A Jour­ney Into Deep Wild

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On the map, Cape Sheri­dan is a tiny, al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble dim­ple on a smoothly curv­ing coast­line, barely wor­thy of a name—a pile of wind­blown rock, bat­tered by ice and wind. Yet, as we turned our course a few com­pass de­grees from south­east to a lit­tle more southerly, in what seemed like barely more than an eye-blink, after 60 days, and 800 miles, I looked out into the Strait and saw a ragged jumble of ice that was more rub­bly than any­thing we’d ever seen—too rub­bly to even con­sider drag­ging our boats across, as there were no level sur­faces any­where. It was beauty and fear wrapped to­gether into glis­ten­ing si­lent white­ness, like a deadly hor­i­zon­tal avalanche frozen into im­mo­bil­ity. As a sci­en­tist, I could ex­plain how the ice was crammed into this place by a global cur­rent, driven by tem­per­a­ture and salin­ity dif­fer­ences and the spin of the earth. But the feel­ing was one of in­stant small­ness, as if I were now the mouse, squeak­ing piti­fully into the in­scrutable Arc­tic vast­ness, as if it could lis­ten and had con­scious­ness, “I’ve done my best, all that I can do. Men­tally and phys­i­cally. I’m just a lit­tle hu­man after all. I am hon­ored to be here. To ex­pe­ri­ence this. It would be nice, in a way, if you didn’t kill us.”

The fol­low­ing ex­cerpt is taken from Croc­o­diles and Ice: A Jour­ney Into Deep Wild, by Jon Turk and pub­lished by Oolichan Press. As the nar­ra­tive un­folds, Erik Boomer and I are cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing Ellesmere Is­land in the Cana­dian Arc­tic. It is now mid-sum­mer and, about half way through the jour­ney, we are round­ing the north­east cor­ner of the Is­land. www.jon­

We pad­dled un­til our open wa­ter lead closed out, and then dragged the boats onto shore to de­cide what to do next. And then, as if some­one clicked off the pause but­ton on a cos­mic video, the en­tire icepack be­gan to move.

This frozen ocean, that we had walked over and camped on, that had been our own pri­vate con­ti­nent for two months, sta­ble and se­cure un­der­foot, had now, in this in­stant, mor­phed into a dy­namic mael­strom of in­de­pen­dent chunks that were mov­ing: mush­ing, grind­ing, smash­ing and smear­ing to­gether.

We stopped and lis­tened to the whoosh­ing, crack­ing, and tin­kling that sounded like rum­bling thun­der chore­ographed with break­ing wine glasses and melo­di­ous lul­la­bies. This was the Nares Strait, which Tyler and I had feared over lap­tops and lat­tes in Hood River Ore­gon on that bright, warm, lazy sum­mer day seem­ingly so many eons ago.

This was the icepack that had crushed the stout oaken ships of the west­ern navies dur­ing the great Age of Dis­cov­ery.

It al­most made me sea­sick, as if an earth­quake had oc­curred and solid rock was un­du­lat­ing in a wave, as if re­al­ity it­self, which had been solid and pre­dictable for so long, was now, sud­denly, in chaos.

I blinked in dis­be­lief and asked Boomer, “Did the en­tire ocean of ice just now jos­tle free and be­gin to flow? This sec­ond? Or had we been so un­ob­ser­vant five min­utes be­fore that we hadn’t no­ticed this mas­sive and crit­i­cal change in our world?”

Boomer didn’t an­swer. He just stared out to sea, hands un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hang­ing loosely by his side, use­less ap­pendages that they now ap­peared to be.

Tip­ping points oc­cur be­cause sys­tems, of all sizes and com­po­si­tions, usu­ally don’t change in a lin­ear man­ner with per­tur­ba­tion. They are so com­mon in ev­ery­day life that we have pop­u­lar say­ings to de­scribe this con­cept:

“the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, “pushed to the edge”, “the match in the pow­der bar­rel”.

