Local senior publishes book about a father-son rite of passage

Published on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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In 1987, Semiahmoo resident Steven Windell and his son Erik piloted a 19.5-foot motorboat from Seattle to Glacier Bay, Alaska, a distance of 2,400 miles, in 24 days.

The journey was a rite of passage for the boy, who had just graduated high school. For Steven, the true meaning of the journey would not become fully clear until he sat down to put his emotions surrounding the trip into words 20 years later. Windell recently published a book about the adventure, called Transcending the Gordian Knot.

Windell was born in Portland, Oregon in 1939 and now lives in Semiahmoo. A retired Certified Public Accountant and Chief 
Financial Officer, he is also an accomplished photographer, and his work can be seen hanging in the Peace Arch City Café.

The trip to Alaska with his son opened Windell’s eyes to the environment and its ability to impact the human spirit, and it also showed him the importance of nurturing his relationship with his son as Erik made the transition to adulthood. 

Along the way, Windell dictated each day’s events into a voice recorder, and although his secretary transcribed the recordings after the trip, any thoughts of writing a book about the adventure took a backseat to life.

“I threw it in a drawer and didn’t look at it for 20 years,” Windell said. “As time went on and I thought about the impact the trip had on me, I decided to try and put it into words.”

One day, Windell sat down and wrote a poem in three and a half hours. In it, he described the inevitable change in the relationship between fathers and sons during a son’s transition to adulthood, and the challenge of maintaining the bonds of love when a son becomes independent. The trip to Alaska was a crucial part of that transition for the Windells.

“We had always been a very close family, but as my son and daughter grew up, they spent less and less time with my wife and I and more and more time with their friends. That’s the way it goes for most families, I think,” Windell said. “When my son graduated high school, I realized he’d be off on his own soon, and I made some time to take a father-son trip. I asked him where he’d want to go. Going to Alaska was his idea.”

Boating from Seattle to Alaska in a 19.5-foot motorboat was an adventure with its fair share of peril. The inland waterways were no trouble, but when the duo emerged to the open Pacific Ocean, they encountered 40-knot winds as they exited Glacier Bay.

The Windells met many engaging characters along their journey. Some marveled at the boldness of making the trip in a relatively small motorboat.

“We got some dubious comments from fishermen,” Windell said.

Windell was inspired by the stunning coastal topography he witnessed along the journey, and he endeavored to document what he saw with photographs that can be found throughout his book. Massive glaciers carve ice chunks into the bays and inlets along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. One of the glaciers the Windells encountered was the Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, which was named after naturalist John Muir. The Muir Glacier can no longer be seen from the Muir Inlet because it has melted and retreated miles up the valley.

Twenty years later, Windell put pen to paper and wrote the poem that summed up his feelings about the trip. The poem solidified what Windell had come to suspect: that the trip meant much more to him than a simple father-son adventure. The poem  now appears at the end of Transcending the Gordian Knot.

At first, Windell was reluctant to share his poem with others. A lifelong dyslexic, he was somewhat embarrassed about his spelling. But when he finally shared the poem with a friend, it moved her to tears. It became clear to him that the poem conveyed some universal truths, and with more encouragement from others, Windell eventually decided to write a book about the adventure.

He started writing two chapters a week, using his dictated journal from the trip as the main thread and adding in descriptive passages to help convey his emotions.

“The essence was there in the journal, but I did a lot of writing around it to add depth and description. I was a businessman when I dictated the journal, so it was strictly a factual account of what happened each day,” Windell said.

“Once I put my mind to it, I persevered,” Windell said. He had written the poem in 2006 and started writing the book in 2011. Two and a half years later, the book was finished and edited, and he published it in 2014.

“There are three main points to the book. There’s the boat trip itself, which had its adventurous moments, there’s my passion for the outdoors and nature which the trip helped inspire, but the most important piece is the rite of passage for my son and I, and how the trip impacted our relationship,” Windell said.

More than 100 copies of the book have sold so far, and Windell has received email and correspondence from readers who appreciate the book and its message. For Windell, the idea that the book has been a positive influence in other people’s lives has been fulfilling. The most satisfying part of publishing his book, he said, was the process of articulating the lessons of a meaningful event in his past - a trip with his young adult son.

“My relationship with my son as an adult evolved out of that trip, and the book is the culmination and codification of those emotions coming together,” Windell said.

Transcending the Gordian Knot, which includes beautiful photos and hand-drawn maps of the trip, can be found at Village Books in Fairhaven, Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop, bookstores in Seattle and online at transcendingthegordianknot.com.