New book explores the Yukon’s Arctic island

Herschel Island exists largely in the mind. For many of us, the 116-square-kilometre outpost in the Beaufort Sea is impossibly far north and only accessible via imagination.

Herschel Island exists largely in the mind.

For many of us, the 116-square-kilometre outpost in the Beaufort Sea is impossibly far north and only accessible via imagination. But a new book, Herschel Island/Qikiqtaryuk, published by the Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope), aims to provide readers with a concrete and incredibly wide-ranging understanding of the mysterious island.

The book, launched on Wednesday to coincide with a new Herschel Island exhibit at McBride Museum, is the brainchild of Chris Burn, a British ex-pat permafrost scientist, who has visited Herschel every year between 2002 and 2010.

“I think it’s a remarkable place,” said Burn of Herschel, “in part because of the shared history of different people.” And, indeed, the book dedicates a whole section to the people and culture of the island – from its importance to the Inuvialuit subsistence lifestyle to its high-flying days as a whaling port in the 1890s.

But this merely scratches the surface of the book’s scope. When Burn conceived of this project in 2009, he felt it was imperative that the final document contain information from a wide variety of disciplines.

“In academia these days, there is a fashion towards multidisciplinary research,” said Burn. But the real impetus for bringing scholars of different stripes together is much more personal.

“If you think about a place as being your home, you naturally become multidisciplinary,” he said, “and you can answer questions about politics, or food, or weather, or animals.”

The book, then, is designed to present Herschel not as an Arctic oddity but as a place that many species call home. Aside from “People and Culture” there are also sections dedicated to the land and water of Herschel (it was created by a shifting glacier pushing up the ocean floor), the flora and fauna, and the conservation efforts on the island.

Such a wide-ranging study only recently became possible, said Burn. “We knew a lot about the settlement, economy and history from the 1890s to present, and the physical environment was fairly well understood.”

But until Herschel became a hub for biological research during the International Polar Year (2007-2009) a whole section of its natural history remained spotty. However, by 2009 understanding of the animal and plant life had increased substantially, making the book possible.

“The three parts of the jigsaw puzzle just came together,” he said.

One of the aspects of the book that Burn is most proud of is the contribution of northerners to the book’s scholarship. The book features articles by 43 different authors, 24 of which are from northern Canada; 20 of those are from the Yukon.

“I had no idea how many people (from the Yukon) wanted to be involved,” admitted Burn. For him, the avid participation of northern scholars represents a shift in the way the Canadian territories are studied, and by whom.

“The vast majority of books (about the North) have been written by southerners,” he said. “Our book is an example of northern Canada’s capacity to conduct its own research.”

One person who needed little prodding to join the book’s cause is longtime Yukon writer Patricia Robertson, who joined Burn’s team in a copy-editing role.

“I had previously worked with Chris (Burn) on a book about Mayo called The Heart of the Yukon, so when he got the idea for the Herschel project I was happy to work with him,” said Robertson.

As an oft-published author, Robertson was able to fulfill a niche that was necessary to the success of the book. “It needed someone who could take contributions from scientists and make them engaging to a wide readership,” she said.

Upon the book’s completion, Robertson says she feels like she has been to the Arctic Island even though she has not. “I’ve visited it through text,” she said.

Among the things that excite Robertson about Herschel Island/Qikiqtaryuk is its potential to provide genuine knowledge to a public that often settles for stereotypes about our nation’s Arctic region.

“I hope it will foster a greater appreciation for the complexity of life in the Arctic,” she said. “Instead of projections of barrenness that people often hold.”

For Robertson, the book’s release could not be timelier. “I knew Chris (Burn) wanted a portrait of Herschel because things are changing so fast because of climate change.”

In part, the book functions as a portrait of a vulnerable land mass threatened by a radically shifting Arctic. “I don’t think many Canadians are aware of the speed it is happening,” she said.

Burn, too, expresses worry about the long-term health of Herschel. “I’m optimistic about the short-term future because it is an incredibly suitable place for research on natural environments, but we have to think about what rising sea levels mean.”

These sea levels, which are currently creeping upwards by three millimetres a year (due to melting ice caps) could destroy Herschel’s natural harbour within the next 50 years, said Burn.

Yet, despite alluding to dark clouds that haunt Herschel’s future, the book is also an unabashed celebration of one of Yukon’s rarely experienced jewels.

When Burn first got the idea for the project he was concerned with how the visual aspect of the book would materialize. “What I didn’t know was how successful the photography would be,” he admitted.

Readers of the book will view Burn’s concern with irony, because nearly all of the book’s 242 pages burst forth with vibrant images and creative energy. Burn, himself, was blown away by the finished product.

“I don’t know of another book about a place that is as physically attractive as this one,” he said. And the credit for the book’s esthetics belongs squarely north of 60.

“I’m amazed at what Aasman Design and (book designer) Eleanor Rosenberg accomplished. She did an absolutely first class job.”

The format of the book is such that Burn expects it will attract a large audience -“both readers and browsers”- and that’s important because in some ways Herschel Island has a history of showcasing the better aspects of human nature.

“There are two competing visions of the North,” says Burn, “one is a resource frontier and the other is a homeland.”

With a vibrant economic and natural history, Herschel Island has bridged this gap.

“It represents the possibility of fusing these two visions together,” said Burn.

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