The atomic foun­da­tions of life, it­self, were cre­ated in the fiery ex­plo­sions of stel­lar tip­ping points. Our sun has been around for 5 bil­lion years or so, shin­ing brightly, and more or less con­stantly, in the heav­ens. Look up into the night sky and you see bil­lions and bil­lions of other stars all glow­ing away, seem­ingly un­chang­ing— for­ever. But in­side each star, from the small­est to the largest, atomic fu­sion re­ac­tions are chang­ing its com­po­si­tion, day by day, minute by minute, and nanosec­ond by nanosec­ond. When the tip­ping point is reached in a mas­sive star, the en­tire core—ten times as mas­sive as our sun—can col­lapse within the in­cred­i­bly short time span of one sec­ond. And then the star ex­plodes. In­side this cos­mic cat­a­clysm, small el­e­ments fuse into larger ones, creat­ing the nu­clear cru­cible for life.

Boomer and I were wit­ness­ing the breakup of the arc­tic icepack, a tip­ping point that is huge on a hu­man scale but smaller than an ex­plod­ing star. The Arc­tic is like that. The World is like that. Tem­per­a­tures had been above freez­ing for a month, yet the sea ice was still two me­ters thick, un­mov­ing and in­scrutable. Half an hour ago, we had mar­veled at how jum­bled the ice was, but it was still sta­tion­ary. Even now, the ice hadn’t melted—it was still out there. But within an in­cred­i­bly short time of five min­utes or so, the lit­tle frac­tures and cracks that had been slowly de­vel­op­ing for all this time, sud­denly in­ter­con­nected to the point where the pack ice broke free un­der the in­flu­ence of un­der­ly­ing cur­rents, and be­gan to float around as in­de­pen­dently mov­ing pieces. Thus, the slow, steady, ever-chang­ing march of the sea­sons, the in­ex­orable rise of the sun’s an­gle and the month-long above freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, had com­bined to sud­denly set an ocean of ice into mo­tion.

Right here, watch­ing the ice move, I felt that I was in the plan­e­tary clock­works, hold­ing on to the big sec­ond hand and fly­ing around in great arcs, legs spun out by cen­trifu­gal force, gears spin­ning be­hind me. The clock­works of a planet. The ice had be­come an emo­tion. My own frailty had be­come an ob­vi­ous and glo­ri­ous emo­tion. This is what the Spirit Wolf was try­ing to ex­plain, which we now call Deep Ecol­ogy—a fun­da­men­tal, in­nate em­pa­thy for the “liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment as a whole,” and a tac­tile ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the in­ter­con­nec­tiv­ity of na­ture . You don’t have to go to the Arc­tic to see and feel the Earth’s chang­ing moods. Changes in the sea­sons, at any lat­i­tude or in any ecosys­tem, oc­cur in abrupt fits and starts, less dra­matic than the breakup in the Arc­tic icepack—to be sure—but real and ob­serv­able nev­er­the­less. I be­lieve that the first step in rein­ing in our head­long rush to­ward hu­man in­duced cli­mate change is to watch spring un­fold and re­al­ize how quickly the Earth sys­tems can change. Once we in­ter­nal­ize lo­cal weather and sea­sonal change, as an emo­tion, once we love it, as fam­ily, then per­haps we can grasp the less vis­i­ble changes in our larger sys­tems. And then, maybe—hope­fully—we will be mo­ti­vated to im­ple­ment the con­crete po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and tech­no­log­i­cal ini­tia­tives do some­thing about it. Even if it means rein­ing in our op­u­lence a lit­tle bit.

Boomer and I looked up, and our whole world had changed into some­thing we had never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore. That’s why we were here. To feel this change within the mar­row of our bones. The Spirit Wolf had as­sured us that we would be­come vul­ner­a­ble, that we wouldn’t be in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. But that was the glory of it all, be­cause the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure, be­tween life and death, was how well we would adapt to this mar­velously in­tri­cate, in­com­pre­hen­si­bly pow­er­ful, chaotic in­fin­ity of mov­ing ice. We pulled to shore. Right now it would be sui­ci­dal to ven­ture an­other mil­lime­ter to­ward our goal.

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