Arctic Enlightenment

Northwest Territories Travel Blog

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We know more about outer space than our polar oceans. During British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s first visit to President Obama’s White House, he gifted Obama a framed commissioning paper for the HMS Resolute, a barque-rigged Royal Navy Ship that came to symbolize British-American goodwill when it was trapped by Arctic icebergs, rescued by an American whaler and returned to Queen Victoria in 1856. Until I traversed these north polar waters in icebreaker mode and landed on an Inuit island named after that ship, I’d only imagined defining resolute.

My 2,000 nautical mile Russian icebreaker voyage through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage navigated the same bays and narrow, ice-choked channels that immobilized or killed explorers (including Henry Hudson) for 400 years until a crafty Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, completed the Atlantic-to-Pacific voyage in 1905.
Tracking those really real men, we explored Canadian Arctic islands, most uninhabited, others home to native Inuit. This polar history lesson is spiced with hikes, kayaking and encounters with fringe-of-civilization survivors formerly called Eskimos. It’s another galaxy up here, where note-takers clutch pencils because pens freeze.

The voyage started in Cambridge Bay, an isolated frontier settlement on Victoria Island. Like every hamlet in the High Arctic, “Christmas” comes in the form of one barge delivery per year, which means realizing one annual shopping list. ATVs buzz along dirt roads. 
Pointing at a teenager’s ATV, I inquire, “That ATV must be fun on the beach?” “We don’t have a TV,” he replies, indicating that I’m surely off the grid.

At first, the High Arctic land scenery, if beheld by unromantic eyes, resembles a lifeless Montana mine-scape shrouded in February mist. But it was early September and winter soon laid a snowy frost on the drab but dramatic, brown, ice age cataclysm rubble. This desolate, inhospitable tundra is windswept and treeless, though, up close, many rocks are fluorescent with orange lichen. Tundra vegetation includes flowering plants, grasses, sedges, mosses and dwarfed shrubs. Cold, dead-brown buttes sprinkled with glacial debris flank the waterways. Occasionally, rocky cliff faces loom over the dark waters, chock-full of floating ice sculptures that accentuate the dazzling Arctic radiance. Treading these lands is a sacred privilege that comes with environmental responsibility.
Nothing is disturbed, whether it be lichens or caribou, who endure the longest over-land migration—2,000 miles—of any animal. Due to weather, waves and other nautical surprises, many landfall decisions are last minute.

Whales are plentiful; we learn to differentiate their “blow types.” Bowhead whales, with side-by-side blowholes (like ours) create a bushy blow, while narwhal whales have a straight, geyser-like blow. Other wildlife sightings include bearded seals, grizzlies and Arctic fox.

Inuit is used to refer collectively to these Arctic peoples. Inuk is the singular form of Inuit and is used when referring to an individual. People actually live up here, unlike Antarctica, which by law has no population except for visiting scientists.
Known for centuries as Eskimos, the Inuit look like very well fed Thai people. Inuit’s noses have low bridges, like Asians, whereas Indians from lower North America have higher, stronger nose bridges. Blood typing has verified that they’re not related to Native Americans, likely because they arrived via different migrations. Before “civilization” they had no class structure or recognized form of government. Money traditionally meant nothing (except perhaps, cigarettes). Children seem to be interchangeable, and traded amongst family and friends. There are no rules for the kids—Inuit don’t like to say no. Adoption is an integral part of society. The fluidity of kid transfers remains undramatic. They’re also not big on small talk, silence is accepted and normal—hellos and goodbyes are unnecessary.
Hospitality requires no thank yous and handshakes are pointless. Today, many younger indigenous Inuit live in hamlets, listen to iPods, watch satellite television and chat on telephones. Boats with outboard motors have replaced skin kayaks, rifles have replaced harpoons, snowmobiles have replaced sled dogs and prefab cabins have replaced igloos. But you still get a sense that they’re connected to their departed spirits.

The Northwest Passage, the world’s most dangerous shortcut, is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unlike Antarctica (the bottom), a continent shielded by an ocean, the Arctic is an ocean encircled by continents. Also unlike Antarctica, which was forever environmentally protected by the globally signed 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the five countries encircling and laying claim to the Arctic region (Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the US via Alaska) have yet to agree on anything.

Without an Arctic Treaty, the vast Arctic Ocean, which is six times larger than the Mediterranean Sea, implores urgent geopolitical questions. Who is going to manage the Northwest Passage, which will, as the meltdown continues, outmode the Panama Canal’s 40 locks and 40 thousand per ship transit fee? Canada righteously considers these “internal waters” and seems to have the leg up for now regarding shipping lane control. The other geopolitical time bombs are the rights to tapping the region’s impending oil, natural gas, mining and tourism booms. The saber rattling over Arctic territorial claims has begun—with the USA declaring the passage international waters, Russia claiming the North Pole’s seabed and Canadian sovereignty simply pointing at their map.
Add our globe’s rising fever—the disappearance of Arctic summer ice not only destroys polar bear, seal and Arctic peoples’ habitat, but also reinforces global warming because open water absorbs more solar energy than ice. Ouch. Eventually we’re all going to realize that we’re in this together—everyone on my boat did.

As the Northwest Passage opens for business, Arctic political diplomacy will shut down. The anticipated commercial shipping lane will further bleach the Inuit way of life, turning their knowing glimpses into the gaze of climate refugees. What happens next is largely up to us. Just as winds are designated by the direction they blow from rather than to, a polar adventure reminds us that the Earth’s warm-up is coming, not going. Man’s partaking in polar visitation is our last chance to do things right; footprints here can last a thousand years. Where the law is silent, ethics should speak.
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