Northwest Territories Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
December 4th, 2009 – by: americandetour
My 2,000 nautical mile Russian icebreaker voyage through the Arcticâ€™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.
The voyage started in Cambridge Bay, an isolated frontier settlement on Victoria Island. Like every hamlet in the High Arctic, â€śChristmasâ€ť comes in the form of one barge delivery per year, which means realizing one annual shopping list. ATVs buzz along dirt roads. â€¨Pointing at a teenagerâ€™s ATV, I inquire, â€śThat ATV must be fun on the beach?â€ť â€śWe donâ€™t have a TV,â€ť he replies, indicating that Iâ€™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.
Whales are plentiful; we learn to differentiate their â€śblow types.â€ť 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.
The Northwest Passage, the worldâ€™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 Canalâ€™s 40 locks and 40 thousand per ship transit fee? Canada righteously considers these â€śinternal watersâ€ť and seems to have the leg up for now regarding shipping lane control. The other geopolitical time bombs are the rights to tapping the regionâ€™s impending oil, natural gas, mining and tourism booms. The saber rattling over Arctic territorial claims has begunâ€”with the USA declaring the passage international waters, Russia claiming the North Poleâ€™s seabed and Canadian sovereignty simply pointing at their map.
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 Earthâ€™s warm-up is coming, not going. Manâ€™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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