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What I Read In 2016

As usual, I read a lot this year – mostly nonfiction, and more articles than books. Here are a few of the ones that really stuck with me.

All the way back in January, WIRED published a heartbreaking story by Jason Tanz about a video game dedicated to a dying child.

Evan Ratliff reported and wrote (and continued to report new sections after the first ones appeared!) this crime serial about a remarkably successful criminal mastermind, and his downfall.

Shane Bauer had a wild year. He went undercover as a guard at a private prison, resulting in this long, powerful expose, and then infiltrated a private militia that has taken it upon itself to patrol the Mexican border – another powerful story.

Jon Mooallem might be my favorite writer working in magazines right now. I loved his story about an online cloud appreciation society. His look at Steven Spielberg, Roald Dahl, and childhood was lovely too.

This story from The Atlantic about an ancient papyrus and Jesus’ wife was bananas. Jen Percy’s piece on the families still searching for loved ones years after the Japanese tsunami was crushingly sad. This Harpers Letter From El Salvador, on what happens to women suspected of inducing a miscarriage there, was disturbing and incredibly important.

On the book-length side of things, I was moved by Blair Braverman’s debut memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube – nominally about learning to dogsled but really about learning to navigate a male-dominated, potentially hostile world as a young woman drawn to the wilderness. I also enjoyed Lynsey Addario’s memoir about being a war photographer: It’s What I Do.

I’d been waiting for years to read my friend Luke Dittrich’s book, Patient H.M., the story of neuroscience’s most famous patient but also the story of Luke’s family. It’s really gripping. I was decades late to the party on Deborah, by David Roberts: a classic mountaineering memoir that’s like no other I’ve read, focused on the dynamics between two climbers rather than the mechanics of the climb.

After my mom’s death last year, I held off for several months before delving into the world of grief memoirs. When I did start reading them, the book I liked best was Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, which mixes personal narrative with some interesting research into the science, history, and literature of grief.

Happy Almost-New Year!

Since I last updated the website (I know, I know) I’ve had a heap of new stuff published. In July, I had three magazine pieces appear: In Canadian Geographic, I wrote a short feature about my experience riding with the bike couriers of Montreal. (The story’s not online, but there’s a short accompanying blog post.) For Outside, I reviewed Blair Braverman’s wonderful new memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. And for Southwest: The Magazine’s national parks issue, I wrote about scattering my mom’s ashes in Canyonland National Park. (The story starts on page 74.)

For Hakai, a new-ish Canadian online magazine based on Vancouver Island, and dedicated to “coastal science and society,” I wrote a quick thing about coastal horror movies, and something longer about a Nunavut community’s fight against oil and gas development – and how Greenpeace got involved.

I wrote a handful of online pieces for The Walrus: dispatches from Pond Inlet and Cambridge Bay, in Nunavut, and a look at the Yukon’s recent territorial election.

I stepped down as a contributing editor for Up Here at the end of May, but I’m still writing for the magazine occasionally – including a profile of my old mining crew chief, a quick dispatch from the Royal Tour, and this short essay about going to survival school.

As always, I’ve got lots more coming soon…

As promised, here’s my feature from the latest issue of Pacific Standard – it’s about the implications of a growing cruise industry in the Northwest Passage, with a focus on what that industry could mean for the people who actually live in the Arctic. I hope you’ll check it out!

There are a couple of online extras to go with the story: A selection of photos from my Northwest Passage cruise last summer, and an interview with the marine biologist who is studying the impact of increased shipping on narwhal in the region.

I also wrote about my most memorable afternoon on the cruise for Up Here: A Meal in Franklin Strait.

I don’t have a ton of stories in the about-to-be-published end of the pipeline right now, but I have a lot of reporting/travel planned for the summer. So stay tuned!

New Stories

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After a long lull, I’ve had a few new stories drop in the last month.

For Longreads, I sat down (well, virtually sat down) with ace freelancers Jason Fagone, Josh Dean, and May Jeong to talk about the business of freelance writing.

Here’s a short essay I wrote for Up Here’s sports issue about the steep learning curve of outdoor sports in the Yukon: Swimming in Cold Water.

And I wrote a dispatch for The Walrus about the challenges of maintaining natural golf greens at 64 degrees north.

I also wrapped up my year-long Pacific Standard column, Dispatches From a Changing Arctic, with one last entry. But that’s not the last you’ll hear from me at Pacific Standard – my print feature story about the impact of a growing cruise industry in the Northwest Passage is due out in May! The photo above was from my incredible cruise through the Passage last summer…

What I Wrote in 2015

I wrote an estimated 100,000 words over this last twelve months. Here are some highlights:

Throughout the year, I wrote a biweekly online column for Pacific Standard about the changing Arctic environment (and how its residents are engaging with those changes): Dispatches From a Changing Arctic. It wraps up in the next few weeks.

