In his beautiful new book, Northwind, children’s author Gary Paulsen tells the story of a boy named Leif who finds himself on a solo journey through the northcountry in a dugout canoe.
Leif was born to parents “of no remembered name,” and quickly became an orphan. He’s taken in by a sailing community and is raised on the docks, moving from one ship to another, feeding himself from the crew’s castoffs, gleaning enough skills to make himself worthy of their keep.
He finally finds something of a home among a group of seal hunters, but this falls apart as their camp is infected with “a sickness.” Old Carl, the closest to a father figure Leif has, shoves him and another smaller boy, Little Carl, into a canoe with a few supplies an tells them to go north and not stop, don’t ever return.
Little Carl is unable to escape the sickness, but Leif does, and begins his journey north alone.
He sails through inlets and fjords, encountering whales and dolphins, bears and birds of all kinds. He pulls salmon from the water and blackberries off the bushes that seem to grow everywhere.
He spends time alone in his thoughts, deciphering his dreams, and trying to remember his mother. But more than anything, he commits his life to learning. Or rather, he discovers his life depends on it.
Learning how to navigate a canoe through waters whose currents are always shifting. Learning how to coexist with the myriad of creatures that surround him. Learning how to find balance in so many different situations. To keep his canoe wet, but not too wet. Dry, but not too dry.
Near the end of the story, Leif comes to understand just how central this has become to his life and to his journey. Paulsen writes,
“He thought briefly of turning south, back down into the country of small islands and many inlets, but it was only a thought and his body kept paddling the canoe along the bank…pushed by some reflexive and instinctive curiosity that kept him moving, kept him wanting to know more.
Did that have to enter everything that happened to him?
So there it was: to learn.”
There is something clarifying about naming the commitment to learning as the true heart of a journey. It’s not just the steps we take or the miles we travel, but what we learn from them that is important, even essential. Leif’s story—and perhaps all stories of journey, even all childhoods—is really a celebration of curiosity.
It’s through curiosity that we come to appreciate the complexity and wonder of creation and the depths of the human spirit. It’s how we continue to grow, how we come to be a more complete, more mature version of ourselves. It is not how we thrive, but how we survive.
Here at the start of this new year, but one in which we continue on what has been a nearly two-year-long journey, I wonder if this is the message we need to hear. Even as the monotony of masks and tests and quarantines and delayed and cancelled events rolls on, like canoe paddles pulling through an arctic fjord, so much depends on our ability to learn and remain curious within it. Curious about ourselves and each other, and this world we cannot help but share.