Monday, December 24, 2012

Lillian Alling: the Journey Home - Susan Smith-Josephy

This past summer I tackled what I thought to be an ambitious hike on the rugged and isolated West Coast Trail, which runs for 75km along the west coast of Vancouver Island. All supplies had to be carried on my back, water was drawn from streams crossing the trail, and should there have been an accident help was only available at beaches often a long distance and many vertical metres over difficult, technical terrain from trail mid-points. My equipment was modern, and I knew that even if evacuation was needed, once there it would be by speedy boat or helicopter.

However, this trek compares not at all with that undertaken by Lillian Alling. For reasons known only to her, Lillian decided to walk home – to Russia or Poland – from New York City, a distance of about 7000km by plane over the Northwest Territories, starting in late 1926. She had little money, few supplies, and was traveling at a time where the western part of Canada was even less developed between major cities than it is now. In fact, cities like Vancouver were not even 50 years old. This, coupled with her intensely introverted character, is what makes her story even more compelling and resulting in her becoming the mysterious legend she is today.

Many articles and books have been written about Lillian Alling over the years, and Susan Smith-Josephy does an admirable job adding to the literature surrounding her life and travels by injecting her own opinions and inferences. Smith-Josephy also carried out her own research as she tried to unearth clues that might shed new light on Lillian’s life. However, it seems she was able to discover little more about Lillian from the time she entered Canada at Niagara Falls in December 1926 and when she turned up in Winnipeg in the spring of 1927, one source citing the date of 1 March. Smith-Josephy muses:

“…if she walked approximately eight hours per day through the rough up-and-down terrain of the Canadian Shield, it would have taken her at least two months to walk the 2100 kilometres from Niagara Falls to Winnipeg…Winter, however, was not the best time to be setting out on a journey through Canadian Shield country. Sudbury’s average temperature in January is -13.7C…while the average snowfall in January is 54cm…”.

What is actually known is based primarily on what was put in writing by Lillian herself or by others along the way in their journals, letters and newspapers. Occasionally Lillian checked in with the RCMP, stayed with families in their farmhouses, worked in kitchens, and even spent time in Oakalla Prison in Vancouver after an officer arrested her to prevent her from hiking northern BC’s mountains through the winter. Constable George Wyman recalled that:

“…she was so scantily clad and had no firearms or anything to see her through that country…When I first saw her, she was wearing running shoes. She had a knapsack with a half-dozen sandwiches in it, some tea and some other odds and ends…”
As Lillian traveled north along the Telegraph Trail from BC into the Yukon, she was often assisted by those she met. People shared their cabins, rustic as they were, and gave her food and clothing and companionship even though it seemed like that was the one thing Lillian needed least. The last known offers of assistance in the Yukon came from a job working at a hostel throughout the winter when she was unable to travel, and a boat to take her downstream on the Yukon River to a point where she could then walk to the Seward Peninsula and Nome. It is not surprising that she was given assistance despite her awkwardness and the fact she was a stranger as in remote, rugged and dangerous places people look out for each other regardless. The courage – or the determination – Lillian must have had to climb mountains, ford raging rivers, and accept possible grizzly encounters is amazing.

What Smith-Josephy did with this biography that makes it effective for a reader is interspersing throughout the narrative archival photographs and brief descriptions of the small towns in BC, Alaska and the Yukon through which Lillian did – or most likely – pass through. It provides a sense of the difficult lifestyle of the people living here and gives insight into why there is so little evidence of Lillian’s presence there. My only complaint with this book, a minor one, involves these historical anecdotes. The book’s format meant placing the anecdotes mid-chapter broke up the narrative, and I often was flipping a few pages forward to continue a paragraph before reaching a good place to stop to read the anecdote.

To say any more would be a spoiler, and I think that anyone who loves adventurers, mysteries and history should read this book. Lillian Alling was truly an extraordinary woman.

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