From Up Here, Yellowknife, NT, March/April 1990
A review of
Siberia and Canada have much in common by way of geography and history. Europeans were first attracted to both regions by the lustrous furs to be taken in the taiga, tundra and boreal forests. In each case, trappers and traders soon proved it possible to deplete animal populations, even in seemingly limitless regions, unless attention was paid to conservation. In the ensuing centuries, prospectors in both countries found precious minerals, heavy metals, and petroleum in the most inhospitable of locations, spurring engineers to learn about permafrost, meltwater bogs, and shifting ice floes.
In both countries, colonizers have overwhelmingly clustered in a narrow band along the southern borders. Finally, the ways of the peoples who have made the northern lands their homes for millenia have been generally ignored by the newcomers.
If Siberians and Canadians have a great deal to learn from each other, there was little opportunity for contact for most of this century. But in the last few years, many Canadian companies with experience in resource extraction and arctic construction techniques have been welcomed in Siberia, while travelling delegations of native peoples have shared perspectives on preserving their cultures in an industrial age.
With these new opportunities for interchange, a familiarity with Siberia’s history is essential to many people. W. Bruce Lincoln’s new book tells part of this story ably, although Lincoln gives us only fleeting glimpses of the native peoples of Siberia, and almost no sense of how their cultures fare today or how they have contributed to Siberia’s history.
Lincoln’s opening sentence provides a controversial if succinct interpretation of history: “Nations are born of battle, and conquest makes them great.” The gory opening chapters on the Mongol armies, who exited history’s centre stage as quickly as they entered, may lead some readers to conclude that the book will equal the average action movie in its insights into the human condition.
Deeper into the book, however, Lincoln rounds out the story, even though the tales for the most part remain chilling. We learn about the slow progress of Siberian industry, as hundreds of thousands of workers carve railways through mountains and dig mineshafts in rock-hard permafrost. Lincoln weaves together many threads of political economy, to illustrate how the maneuverings of empire-building politicians in Europe often resulted in the starvation of prisoners thousands of miles away.
With only a few brief exceptions, each brutal regime seemed to beget an even more brutal regime, until the Bolsheviks, desperate to create an industrial colossus out of the reach of rival armies, sacrificed forced labourers by the hundreds of thousands. In the process, land and people suffered equally: “Siberia’s Soviet masters had transformed the fragile ecology of the tundra and taiga . . . into some of the most noxious surroundings on earth.” While Russia’s most recent rulers are seeking technical help to make Siberian industry more productive, the whole world, and especially the circumpolar countries, have an interest in helping Siberian industry clean up its act.
Lincoln’s book relates hundreds of tales of conquest in Siberia, but very little that could pass for greatness. With a lot of luck, perhaps the greatness will yet come.
The sound of soft rain on our tent woke us on the morning of July 1st, and the showers continued long enough to make us consider staying right there beside the Yukon River. But by mid-afternoon the rain slowed to a drizzle, and we loaded our bikes and pedalled out of Carcross, heading north on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City.
Little did we guess that the day’s ride would last until midnight, and that we would be treated to an unconventional display of Canada Day fireworks.
The ride began, as usual, with a long ascent. (Most of the territorial campgrounds are located beside rivers, which in these parts always seem to be located at the bottom of valleys.) Our Canada Day climb soon had us comfortably warm in spite of the intermittent mists, and after an hour our muscles were limber and we were making good time. But the scenery proved too spectacular to allow us quick passage.
About 4 pm we reached the viewpoint for the Five Finger Rapids, justly billed as one of Yukon Territory’s most popular recreational attractions. The sun was beginning to emerge, and the strands of turbulent water glistened far below us. A rugged trail, which includes 230 steps in the Territory’s longest staircase, winds down to the shoreline for a close-up view of the massive outcrops of rock, dividing the river into five swift-flowing streams. Gulls and ravens appeared to have these islands to themselves, though interpretive signs explained that in years past, settlers had built a cable system from the shoreline to the rocks, so that paddlewheel steamboats could be winched safely through the rapids.
When we got back to our bikes at 5 pm, we had only ridden 25 kilometers, and Pelly Crossing, the next village, was still 80 km up the road. Knowing we had many hours of daylight left, we set out confidently for Pelly Crossing.
As the evening wore on, the wind picked up from the direction of the setting sun: north. We worked harder, and moved slower. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, the temperature dropped, bottoming out at 5°C. Every half hour we stopped to put on more clothes – wool tights over our shorts, then long-sleeve shirts, then wind-pants, then jackets, finally even our wool caps. After each stop we were warm for a few minutes, and after the next downhill cruise we were shivering again. At two of the stops we found wild strawberries growing beside the highway. The tiny and succulent specimens of rubus arcticus warmed our spirits, but did little to warm our aching joints.
Just after sunset, about 11:30 p.m., we came swooping down a curve right beside a large pond dotted with waterfowl. The birds were alarmed by something – perhaps our loaded bikes rattling down the bumpy road, perhaps the chattering of our teeth. The birds exploded up from the water, setting off a kind of reverse fireworks, with hundreds of fluttering black dots rising against the purple and pink light of the sky.
