The Shadow Knows

Text & photo by Virginia Parker Staat

“Beware the ides of March.”  ~ William Shakespeare

Eric and sign

Six-foot-plus Eric is dwarfed by the simple sign.

Would Eric really do it?

As I write this, we have just come off the Dempster Highway, one of my favorite roads on the planet. This road is the most northern you can drive in Canada during the summer. After six visits by ourselves to the remote area, this year David and I invited friends to join us. Five flew from North Carolina to Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Two flew from the Los Angeles area. We, of course, drove from Texas.

Our goal was to travel 904 miles from Whitehorse to Tuktoyaktuk (or Tuk for short) and back in ten days. Only the section between Whitehorse and Dawson City is paved. The remaining 680 miles is rugged gravel road that traverses over the Richardson Mountains, across the Arctic Circle, into Canada’s Northwest Territory, through the Mackenzie Delta, and ending at the Arctic Ocean. The group rented two truck campers so that we could caravan in three rigs.

When we met our friends at the motel in Whitehorse, seventeen-year-old Eric announced that he planned to dive into the Arctic Ocean. Over the next four days, we all wondered if he would really do it. We talked about it. We speculated about it. We worried about it.

The majority of the Dempster Highway was completed in 1978. The final, ninety-mile road from Inuvik to Tuk was opened in November 2017. It weaves through the southern Arctic plains and Beaufort Coast, ending at the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The morning we drove the Tuk portion of the Dempster, the skies were heavy and grey. We had intermittent rain and a bit of sleet. The road was in fair condition in spite of the previous week’s heavy rainfall. We found areas of washboard and sloggy gravel, but, for the most part, the roadbed was solid and easily traveled.

Along the way, we spied Sandhill cranes, Snow geese, and a variety of ducks circling in small flocks, each group working to build wing strength for recently fledged chicks and their upcoming long migration. We drove past wetlands and thousands of shallow lakes. Only a few dwarf trees dotted the barren but beautiful landscape.

Eric was riding with us. At one point he asked if the water temperature would be in the seventies. I said it would probably be in the forties or less.

Eric is an excellent basketball player. David asked him if he had ever had an ice bath after an injury. Eric said, “Will it be that cold?”

When we arrived in Tuk, we stopped at the welcome sign to take a group photo. The gale-force wind surprised us. I had to push against the truck door with all my might just to open it. All of us were wearing as many layers of clothing as we could. I had on five. In the fierce wind, using a tripod was not an option, so the group photo is minus me.

When we got back into the truck, David spoke about the wind chill factor and how much colder it would be because of it. Eric said, “I can’t back out now. I’ve already told all my friends I would do it.”

He wanted us to drive straight to the ocean. When we arrived, our truck’s external temperature gauge registered 39 degrees. A local lady told us that the water temperature was around 35 degrees.

Eric quickly changed into his swim trunks and made his way down the steps to the Arctic Ocean. He glanced back to look at all of us huddled along the shore, then he boldly walked into the churning grey water. When he was waist deep, he turned again to face us, raised his arms, and fell backwards into the bitterly cold water, submerging entirely. He came up gasping.

“Beware the ides of March,” writes William Shakespeare. And we readers know that something terrible will happen on that day. When Juliet says, “My grave is like to be my wedding bed,” we readers wonder.

Shakespeare was a master at using the literary device called foreshadowing. It is an important writing tool to add dramatic tension to our stories. Foreshadowing helps readers feel more invested in our work. They begin to guess the outcome, leading them to continue reading. Author Susan Mary Malone explains foreshadowing, ‘For a novelist and a writer of narrative nonfiction, the point of this literary device is to add depth, build suspense, and most importantly, to make that future event “fit” in the main plot, character development, and overall narrative.’

We create this kind of suspense by inserting both subtle and direct clues into our work. We hint at possibilities. We inject ominous omens. We change tone or mood through imagery, symbolism, and language. We ask questions like I did at the beginning of the story about Eric’s Arctic plunge.

The old time radio show began, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” Writers use foreshadowing in the same manner. We are the omnipotent power that plants clues and hints in our writing to build suspense and tension. Foreshadowing is one of the most effective writing tools we use to keep our readers’ attention.