For hundreds of years, men have set their sights on the Northwest Passage. Motivations were primarily trade, beyond the passage. Then as time went on, fur trades were developed in the Arctic as a way to fund further exploration and or at least justify a presence here.
When Roald Amundsen made the passage a reality, he changed the arctic forever. Yet like many accomplishments of man. We lose focus on the why and emulate others. Like parrots we quote men, long dead because we wish to blend our lives with those of our fallen heroes.
I too had immersed myself in this nostalgia.. But these past weeks exploring the Arctic, meeting the people and experiencing them in their homes, on the land and in the schools, my focus changed… There was a nagging in the back of my mind, as to what seems to be missing among us all.
As my friend Jason and I hiked up the Coppermine River a few days ago, I realized what it was. I shall do my best to explain.
Hundreds and hundreds of men, over hundreds of years, died. All trying to open a trade route that has never been truly used for trade. The only shipping that goes in and out of the passage are community supplies for those who live here year round.
Yet somehow we modern “Explorers of the North” have married ourselves to this concept that the passage itself, a Right Of Passage”. A hash mark for our sleeve. Global awareness? Or just a good excuse to do something crazy.
Whatever our motivations, I for one have been missing the point all along. Were not doing anything new, that really helps anybody. Were not carrying goods, or medicine, or knowledge, to those who don’t have it. Were not profiting financially, not are we setting records or proving the impossible as realistic. We are simply enduring challenging conditions in a remote area, where even the fattest wallet cant float you to shore. Simply to pass on that we did it.
So if we aren’t doing anything for others, we must be doing something for us. If that is indeed the case, what are we getting out of it? Personal satisfaction? Bragging rights?
Why are we in this inhospitable place, in sailboats, when 90 percent of the time, sailing is the unacceptable (Slow) option that does not fit into our itineraries
A 3 month motoring race against the ice clock, with sails bundled to the booms and deck, seems simply mad. But regardless of our motivations, we are here. We are doing it for our own reasons. All I can say is for myself, the reasons have changed.
Lets boil this down to the bones and look at what makes a modern passage more doable than they have been in the past. This window of time we live in, has a recipe of contributing factors that has never been seen before, regarding the arctic. I see the basic factors like this.
1. Technology like GPS, autopilot, and reliable diesel engines have empowered recreational explorers, to venture into extraordinary places. In relative comfort. (Barring unexpected breakdowns)
2. The arctic has been warming for the most part, luring part time adventurers, such as myself and also, global political interest to the arctic.
3. Public perception and media propaganda make the Arctic out to be a playground with some ice cubes.
4. This tugs at the heartstrings of “Global Warming” enthusiasts and money is thrust about to “Raise Awareness” etc.
5. True or not, people are motivated to “Do something about it”.
But who do we learn from as we prepare? Most accounts and writings of the arctic explorers are reports of shear tragedy. Poor planning makes for great stories and we gravitate toward them. We study the headlines, and dramatic accounts of the early explorers, where the thrill in the paragraphs of time gone by, make our hearts race. We want to join them! In misery and triumph we wish to celebrate their choices. Right or wrong.
I find this an odd time when we employ our satellites daily, to look at images from outer space, yet follow the paths of dead men who wandered North with scraps of maps, useless compasses. Simply to say we did.
If they saw us now, what would they think?
We should be doing it better, with more purpose, more understanding and more recognition to those that pioneered this land before us.
Those early explorers had purpose in their journeys. Whether it was finding Franklin, or the passage itself. They had clear defined goals. They had business to conduct. Trade to make and cargo to deliver abroad.
Its like we have forgotten that the passage was discovered and have continued the “Getting through” campaign. Yet our purpose is aimless in comparison.
I sought to add purpose to our voyage by identifying it as a “first of its kind” venture. “Route 1 East” was my goal in 2013. But the ice decided otherwise, so I was left to ponder why. Why am I here? Why are any of us here, just to follow the known path. Even if we do make a first passage, we are second place to some other crew, who suffered more, labored harder, or my personal favorite. Failed dramatically and became famous for it.
So what are we doing here anyway? If the arctic was a shopping mall, we would not sprint through it from one end to the other. Glass windows of goodies and trinkets, wiz zing by as we pass. No we would wander around and “See what’s in here” We would go to the food court ant try something new. We would buy a coffee and maybe visit with a stranger. We would explore the mall. We would walk it till our feet are tired and see it all.
I’m here to tell you that the arctic IS a shopping mall of experiences on a monstrous scale. This place is beautiful. From a grand scale to a microscopic one. From the culture and history, to the daily struggles and interactions, the arctic is fascinating.
