North­ern his­to­ries ex­plored in tale of Arc­tic trek

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ariel Gor­don

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.

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

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