Author, 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.