Bruce Kirkby, a prolific and world-reknowned adventurer, writer and photographer who calls Kimberley, B.C. home, has published his third book, which he will launch at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.
“Blue Sky Kingdom” is an epic tale that intermingles elements of adventure, spirituality and mental health from the perspective of a family journeying across the world to a remote monastery deep in the Himalaya.
Kirkby’s first adventure was back in 1991. After attaining a degree in engineering physics and then landing what many would consider to be a dream career, he decided to ditch the secure but constraining life in a cubicle and embark on a bike trip through northern Pakistan.
Since then he’s been all over the world: guiding in the Arctic and running support on Everest base camp, completing the first modern crossing of Arabia’s empty quarter on camel, rafting the Blue Nile Gorge from Ethiopia to the Sudan.
He’s written two best-selling books and countless columns for the Globe and Mail, written for Huffington Post, Canadian Geographic and the New York Times and shot photos for National Geographic — to merely scratch the surface of his remarkable resume.
“Blue Sky Kingdom” sees Bruce, his wife Christine and their boys Bodi, then 7, and Taj, then 3, depart from their cozy home in Kimberley in canoes to Golden. From there they hop a train to the coast where they head to Asia from Vancouver on a colossal container ship to Asia, where the real meat of the journey begins.
The family unit, who sought a reprieve from the overwhelming presence of technology and social media, is accompanied by a television crew until their final destination — an isolated Buddhist monastery in Zanskar province in Northern India. The resulting product is a series called “Big Crazy Family Adventure,” which aired on the Travel Channel.
You may be thinking to yourself, ‘is it responsible to bring two young children on such a long, potentially risky trek such as this?’ Kirkby is certainly no stranger to these concerns. Futhermore his boys, even at that point, were no strangers to adventure.
At four, Bodi accompanied his dad and a bunch of goats along a high-altitude 100-mile trek along Utah’s Highline Trail. At two, Taj tagged along as the family paddled the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan.
“We both wanted to teach our boys that travel, just like life, delivers an unending series of challenges — and how we respond is what makes us who we are,” Kirkby writes in “Blue Sky Kingdom.”
The author spoke with the Kimberley Bulletin over Zoom, following a morning of paddle boarding on the rapidly freezing St. Mary Lake, to share some insights on this adventure to Zanskar, and how it represents but one step in a still ongoing life journey for he and his family.
A crucial component of this book is Bruce and Christine’s coming to terms with their son Bodi’s autism diagnosis. In the book, the depth of research the couple did on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) shines through. Just as Kirkby felt an extended excursion and time amongst Buddhist monks would be helpful in his quest to curb his addiction to his devices, he and Christine thought the trip could prove beneficial for Bodi.
“I realize that the book’s in many ways about attention and he’s very good at paying attention,” Kirkby told the Bulletin. “He’s not distracted like the rest of us. In a way, he’s like the Himalayan Buddhists in that he abhors distraction and he’s kind of right in the burning reality of the moment.”
Kirkby acknowledges the fact that disclosing a child’s autism diagnosis is a controversial issue.
“A lot of people are like, ‘the child is the one who should decide and so parents shouldn’t ever tell about a diagnosis’ — I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I can see why people get that, but I mean, what are you teaching your child if you say this is the thing that’s the most central to who you are, but we’re going to keep it a secret until you’re 18?
“I mean that just seems ludicrous, it’s just such a shaky foundation. It’s who Bodi is and he has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Kirkby deftly weaves numerous themes together at once throughout Blue Sky Kingdom. At Karsha Gompa, the monastery that became the family’s home for three months, he sees tremendous growth in his son who begins interacting with his parents and other children in ways they didn’t think were possible just a few months earlier.
At the same time, Kirkby sees a wave of modernity encroaching on this ancient valley, threatening its very culture and way of life as a massive highway project inches closer and closer through the Himalaya.
“I was witnessing Zanskar on the cusp of it being colonized, not in an overt act of colonization, but by the very fact that the massive weight and momentum of modernity once that road was open would unavoidably swamp this culture that had developed over 1000 years and decimate it,” he explained.
“In that I started to realize that there was a resonance between my and Christine’s perhaps unwitting colonization of Bodi.”
That may sound a bit weird, Kirkby admits, but he says he sees more and more parents who have children with a variety of diagnosies, be it ASD, ADHD, dyslexia or anything else, deal with the pressure of helping the child “navigate the world that we see as normal.”
“But in that process we’re kind of bending them towards us, we’re kind of saying, come this way,” Kirkby said. “And that’s important, but there also is a really important part of meeting them over here and being where they are.
“And just in the way with Zanskar, yeah they need the education, they need the medical advances and technology but we need to go there and bend towards them and say ‘oh my god, they’ve got a lot of beautiful skills and abilities and talents, which are exactly what I went to Zanskar to experience. That shouldn’t be lost in the bending of Zanskar towards us.”
Throughout the trip and following the return home and ensuing period of culture shock, Bruce and Christine observed profound positive changes in Bodi’s behaviour and state of mind.
However, just as the journey to that point wasn’t without its hurdles, more challenges were unfortunately in store for Bodi, now 13, not long after returning.
He caught a cold at school, which moved into an ear infection which ledd to an operation which then shut down his digestive track. The past few years have consisted of about 25 hospital trips, 15 to the Calgary Children’s Hospital, trips to Mexico, Switzerland and Texas for treatment and about $70,000 spent on treatments beyond the Canadian healthcare system. In the process, Kirkby said their son, who had progressed so much, started disappearing from them.
“He flourished after this trip,” Kirkby said. “This is the hardest part, he came home, that trip was amazing for him, I think there was a lot of stuff that went on, because he was in the land of non-verbal communications and we all communicate very easily verbally and that’s a challenge at times for Bodi. So he just had this extraordinary period of growth at Karsha Gompa that was so beautiful and so it really was tough to see him struggle after.”