In Conversation with Bruce Kirkby
IN CONVERSATION WITH
I recently had the chance to read Blue Sky Kingdom by Bruce Kirkby, and was completely blown away while reading about the trip he and his family took. The book is written diary style, and begins in Himachal Pradesh in Northern India, very close to where I spent several months a few years ago.
I felt lucky to have the chance to catch up with Bruce over email to ask him some questions about life, travel advice, and how COVID-19 has affected his expeditions. A full review of the book follows our discussion.
I really loved Blue Sky Kingdom, but I know that's just one of many incredible adventures you've been on. Visiting your website is like opening a copy of the National Geographic. Could you tell me about the most recent trip you took?
Thanks for the kind words, Sean.
Our family undertakes a major paddling trip each during summer—a chance to leave busy modern lives behind and replenish that shared well of connection we built in Zanskar. With COVID restrictions delaying our plans to visit the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan this year, we turned our eyes instead to our home province of British Columbia. Launching on the Columbia River near Golden, we spent 21 days following remote lakes and reservoirs, finally taking out at the town Nakusp on the Arrow Lakes. It was another reminder of how many wonders lie close to home (I think this might be a silver lining of the COVID pandemic); we saw bears and loons, incredible sunsets and violent windstorms. We even were adopted by a juvenile brown-headed cowbird, who sat on our heads and shoulders, and travelled with us for five days!
Not long after I spent 10 days on the outer coast with my expedition partner Norm Hann, rounding the notorious waters of Cape Scott by paddleboard—another reminder of how much beauty lies close to home.
How has COVID been affecting your expeditions?
Obviously, all my international travel plans were put on indefinite hold! But rather feeling like an imposition, I’ve truly savoured the chance to feel anchored for a time. After flying 50 times a year for the past 20 years, I haven’t stepped on a plane for almost 15 months… and I feel better for it. I continue to build lots of local plans---there are no shortage of things to do within a day’s drive our home in Kimberley, BC. When things open up again, I’ll look forward to ranging more broadly. One thing on the agenda is a year of surfing in remote locales with our boys.
What was the most challenging part about writing Blue Sky Kingdom?
We were a family of four, living in an eight-foot by eight-foot mud brick room, for three months. And day after day, the same things happened—puja, prayers, tea, teaching. So my biggest challenge was shaping those repetitive hours and days into a journey, that carried the reader forwards, to a new place of understanding. Trying to share how the time was subtly reshaping our family. Momentum might be too strong a word, but I sought to imbue the narrative with a sense of forward motion, of progression I suppose.
Initially I relied on my journal to jot out a linear series of scenes, from our arrival at Karsha Gompa to departure. Afterwards, I printed the entire 100,000-word manuscript out in 5-point font, then cut it in individual scenes which I arranged on the floor of my office. As I shuffled things around, bit by bit, themes and bigger narrative elements emerged.
I've always dreamed of doing the PCT or the Appalachian Trail. What advice would you give to someone like me, heading on their first thru-hike?
I think my primary piece of advice—whether it is a long thru-hike, or visiting Africa, or learning to sea kayak—would be to just start. And the sooner the better. I think people often feel held back because they don’t ‘know enough’ yet. But the vast majority of what we learn takes place on the trail. No number of visits to gear stores or google searching can match a day of walking. Or paddling. So I’d say, ‘Start! Just go. Now.’ Of course don’t get in too deep, and always leave yourself a way out, but just start. From there, the rest will become clear. I promise!
You have accomplished so much already. What else is left on your bucket list?
The funny thing is the more I do, the more opportunities I become aware of. So instead of running out of ideas, the list is growing ever longer. I think as we mature our goals subtly shift, and I place a priority on finding meaning and connection in my days and travels, spending time with my family whenever I can. I continue to push the ‘limits’ of expedition paddleboarding, simply because I find so much reward in those days. I’m also hoping to spend a year surfing with my family—surfing to me represent the yin to meditation’s yang; a graceful physical activity that forces once to live entirely in the moment. There are places in Africa and Indonesia I’m itching to visit. Antarctica too. I guess I can’t slow down yet!
Review of Blue Sky Kingdom
Through Bruce's vividly descriptive prose, I felt like I was transported back there joining his family for the trip. Kirkby's adventure was exactly what I needed to read about, at a time where I find myself both craving a trip to somewhere exotic, and also wanting to cleanse myself of social media and the constant cell phone checking that pulls me away from friends and family.
Like Kirkby before his "cheerios epiphany," I feel out of touch with the present moment.
"The last thing I did before locking up was turn off my iPhone and toss it in the drawer. Anyone sending an email in the coming six months would receive an auto-response: Back in November. Sorry for the inconvenience."
When Bruce made the decision to proceed with the trip, it might have seemed like he was closing himself off to the world, when in fact, he was just reconnecting with it. Really reconnecting with it. I loved reading about the entire journey, and especially enjoyed hearing about Bruce's wife Christine, with whom I have quite a bit in common with. She's a long-time practitioner of meditation and yoga and is "an innately spiritual woman, with interests that spilled into psychics, seers, shamans, auras, and the deleterious effects of Mercury in retrograde," Bruce says when describing her.
My favourite part of this book was reading about all the people they met along the way. I felt it gave me some sense of insight into the lives and cultures of those that they connected with. It felt deeply intimate at times. Despite all the roadblocks that could have put an end to the trip, Bruce and his family persevered, which made this story all the more inspirational. I also really appreciated the rawness and vulnerability that Bruce displayed while telling his story.
All in all, this was a deeply moving and thought-provoking family memoir told through the eyes of Bruce, as he worked to reconnect with the other members of his family through the magic of nature and travel. Bruce's prose is adventurous and vivid, and he successfully took me to all sorts of places in my mind.
I highly recommend this book if you're a fan of travel, or if you're trying to reconnect with your family or loved ones in a society so severely impacted by social media. The story is told in a realistic and down to earth manner, so I felt, although I'm not a father, that I could still relate entirely to it. Blue Sky Kingdom left me with a hole in my heart for India, and with so much inspiration for my next adventure.
Bruce Kirkby is a wilderness writer and adventure photographer. He is recognized for connecting wild places with contemporary issues. With journeys spanning more than 80 countries and 2000 days, Bruce’s accomplishments include the first modern crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter by camel, a raft descent of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge by raft, sea kayak traverse of Borneo’s northern coast, and a coast-to-coast Icelandic trek. A columnist for The Globe and Mail, author of two bestselling books, and a multi-National Magazine Award winner, Bruce’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, enRoute, Huffington Post, Explore and Canadian Geographic.