Saturday, November 01, 2014

Northern histories explored in tale of Arctic trek

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic
By James Raffan
HarperCollins, 472 pages, $35

Based near Kingston, Ont., James Raffan has built a career writing and lecturing on Canadian wilderness travel. He has written more than a dozen books in this vein, including the bestsellers Wildwaters (1986), Summer North of Sixty (1990) and Bark, Skin and Cedar (1999), a cultural history of canoes.

In 2007, Raffan set himself a larger canvas, writing a biography of Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1820 to 1860.

While researching that book, Raffan was intrigued to learn that Simpson had made an around-the-world tour in 1841-42, visiting the Arctic Circle in Russia. Later, Raffan was invited to attend a 2010 conference in Iqaluit on the issues facing the Arctic, whose delegate list was "heavily skewed towards non-indigenous men and women, like me, with addresses in the middle lattitudes."

After decades visiting the North, Raffan wanted to know how climate change and industry was affecting the land. But he also realized that many southerners knew nothing about the North, a point driven home when he saw tourists on weekend jaunts to Santa's Workshop theme parks in Finland and Alaska. He also noticed how fluffy polar bears had become the face of climate change for organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.

As Raffan argues in his introduction, the North is more than Coca-Cola's advertising campaigns have made it out to be: "there are people who live in the Arctic, four million of them, in eight countries, speaking dozens of languages and representing almost as many indigenous cultures."

As such, Circling the Midnight Sun documents Raffan's three-and-a-half year circumpolar journey, visiting indigenous communities in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

But make no mistake. With the exception of a long and bone-shaking ride to visit a Siberian shaman, where the driver blasted Russian techno-pop and smoked incessantly, and a fishing trip in Iceland that includes dolphin, this book is not adventure travel of the traditional sort.

Raffan spends much of his time in the book in transit, to and from his home, to and from remote Arctic communities.

The majority of Circling the Midnight Sun's pages, in fact, are devoted to histories of the peoples he meets.

More importantly, it also details contemporary attempts by indigenous peoples to gain any kind of sovereignty over their traditional lands, given the influx of industry, the new shipping lanes from China, Singapore and Korea, and the changing winds of politics.

Along the way, Raffan meets with political leaders, reindeer herders, activists, spiritual leaders, museum curators, artists and engineers.

Thankfully, Raffan is a careful and sympathetic tour guide to all these varied communities. What's more, he always seems aware that his is the perspective of a white southerner, that there is more to knowing a place than canoeing its rivers, so he spends most of his time listening.

One of the most memorable moments in this book comes when Raffan is served baby horse in a Siberian restaurant.

When asked by the chef, Igor Makarov, if he likes it, Raffan says, "We have horses at home. My wife and daughters are competitive riders. They are horse-lovers. Horses are a big part of our family's life as well. But I'm not sure how they will react when I tell them that I enjoyed a meal of foal here in Yakutsk."

The chef's answer encapsulates everything that Circling the Midnight Sun attempts: overcoming culture shock, deepening our ideas about indigenous peoples, and beginning a north-south dialogue.

"Here in Sakha, horses are sacred," replied Makarov. "They are a part of who we are. They have been a part of Sakha culture as long as anyone can remember. And, for my part, I can't imagine loving a horse and not eating them."

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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