a large and toothy Ursus maritimus.

Souders writes in a breezy style, quick to point out his foibles with good humor. He never casts himself as a hero, but more typically as a bumbling fellow who relies on perseverance rather than skill to navigate tricky tides, frigid waters, mechanical failures and disgruntled locals.

In some of the villages he stops at, he encounters suspicion. Is he with Greenpeace? There’s not much use for a do-gooding outsider who aims to expose a traditional way of life.

In other places, Souders meets souls whose brand of bemused generosity and wisdom is reassuring and sometimes even lifesaving.

And every night, on the phone via satellite, his loving, level-headed spouse, Janet, keeps track of his coordinates and counsels him on how to make a decent spaghetti carbonara.

Souders keeps in mind the intrepid naval explorers who, centuries earlier, also struggled through the ice-choked waters of Hudson Bay — John Franklin, George Lyon, and Henry Hudson himself (who mapped the eastern coast of the bay that was named after him before he was set adrift in a small boat by his mutinous crew).

While our 21st century adventurer confesses his own mistakes and brushes with misfortune, he has no crew to mutiny against him. And C-Sick, despite being a highly improbable choice for a vessel in the ice-choked waters, manages never to let him down.

Did I mention ice yet? There’s a lot of it to contend with in this book — it would have been a great read for one of those sultry days last month.

Even in September, “Arctic Solitaire” is a riveting read. And yes, Souders does share some fine photographs of polar bears.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.


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