The wind is strong from the east. To my left a low line of hills rises from a beach littered with driftwood, to my right the Arctic Ocean ice extends infinitely into the sun. In the distance giant fuel tanks mark the location of an abandoned Distant Early
Warning Line station. I’m struggling to steer my dog sled, the plastic that provides the smooth running surface having broken, and my team of seven dogs is falling behind the two other teams and three snowmobiles in our group.
With some difficulty I anchor my eager team to the sea ice, flip the sled and dig past frozen meat, booties and other gear to the spare runner plastic at the bottom of the sled bag. Racing against the cold that is quickly rendering my fingers useless, I complete the task and carry on with a greater appreciation of the demands of travelling in this way on Yukon’s Arctic coast. As our group’s leader Frank Turner says, “it’s all about the dogs.”
RELATED: View slideshow of the expedition
At 69 years of age, Turner is a Yukon legend. Travelling with him is a lesson in a life well lived, judging by the spontaneous reunions with old friends at the gas station in Carmacks, the Chinese restaurant in Dawson City, a random pullout on the
Dempster and the airport in Inuvik. Years ago, folks in Pelly Crossing gave him a name that translates as “the short guy that runs around a lot.” This energy led him to the start line of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race 24 consecutive times. He won the race once in 1995 in record time.
The Quest is no longer in the cards for Turner, but now he has the Arctic. For the past few years he has organized a trip by dog team from Aklavik, N.W.T. to Yukon’s historic Herschel Island. Joining him for this trip, held a month ago, are top sled-dog vet
Dr. Kathleen McGill from Ohio; Brian Smith, a pilot for Emirates in Dubai; and dog handler Keiran Doherty. Hailing from Aklavik, guide Lee John Meyook and wildlife monitor Robert Archie provide the local context and link to the history of this place that the Inuvialuit call tariuq, the ocean.
In a cabin built mostly of driftwood and buried in drifted snow at Shingle Point (Tapqag), Meyook tells a story about his mother’s memory of crawling over her parents who died of imported disease in their camp at Bailie Island. Sarah Meyook was a cherished language teacher at the Aklavik school for many years and “one to remember” the stories. Meyook carries on her teachings with stories and language lessons that twist our tongues and leave us laughing at our failed attempts at Inuvialuktun.
It’s only later that I discover that according to the Canadian Museum of History the “Inuvialuit population had fallen from an estimated 2,500 people in the early 19th century to 250 people in 1905, further reduced to 150 by 1910.” In the summer months it is not uncommon for skeletons to emerge out of the permafrost, as the changing climate shows utter disregard for the customs of mankind. Disease was the worst legacy of the whalers, traders and missionaries that travelled this coast. “They were dying by the tent full,” says Meyook of the toll of successive waves of illness, from the measles to the Spanish flu.
Shingle Point is as far as the dogs will make it on this trip, as abrasive snow and winds strong enough to shut down the Dempster Highway blow across the ice. Turner offers to stay behind with the dogs while the rest of us carry on with snowmobiles to Qikiqtaruk, the Island. First we stop at King Point – Kingnaq – where Archie’s grandfather was born and Roald Amundsen overwintered after completing the Northwest Passage. Next we climb up a bank of slumping permafrost for a view at Kay Point – Tikiraq – and through the wind-driven snow we get our first glimpse of Herschel Island. Meyook points out a distinctive line of dark clouds off Qikiqtaruk’s north shore. “Open water,” he says.
For 27 years, Meyook was employed as a seasonal park ranger at Herschel Island. He leads our small group through the wind drifts created by the Victorian rooflines of the historic outpost. His interpretation of the historic site unleashes our imaginations to visualize 15 ships containing 1,000 whalers – Dunnik – and 1,000 Inuvialuit wintering at Pauline Cove. The ships burned 100 cords of driftwood and consumed a minimum of 10,000 pounds of caribou meat each year. As Bruce MacDonald explains in his book North Star of Herschel Island, depending on who you choose to believe, it was either a “thriving Arctic metropolis” or the “Sodom of the Arctic,” where “whalers brought in barrels of rum and came ashore looking for women.”
By all accounts, Pauline Cove was regarded as one of the finest harbours in all of the Arctic. Today, it is one of the Arctic’s historic sites most imperilled by climate change. Only a halo of driftwood poking out through the snow delineates the boundary between land and sea. The historic structures and shallow graves are situated mere inches above the sea and violent storms often attempt to rearrange the geography.
When the whaling declined, Herschel Island became the centre of an extensive fur trade. Arctic fox pelts were money and for a while the whims of European fashion allowed some Inuvialuit to enjoy a higher standard of living than many southerners. In 1935 two Inuvialuit fur traders ordered the 58-foot North Star of Herschel Island, a three-mast schooner that became the flagship for an armada of locally owned vessels that plied these waters.
Later we head off in search of the open water off the north coast where cliffs of frozen dirt rise to a maximum of 600 feet above the frozen shore. From this vantage point the startling blue of Tariuq is shocking for our group that has travelled 240 kilometres in a world of white and grey. Over the wind, Meyook has to shout to be heard: “This is a month early.”
Thankfully the wind has moderated as we leave Herschel to return to Turner and the dogs. Our route takes us by a massive ship that was constructed specifically for drilling in the Beaufort Sea by fusing the hull of an oil tanker to a massive steel base. It was last used in the winter of 2005-06 by Devon Energy to drill the Paktoa C-60 well in 13 metres of water. The well found proven reserves of 240 million barrels of oil. It’s been cold stacked here ever since. Next we stop near another DEW Line station where open water runs from a storm surge-filled lagoon back to the sea. The space-age structures of the Distant Early Warning site and the gurgle of running water seem to hint at a future where oil flows, ice melts and the Yukon’s North Slope witnesses another surge of economic growth.
I was invited to join this trip as a photographer. I thought it was a simple assignment to shoot a trip by dog sled. Instead it became a journey through a living history animated with stories of skeletons and shipwrecks all viewed through the lens of climate change and the pressures of resource development in a changing Arctic.
Derek Crowe is a writer and photographer based in Whitehorse. Find a slideshow from his trip at www.yukon-news.com and more images at www.derekcrowe.photo