Travelling Tales: Exploring during NSSM

by Alex Bell

The idea of exploring unknown places has always been fascinating to me. In years gone by, people really had no idea what they might find when they set out for the great horizon, but they went anyway. It’s interesting to wonder about the type of person who would commit themselves to such a thing.

One of my inspirations for writing The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club series was that I happened to watch a documentary one Christmas about a man named John Wesley Powell.  He’d recently returned home from the American Civil War having lost one of his arms in battle. This didn’t quench his thirst for adventure, though, and he decided he didn’t want to return to his teaching job, but was going to be the first person to paddle the entire length of the Grand Canyon instead.

He struggled to get funding for this expedition because the government said that the rapids of the Colorado River were too dangerous, even for someone who had both their arms. Nevertheless, he managed to raise the funds himself, put together a ten-man crew and they set off in four wooden boats. It was indeed perilous, and only six of them made it back, including Powell – but they managed to prove to the world that something like this could be done, even though everyone had said it was impossible.

Given the danger and uncertainty involved, I think it must take a particularly adventurous kind of person to seek out this kind of life. They’d need to have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a daredevil’s longing for thrills and escapades. I wanted to bring an element of this to my explorers in the Polar Bear books – the sense that exploring is something they’re driven to do, almost a compulsion, from quite a young age.

My main character, Stella, has grown up with an explorer father and has always loved hearing stories of his adventures, but at the start of the first book she’s got to the stage where it’s not enough to hear these second hand anymore – she wants to live and breathe them herself. And because she loves maps and compasses, she wants to be a navigator.

Whilst researching real-life expeditions, I loved the fact that each individual member of the team had their own specialism or interest they were pursuing. In John Wesley Powell’s group, for example, there was a hunter, a trapper, a mountain main, a cook and an expedition chronicler. In the Polar Bear books I featured some real world vocations such as medics and entomologists (the study of bugs) alongside magicians and fairyologists.

The important thing is that most explorers don’t only want to explore for the thrill of the adventure itself; they want to learn more about the world too. So perhaps the most crucial characteristic for an explorer – even more than strength and bravery – is curiosity. If they weren’t absolutely compelled to find out more about the world, and how it works and why, then they’d probably never leave their armchairs. Especially since most expeditions come with the risk of sailing over a waterfall, freezing on a mountainside or, in the case of The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, being chased by irate yetis and carnivorous cabbages.

This is a guest post by Alex Bell for NSSM and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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