James Raffan: Circling the Midnight Sun

CirclingTheMidnightSunAuthor, paddler, and inveterate traveller James Raffan sets himself a daunting task in his latest book: to make his way around the Arctic Circle, by country, culture, and community. In a time when climate change threatens ways of life that have endured for generations, Raffan hopes his journey may highlight some of the ways northern peoples have been most affected by the changes wrought during the past century or so.

That makes it all sound simple. In fact, it’s anything but. What “Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic” reveals first is that a journey along the Arctic Circle, like the issues it explores, is complex, difficult, and often disheartening—though potentially rewarding. Raffan’s circumnavigation of the planet at 66.6 degrees North, which takes place piecemeal over the course of three years, spans the Arctic territories of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. He travels by virtually every imaginable means, from sled and snowmobile to Adventure Canada’s own former expedition cruise vessel, the Sea Adventurer.

As Raffan makes his way along the ice roads and airways and (emerging) shipping lanes of the Arctic in a journey totalling more than 17,000 kilometres, a pattern begins to emerge: having cleared snarls of red tape and managed to put a first foot forward in the direction of his next (often terribly remote) destination, Raffan, white-knuckled, wide-eyed and keen, winds up in the car, tent, boat, shack, or sled of one generous host or fixer after another, whose insights he carefully and gratefully chronicles.

To Raffan’s own surprise, a similar story seems to arise in every place: for the indigenous peoples who live along the Arctic Circle, from the Sami to the Gwiich’in to the Inuit, climate change is far less a concern than the sweeping cultural changes that have preceded it. Everywhere he goes, the author finds savvy people whose most fervent wish is not to reverse global warming, nor to return to some ancient way of life. Rather, it is to “control their fate”—a key phrase. From Alaska to Siberia, this is the shared goal of the people of the north.

Amid the evocative-sounding names of people, places, languages and nations that make up his travelogue, Raffan introduces a bewildering array of advocacy groups, umbrella organizations, NGOs, territorial and tribal governments. Many (though certainly not all) of these are devoted to ensuring indigenous and northern voices are head amid the din of global politics and the rush to access Arctic resources. This is good news, in a way. Yet the mere necessity of their existence points to the scope of the changes facing people who until recently have been entirely dependent on the land and sea for their sustenance.

And so we meet a shaman with a cell phone, and a reindeer herder who sells Amway. We learn how control of resources may give Inuit Greenlanders a fighting chance at autonomy while the indigenous peoples of Siberia struggle to adapt to the collapse of communism, and Nunavut’s children face a future utterly unlike the one their southern compatriots may enjoy. We learn that while the Arctic comprises a mere six percent of the Earth’s surface, for the millions of people who live there, it is home. That home is changing—it has always been changing. Arctic people, we learn, are everywhere proud adapters. But the key to adaptation is a healthy, thriving, resilient culture: the very thing that is most at risk as climate change, resource extraction, new shipping lanes, communications technology and globalization leave the Arctic directly in the path of ‘progress’.


The story of any journey is ultimately the story of change. For James Raffan, the change is a personal one: he quickly comes to understand that the imaginary line he follows is just that; roads and rivers, whales and caribou know nothing of lines of latitude. That’s part of what makes his journey interesting. More slowly, Raffan comes to a deeper understanding, personified by the ravens that appear wherever he goes. Symbolizing thought and memory in ancient Norse myth, they reveal to the author, and ultimately to the reader what is truly at stake in the Arctic. We have seen Thought wander, and the results are distressing. But what if we were to lose Memory? The results would be catastrophic. Memory is language. Language is culture. Culture is people. The people of the Arctic represent a critical element of the Earth’s own memory.

The lesson is there for the learning, and to learn it, we, like James Raffan, need to come full circle in the north.


Our Ice is Vanishing – Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq

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Who belongs to the North—and crucially, to whom does the North belong? Arctic writer, scholar and advocate Shelley Wright seeks to answer these questions in her eye-opening new book, Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq.

Untitled-6As reduced sea ice in shipping lanes creates new opportunities for transport, travel, habitation and resource extraction in the Canadian Arctic, Canada has re-engaged with the issue of Arctic sovereignty. Wright’s book underlines the fact that when push comes to shove, it takes more than a map to prove who owns what.

Ask the Inuit: In terms of habitation, tradition, and use, the Canadian Arctic belongs to them. And, as Wright notes, Canada’s political claim to the Arctic hinges, in large part, on Inuit occupation. The creation of Nunavut cements that fact in law.

But can colonial Canadian notions, and traditional Inuit notions of land, ice, and sea be reconciled? Herein lies the challenge.

