CROCODILES & ICE
A Journey Into Deep Wild
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.jonturk.net
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.