by Tobias Thornes
The North wasn’t designed for travellers. Even in a warming world, where my arrival was met with bitterly weeping rain that would have been snow in a more typical November – if ‘typical’ still exists any more – Canada is not a country easily traversed. As I wended my slow way northwards, the darkness descending like a closing curtain, the muddy land relapsed at last to crystal snow, and I felt more and more an alien, on a harsh planet emptying of life. My direction, needle north by hitch-hike, foot and crook, was dead against the flow: into the desolate lands lately abandoned by summer birds escaping to the south. ‘South’. Even the word became a warming balm: the memory of sweet sunshine on green hillsides, golden light amidst the glades. Never in my travels had I missed my temperate homeland more.
Yet on I went, slipping on a thicker coat against the cold that bit my hands red. Steadily the settlements grew sparser, the snowy roads less frequented, but I found my way to a place to sleep, somehow, each night. I had to keep moving. The days were growing shorter; soon it would be too late. Deep in so cold a country, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that few of the drivers who lent me a lift seemed worried about climate change. They knew it was happening alright: the signs were all around. More and more years of later than average autumn snow; earlier and earlier springtime melt. But in the bleak midst of an Arctic winter such facts offer little consolation against the freezing air. Indeed, some welcome the warming summers and the melting ice.
Canada is a land of rich resources, but until now its frigid northern seas have been spared the pitiless pounding of mechanised extraction. Maybe not for much longer: the oil giants have sniffed out precious reserves of that foul fluid beneath the Beaufort Sea, and would be eager to cash in on this discovery. Some I came across looked forward to longer spells of open seas, more jobs, more trade, more money pouring in. But for the indigenous peoples of these ice lands, climate change could mean the destruction of an entire way of life. There’s a deep tension here, growing like a fissure through a calving ice-shelf – the need to protect a precious place and the precious life that inhabits it, tugging against the desire to grow, to prosper, to embrace the change.
But there’s one spectacle that will never alter. Day by day, the sun began to flounder in its vain attempts to clamber up the sky, and when a couple in a snow-capped four-by-four offered me a spare seat, I joined their journey on the new track up to the northern coast. There, amidst the calm surroundings of a huddled Inuit settlement, I saw the sea at last again before me, glistening in the pale light so soon after dawn. Looking back towards the south, the orange glimmer of the sun flashed and retreated, as though, frightened or disgusted at the world it glimpsed, it didn’t think it worth the effort to take a proper look. It was the last day of November. Before we left I gazed through the twilight at the northern horizon, making out the faint form of Baffin Island, Canada’s largest, and reportedly one of the most beautiful gems in the country’s crumbled constellation of landmasses. There, I knew, the sun wouldn’t rise again until January. I wished dearly to travel to that island, to see its famed bestiary of Arctic Wolves and Foxes. But I could not venture any further, into the Polar Night of the Arctic Circle. No boats traverse that treacherous sea at this time of year. The island is isolated – except of course by plane.
It seems to me a saddening irony that the communities of both northern Canada and the ‘ground zero’ of climate change itself, Greenland, are so dangerously dependent on one of the most-wanted criminals on the global warming hit-list, the aeroplane. Those mitigation target-busting beasts scratch their scores of scars across the Arctic sky, seemingly impervious to the dwindling glaciers and drowning lands beneath them, in whose demise they play a princely part, smashing the very vessels of masterfully crafted ice the visitors they carry have often come to see. Canada has the longest coastline in the world, but its rate of coastal erosion is equally impressive. The Beaufort Sea swallows a metre of land a year, but where the stormy winds stir up still more energetic waves, up to twenty metres can vanish in just a few months. The culprit isn’t hard to see: wilder weather and melting permafrost conspire to concoct a saline soup of destruction that threatens homes, supplies of food and fresh water and survival itself for the human and other animal inhabitants of this surprised ecosystem. The Inuit have used sea ice for transport for thousands of years; now these waters will instead be the domain of dirty diesel cruisers, as the Arctic is unlocked – tamed of its cold, inhospitable sharpness; stripped of its snowy beauty. It’s already warming at twice the average global rate.
Slow travel north being impossible, I took the next best course and headed west: with a little light persuasion, the owner of a wind-battered fishing boat was willing to take me across the Hudson Bay. We set out as soon twilight crept across the sky, shivering as we swept over the cold, grey waters that looked even less forgiving than the land. Delayed by the relatively mild start to the season, this was perhaps the last boat back across this splinter of sea. The stars made their never-ending circle overhead, a polar breeze rattled on the sail, and as the celestial backdrop so soon blackened again into night, I caught my first sight of the Northern Lights swimming like a mirage in the sky. The magic of those few minutes was worth every second of the long, slow struggle I’d had to get there.
It was well after dark when we arrived in Churchill, a town on the frontier of the great winter freeze. I was told to keep my eyes peeled for its most infamous inhabitants, and wasn’t disappointed. Some brash young polar bears had snuck in to raid this, their sweetest honey-pot, where their kind are forced increasingly to scavenge on the streets when ice and access to food is scarce. These tired, hungry creatures were late for their hibernation, still on the prowl for a few final morsels to feed their cubs. Amazing animals, the Kings of the Arctic grew fat on the fruit of its heyday; now they are reduced to beggars stealing crumbs from a species that proved to be the more powerful beast. The relationship between bear and man, struggling to live alongside each other, is under increasing strain. But I saw no more of them; in a couple of days it was time to board on one of Canada’s few railroads, to be whisked to Winnipeg and along Canada’s southern belt of cities, then north again to find the country’s chilly western fringe.