We reached Pelly Crossing after midnight, rolling into a large, well-equipped, and totally deserted campground. In the few minutes it took to crawl into our sleeping bags and fall asleep, we reflected that it had been a tough day, and one we would not have missed for the world.
In 2006 I was approached by Dick Hill, the first mayor and long-time resident of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to work with him in transforming his extensive notes and photos into a history of the community. The result was a two-volume set published in July 2008 and launched at the community’s 50th Anniversary celebration.
My role included writing and editing, research in digital photo archives from Ottawa and Yellowknife, scanning and touch-up of photos and slides, design, layout, and liaison with the printer.
Inuvik: A History is approximately 240 pages, with a selection of photos, maps and illustrations in black and white. Inuvik In Pictures is 48 pages, with full colour pictures throughout.
More information on these books is available here.
Below: front and back cover of Inuvik: A History
Cover photographs for Inuvik: A History
Front Cover, top, Inuvik from the air, 1995, photo by Staffan Widstrand/Corbis; Olympic skiers Sharon & Shirley Firth, photo by Dick Hill; loading gravel at Twin Lake gravel pit, 1955, photo by Curt Merrill; RCMP officer Gerry Kisoun, photo by Raymond Gehman/Corbis. Back cover photographs show the ‘Ice Worm’ Carnival, 1960s, photo by Dr. Norris Hunt; and author Dick Hill.
Cover photographs for Inuvik In Pictures:
Front Cover, top, raising the first large warehouse, 1956, photo by Curtis Merrill. Bottom left: Prime Minister and Mrs. Diefenbaker in Inuvik, 1961, NWT Archives. Bottom centre: civil servant housing, photo courtesy of Dr. N.E. Hunt Collection, Inuvik Centennial Library. Bottom right: Bill Nasogaluak at the Great Northern Arts Festival, 1992, photo by Tessa Mcintosh, NWT Archives.
Back Cover photographs: top row, left to right, Johnny Semple; Peggy Curtis; Nap Norbert; Cece McCauley; Rose Anne Allen. Second row, Cynthia Hill; unidentified; Martha Kupfer; unidentified. Third row, Billy Day, Doug Billingsley, Diane Baxter. Fourth row, Peter Clarkson, Victor Allen. Fifth row, Louis Goose.
As photo opportunities go, the book launch for Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail was one of the most elaborate in publishing history. As arctic voyages go, the trip to a Beaufort Sea oil rig was somewhat less demanding than picking up Berton’s tome for an armchair expedition.
The Arctic Grail is an account of the romantic age of arctic exploration. Nineteenth-century audiences snapped up reports of their heroes fighting bitter blinding blizzards over vast uninhabited ice fields.
But a warm sun rose in a clear sky as two helicopters left Inuvik, 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. As we flew north over the Mackenzie Delta, three-metre spruce gave way to one-metre scrub willow; soon we saw only lichens and lakes, and it seemed we were far from civilization.
The illusion was dispelled when we reached Tuktoyaktuk – Inuvialuktun* for “looks like caribou.” Herds of oil tanks flanked a winding shoreline, dwarfing the houses, the Catholic Church, even The Bay.
Berton closes his saga in 1909, when the motor age was just beginning. Eighty years later, prospectors are staking claims at the ends of the earth, oil companies are pumping gas from beneath the ice pack, and 20,000 horsepower icebreakers are making test runs through the Northwest Passage.
If thirst for petroleum sparked new interest in the north, it also made Berton’s book launch possible – the author and most of his entourage were escorted from Calgary by Gulf Canada Resources Limited. When the helicopters set us down on a deck 40 nautical miles from shore, our hosts began a tour of the Molikpaq oil rig.
Here came the day’s moment of high adventure – a crane lifted a dozen of us over the water to a tug boat. We stood on a swinging two-metre ring, clutching a rope rigging, while sparkling waves bobbed beneath us – more fun then the CNE**, and absolutely free. Gulf employees patiently followed photographers’ directions to put Berton in just the right position for the cameras.
Several hundred blinks of the shutter later the party was reunited in the dining hall, where we toasted our exploits with Carl Jung De-alcoholized Wine – the town of Tuktoyaktuk and Gulf’s northern facilities being “dry” zones.
Early explorers in Berton’s account were too stubborn to follow Inuit advice: “Could any proper Englishman traipse about in ragged seal fur, eating raw blubber and living in hovels made of snow?” They caught chills when their wool uniforms got sweaty, and suffered scurvy because they cooked the vitamins out of their meat.
As guests of Gulf we had no such worries. We filed past the fresh salad bar in stocking feet (no oil slicks on the carpet, please), and our musk-ox and caribou were served well-done.
* The original version stated “Inuktitut”, the more general name for Inuit languages, instead of “Inuvialuktun”, the language of the Inuvialuit of Canada’s western arctic region.
** CNE = Canadian National Exhibition, known to generations of Toronto youngsters for its amusement park rides.