Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Sailor's voyage crosses front line of climate change
THIS non-fiction book is a great example of an enjoyable genre -- a sailor's tale about a voyage to exotic places. In this case the places are in our own Canadian Arctic archipelago, a region that many southern Canadians know little about.
Author Cameron Dueck is a Manitoban and a seasoned journalist who now lives in Hong Kong. He is also a weekend sailor, who decided, in 2009, to sail through the Northwest Passage from the western end in his 36-foot sailing yacht, the Silent Sound.
Since about 2007, summers in the Arctic have seen less ice and an increasing number of smaller ships make the trip. As we learn from Dueck's book, however, this journey is by no means safe and routine in waters where many ships' epitaphs read "Stove in by ice and sank."
In the hands of a good writer like Dueck, the story of the trip is engaging and hard to put down. We follow him and his crew of three -- two sailors and a photographer taking footage for a documentary -- from the harbour at Victoria, B.C., all the way to Halifax. On the way we visit many northern communities: Point Barrow in Alaska, Herschel Island, Tuktoyaktuk, Sachs Harbour, Cambridge Bay, Pond Inlet and many others. At each stop, people welcome him warmly and generously share their homes, their laundry rooms, their food, their engine parts and advice.
Our fellow Canadians in the North are not isolated rustics: when the Silent Sound arrived in Sachs Harbour, the locals noted the Internet web address for the expedition emblazoned on a banner on the ship and by the time the crew came ashore people knew all about them.
Northerners face many difficulties, and Dueck lets them tell their stories in their own voices. Global warming is much more evident in the Arctic than in Southern Canada and its many effects are widespread. As the permafrost, melts construction costs go up, because buildings now need piles and piers. Southern species are migrating north as temperatures rise, displacing animals like the Arctic Fox.
The effects of the melting ice cap are probably what we are most aware of in the South, but Dueck's book reveals that the ice is still treacherous and unpredictable. The Silent Sound is forced to make detours and to proceed with great caution at times to avoid ice.
Over the centuries since first contact, northern economic growth has usually been driven by the demand for northern resources. Furs, whale oil for lamps, baleen for corsets and now oil and gas have brought outsiders with their liquor and diseases but small benefits for the people who live there. But northerners have become much more sophisticated about making sure they share in the wealth and protect the game and natural beauty of their land.
The New Northwest Passage also has the elements of a classic sea story. Four people in a small yacht do not always get along and their interactions provide some drama.
Then there are the moments when they are facing real danger from the ice and storms at sea. Through it all, Dueck reveals himself to be a sort of appealing everyman, tackling his enormous task with courage and inventiveness. And like most sailors, he is a great storyteller.
Jim Blanchard is a librarian at the University of Manitoba who has never been to sea but likes to read about it.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J9
(1 of 23 articles for this week)