But most fascinating of all, are the people.
Of all the crown Jewels in the Arctic, the most looked over and ignored, are the people.
Light, Dark, Native or not, the People Of The North are a special breed. Your coldest day is their warmest. In every aspect. Yet for such a hardy people, they are struggling.
The people of the North ore stuck between two worlds. They have one hand on a TV remote control and the other hand on a rifle. With the occasional bottle of booze replacing one or the other.
The elders want so badly to pass on their heritage But the lure of modern man distracts the youth while the elder pass away. Leaving the few who care, a monumental task of keeping heritage alive.
How interesting it is, that we are so fascinated with our own historical failures in the north. Yet care little about the history of those whom thrived here for thousands of years. In ice houses, eating frozen meat, wrapped in hides of animals they harvested with stone tools. How can we ignore such history, when they were the key to any successes we ever had in the North?
They thought us to hunt, trap and survive in the Arctic.
In fact, the only reason Amundsen succeeded at all, was because he was a student of the Arctic people. He humbled himself and learned their ways. Truly. Of all the things we think we have accomplished up here. The greatest discovery was the people who thrived in this frozen barren landscape.
Yet like many things we take for granted. Once we have what we want, we cast it aside. We forget where we came from. We ignore our past and we march on, flags flying for our own cause. Were out for ours and ours alone, as though the people who got us here safely are an accessory to our accomplishments.
Lets take it a step further. I have spent 1 week in Tuktoyuktuk 2 weeks in Cambridge Bay and a week in Kugluktuk. These are 3 prominent communities in the Canadian Arctic. I am not a scientist, but I am a student of life and people. What I see here has me perplexed.
The young people are confused, displaced and socially struggling. Suicide is a major issue with the youth here. Story after story reveals this sad truth and the communities recognize the problem. Somewhere between alcohol and face book. Enough drama to spin a child’s world into a death roll takes place. Kids here are taking their own lives over relationships and the like on a regular basis.
They have no view of the outside world, yet are bound by its rules. They have no place in the traditional world, yet are bound by its traditions.
So as they work to find their place in a modern world, what are we doing to find our place in theirs?
I say they have adapted better than we sadly. They pay taxes and work. They eat modern food with preservatives and exposure to global diseases we bring. They adapt because they have no choice.
But we are not adapting. We are arrogant in our way I am afraid. We are watching them die off, taking thousands of years of tradition, skill and knowledge to the grave. Simply because we thing we can engineer our way through this place. We think we can dominate it. We as a people looking from the South to the North are no further along in being students of these people, than the early explorers, who killed and ate each other in desperation to live, as the worm comfortable “Savages” looked on with disbelief.
If we knew half of what these people have forgotten about the arctic, its climate and its wildlife. Than they have already forgotten. We would have no need for research teams and ice breakers.
If we knew what they knew, we would be humbly adapting our ventures North, to the rhythm of this place. We would not fight the ice, we would float with it. We would keep it simple. We would enjoy the beauty of this place, as well as its bounty. We would appreciate everything we had. Our meals, our moments and our families.
To sum up my pondering…
How is it that a people, whom lived in such a challenging place, for so long, and thrived so well. Are now taking their own lives by the cluster, while surrounded by all the modern comforts of man? Truly progression is in the eyes of the beholder.
I don’t yet know If there is any thing I can do about this. But I see it and am learning from it.
The other day, a local Inuit sold me a caribou leg and some seal meat. He asked what I was going to do with it. I told him I was going to eat it. (Which I did). E looked at me funny and later told me he was selling stuff to get some pizza for his family. That meat made 5 meals for 5 people and there is plenty left
Several other men have tried to sell me carvings. Incredible carvings. Such as tiny polar bears from Alabaster stone. Smaller than a thumbnail yet detailed to perfection. These carvings and others like them are to detailed for me to articulate. Absolutely masterful. Yet they are sold for seemingly nothing. A stone igloo, the size of a melon, with a lift off dome and full interior details and furnishings goes for $100-200 dollars on the street.
Part of me wants to buy one, even though I’m a broke dreamer, drifting through the Arctic, finding my way back to Alaska, where I live and work.
Part of me just cant do it. That carving should go for thousands. Yet its proceeds will fund a small bag of groceries at best.
It’s not to late though and I am glad to have recognized the purpose for my journey to this place. To know and see these people for all they are. To accept their help and return mine. To filter through the fodder and hype of modern life and catch a glimpse of a disappearing culture.
If I had my sights set freshly on the Arctic. It would not be for a record breaking passage. It would be just as it has become. A slow saunter under sail, toward the “Crown Jewel of the North”… It’s people.