LESSONS FROM CANOEING THE ARCTIC
Wilberforce Falls, Hood River, Nunavut, Canada
My first Arctic canoe trip was on the Hood River, Nunavut (formerly, Northwest Territories), Canada, in 1982. We ended at Bathurst Inlet two days early, so to kill time, we hiked to a traditional Inuit campsite about three miles away. It was a beautiful spot, nestled in hills all around, with a fetching view of the ocean. Dozens of ancient well-used fire-rings dotted the ground. But spoiling the view were hundreds of disposable diapers. They were in various stages of decomposition; their contents long gone.
For a long time I just stood there dumbfounded, wondering how people could trash such a beautiful place. I came to these conclusions:
There are no trash cans or scheduled trash pick-up here.
The permafrost would defy burial.
Burning would be difficult (there is no wood to maintain a fire) and it would produce profound pollution.
Flying out waste/garbage on a chartered airplane at roughly a dollar per pound per mile (in 1982) is a no-go.
What to do?
Fact is, these native people were just doing what they had done for centuries—tossing out stuff that was no longer useful. In the past, this was largely fish and animal remains which are biodegradable—and which disappeared in a season. But modern waste is plastic and metal that hang around for a very long time. Most Canadians and Americans have weekly trash pickup; garbage goes to a landfill or is burned or recycled. Drinking water comes from wells or a water-treatment plant. But those who live in remote communities above the Arctic Circle have fewer options. Waste disposal and water treatment are serious problems in the far north where winter temperatures can reach minus 50 degrees and the ground is frozen year round.
If you canoe the rivers that flow into Hudson Bay (North/South Knife, Seal, Caribou,Thlewiaza-Tha-anne) you’ll likely end your trip at Churchill or Arviat. Paddling many miles on the ocean to reach these communities is not a wise option: the water is bitterly cold, tides are significant—a low tide can strand you on a mudflat half-a-mile from shore; high winds/waves develop quickly, and hungry polar bears swim the Bay and stalk the shoreline. Better to charter a power boat for the final leg to these communities.
On one North Knife River trip (I’ve made three), my crew were unwilling participants in a whale hunt. Shortly after our charter boat picked us up for the run to Churchill, the radio began to blare. Our pilot’s brother-in-law had cornered a Beluga whale in a small bay and needed help to get it. The two men talked in Inuktitut (a beautiful lyrical language) so we couldn’t understand what they were saying. But soon, the other boat—and whale—materialized. A shot was fired and the dead whale was hauled aboard. Butchering took barely two minutes. Everyone was sullen and silent as the men worked. But later, in Churchill, the judgment calls began. Some were horrified; others understood that flying hamburger and steak to northern outpost communities is frightfully expensive. Remote Arctic communities still obtain much of their protein from the land and the sea.
I’m perusing a tourist shop in Churchill, Manitoba. A pair of ivory earrings has caught my eye and I know my daughters would love them. I tell the salesman I’d buy them but U.S. customs won’t allow the importation of “Eskimo Ivory”. At this, the man launches into a polite rant. He says that the Intuits are not allowed to kill walrus just for their ivory ("head-hunting" is illegal). They kill them for their meat—and they’ve been doing that for thousands of years. In the old days, they made tools from the tusks. Today, the tusks are more valuable when carved into works of art.
STILL ANOTHER STORY
It’s about 50 miles from the mouth of the Tha-anne River to the Inuit community of Arviat on Hudson Bay. At typical power boat speeds, the run takes several hours.
Our charter boat has just arrived in Arviat and the pilot is tying up to shore. The gang plank is down and we’re preparing to exit the boat when a man walks up and yells:
“Hold it right there! You ain’t welcome if you’re from Greenpeace!”
“No, we’re canoeists!” We reply.
He dives into this story:
He says they had a polar bear hunt scheduled earlier in the year but Greenpeace pressured the hunters to cancel it--and that one polar bear hunt brings over 10,000 dollars (it’s much more today!) into the local community. Guides and skinners are hired; hunters stay at the local hotel (there’s only one!); they buy food and gear, etc. He says that the town is really ticked at Greenpeace for nixing their needed income.
Then the man changes his focus: says winter temperatures have been rising and they’re losing more and more ice each year. “Used to be good hunting near town. Now we have to go a long ways to find game.” He is convinced that global warming is the culprit! Note: this was in 1998, before global warming became a national issue. Even now, there are a significant number of Americans who don’t get it!
In his book, “An Arctic Man”, by Ernie Lyall, Ernie—who was a Factor in the Hudson Bay Company during the 1940’s—and the only white man to ever receive an Inuit welfare number, wrote:
*“Some men spend a few hours in the Arctic and write a newspaper article. Others spend a day and pen a magazine article. A few stay a week and write a book. None of them have a clue what life is like here!”
*Regrettably, many years ago, I lent this book to someone and never got it back. “An Arctic Man” is long out-of-print and difficult to find. It is a riveting and truthful read. This quote is as accurate as I can recall.
*If you know a teenager who loves camping, check out my new teen book, Justin Cody's Race to Survival! Now, professionally set-up for digital reading, it's on my web-site. A hard copy is in process. Available also, as an Amazon, Kindle reader.