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.