Way back in the January issue of Up Here, I wrote about the mysterious appeal of the Yukon Arctic Ultra: Cold Hard Competition. And my story about surfing (or trying to surf) in Tofino ran in the January issue of AFAR: The Far Side.

February and March were busy. I chronicled the rise and fall of the greatest comment section on the internet for Longreads: ‘It’s Yours’: A Short History of the Horde. I mourned the loss of Alaska’s ferry bars for Hazlitt. Over at Deadspin, I asked: What happens to enforcers when hockey uses them up? And I had a lot of fun digging into the history of the lost sport of ski ballet for Grantland (RIP).

One of my favorite stories this year was Unclimbable, for SB Nation Longform. It’s about an amazing group of young climbers I met while traveling in the Northwest Territories in 2014. (It comes with amazing photos by GPB Creative; hire them for all the things.) Also for SB Nation, I wrote about my experience in an extreme endurance canoe race, the Yukon River Quest: Hellbent, But Not Broken. (Photos in this case were by Joel Krahn; give your money to him, also!)

In June, Hazlitt published my story about Ramona Wilson, one of too many young women who’ve gone missing or been found murdered along British Columbia’s Highway of Tears. My story about the Yukon’s landmark Peel watershed land management case appeared in Up Here’s August issue: The Battle For The Peel. And on a lighter note, I wrote about Whitehorse’s own Garbage Truck Santa for The Walrus.

Apart from my column, I didn’t write or publish much in the last few months of the year – I tried to take some time off after my mom’s death. I’ve got big things coming in 2016, though! Happy New Year.

My mom, Katherine Tait, died suddenly from a stroke in late July. This is what I read at her memorial service this past weekend.

I never really thought of my mother as an authority figure. I suppose she would probably have disagreed, but during the 11 years that we lived just the two of us, from when I was 8 to when I was 19, in a sequence of three different apartments on the same block of First Avenue, I thought of us more as roommates – family, but also friends.

We did everything together: grocery shopping; taking our laundry to the laundromat/restaurant/bar around the corner; watching Saturday Night at the Movies or NYPD Blue. We ordered pizza when we didn’t feel like cooking, and went out for Indian food when either one of us had something to celebrate. We stayed up too late talking on weeknights, and often slept in late on weekends.

Later, as an adult, I understood that those were probably lonely and isolating years for my mom. But at the time, it didn’t occur to me that as a thirty-something or early forty-something she might have wanted to be doing something else on New Year’s Eve besides re-watching Mary Poppins with me. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.

When I left for university in Halifax, I worried that I was abandoning her – I didn’t know what she’d do without me. But she’d met Tom by then, and in my first semester away it seemed like more often than not I called home from school and got the answering machine because she was out for a dinner or a party. I guessed I didn’t need to worry after all.

We never lived in the same city again, not for more than a few months at a time anyway. After Halifax I went on to England to do my Masters degree, and outside of school I traveled more and more and further and further. But we always kept in close touch. I called her from Australia and India, Malaysia and Barbados, England and Italy and Utah and Alaska. In the six years since I moved to Whitehorse, we’ve talked on the phone two, three, four, sometimes five times a week. I would tell her about the stories I was working on, which invoices were overdue, or about the ideas I had for my next round of pitches to editors. She would tell me what she was reading lately, and what she and Tom were up to, whether in Kingston or Phoenix.

This past spring, she called me one Saturday morning and told me that it had been 50 years to the day since her mother, Janet, died of colon cancer. I didn’t really know what to say. Janet’s death has sometimes seemed to me like the central fact of my mom’s life: she never fully recovered from it, I don’t think, and it often cast a shadow over her. I’ve been aware of that shadow for as long as I can remember, but her grief wasn’t something I could really understand.

I hoped and expected to have another two or three decades left before I began to understand it, but here we are.

No matter what else was going on in her life, my mom was relentlessly supportive. Even in her worst times, she was unselfish and warm, and she never allowed the shadow that followed her around to fall on me. She was always the first person I wanted to talk to, with good news or bad. I’m not sure what I’m going to do without her.

MORE New Stories

First up, a new feature for Up Here – Seeking Klondike Gold, With Drones.

Second, an essay for Deadspin about the intersection of hockey, fighting, and substance abuse: What Happens to Enforcers When Hockey Uses Them Up?

My most recent Pacific Standard column is about GROLAR BEARS!

And finally, a really fun-to-research piece for Grantland about a forgotten winter sport: The Rise and Fall of Ski Ballet.