How do we balance elder wisdom, Inuit tradition, European history, Canadian law, and global politics? Considering what ice (by turns ancient, changeable, life-saving, deadly) means in these differing frameworks, Wright spins a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Arctic.

polarbear[1]The polar bear – living icon of the North – has been widely seen as a bellwether for the Canadian Arctic, and Wright touches on nanuq‘s symbolic role in the way the North is perceived elsewhere. But it is the resourceful, constantly adapting Inuit, their language and their relationship with the world who are at the heart of this work.

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Wright’s ability to illustrate the complexities – and incompatibilities – of intertwining world views makes this book an invaluable resource for those interested in understanding the Arctic today. Subtitled “A History of Inuit, Newcomers, and Climate Change”, Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq is essential reading for would-be citizens of the Great White North.

Shelley Wright has travelled with Adventure Canada several times; many of the pictures in the book were taken on our trips. This summer, Shelly will join us for a special Arctic launch of Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq on our Northwest Passage: West to East voyage.

Photos in this article courtesy Shelley Wright/McGill-Queen’s University Press.


The Greenland revelation

Veteran Arctic photographer Martin Lipman travelled with us on our Heart of the Arctic expedition cruise this past summer, representing the Canadian Museum of Nature. He kindly agreed to share some of his spectacular photos along with his thoughts on his first visit to Greenland.

Greenland's stunning fiords are just the beginning.

Greenland’s stunning fiords are just the beginning.

Greenland was a revelation for me. As incredible as the Canadian Arctic is, Greenland is not to be missed. The scale of ice, the intense beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people are all stellar. From the moment you see the the coastline in Kangerlussuaq, you know it’s going to be good.

Leaving Kangerlussuaq Fjord I remained on deck until the light dipped below the horizon tracking the massive volcanic seams of the Kangaamiut dike swarm, one of a handful of such geological structures in the world.


This dike swarm is one of many extraordinary geological features along Greenland’s west coast.

Eternity Fiord is no less stunning—the power of the ice quickly becomes apparent. Sadly some the glaciers here have started to ground out due to global warming.

The beauty of the ice belies its ecological warning.

The beauty of the ice belies its ecological warning.

Zodiac landings in Greenland are particularly special. The nature of the coastal landscape invites exploration. Its history, its surprising flora and its wild geology all draw you forward. Cresting the next ridge reveals an even more incredible view than the last – and sinking in that soft moss is not to be missed. People often ask where Greenland got it’s name, I suggest it is the subtle palette of the mosses and lichen and its restful effect on your eyes.

Coastal Greenland is visually stunning.

Coastal Greenland is visually stunning.

Tiny mosses and flowers on the tundra are stunning features of Greenland's landings.

Tiny mosses and flowers on the tundra are stunning features of Greenland’s landings.

As you sail north towards Ilulissat and Disko Bay, the quantity of ice increases and the days get even longer. Arctic veterans now say that the ice is smaller and broken up due to the speed at which the Jakobshavn Glacier is moving now – a staggering 60 to 100 feet everyday. That said, you still see massive bergs that dwarf the ship.

Icebergs like those that inspired the Group of Seven still impress.

Icebergs like those that inspired the Group of Seven still impress.

Cruising the ice by Zodiac reveals even more detail: incredible translucent blue seams, hidden caves and pools and endless straiations are a (frozen) feast for the eyes, but with the ice it’s the sound that gets you. Crisp bubbles rise to the surface and constant melting is heard as the water drips off the ice. If you are lucky, you’ll hear the thunderous crack of one of the bigger bergs as it releases pressure. You feel it instinctively on the water: the icebergs are not benign, they are unpredictable and incredibly powerful.

Zodiac cruising is the ideal way to appreciate Greenland's glaciers.

Zodiac cruising is the ideal way to appreciate Greenland’s glaciers.

Being able to weave through said icebergs or land at an ancient encampment at the shallow end of a fiord is part of the wondrous appeal of Arctic cruising. Having access to a fleet of Zodiacs transforms the trip into genuine exploration, accessing communities and shoreline that large ships can’t begin to approach. To access multiple sites in a day then pull up anchor and steam up the coast to do it all over again the next day that sets ship-based travel apart.

The Sea Adventurer and the Zodiac fleet make a perfect cruising combination.

The Sea Adventurer and the Zodiac fleet make a perfect cruising combination.

The communities of Western Greenland are remarkable in themselves. The warmth and artistry of the people and the colour of the villages stand in stark contrast the harsh environment that they occupy. As a Canadian, it was fascinating to see Adventure Canada’ Inuit staff land on shore and begin to speak Inuktituk with local Greenlanders. It gives you a very different sense of the neighbourhood and the distant the communal links the predate our two countries.

Greenland's villages are beautiful and fascinating.

Greenland’s villages are beautiful and fascinating.

Wide smiles make a warm welcome anywhere you go.

Wide smiles make a warm welcome anywhere you go.

Greenland's people are as amazing as the landscape they call home.

Greenland’s people are as amazing as the landscape they call home.