Manitoba History: Review: Cameron Dueck, The New Northwest Passage: A Voyage to the Front Line of Climate Change
by Margaret Bertulli
Cameron Dueck was captured by an extraordinary dream, and Manitobans will be particularly interested to read about someone who grew up on a turkey farm near Riverton sailing through the Northwest Passage and writing a book about his experience. The author combines his passion for journalism with history and adventure, as he seeks to understand firsthand the allure of the Arctic and how climate change is affecting it and the people and animals that have achieved an effective adaptation to its environmental extreme. Restlessness born from the disquiet that he was not seizing life’s opportunities set Dueck on this journey—but even more than this, it was his well-stated desire to “leverage” his success and secure position in life by taking a real risk: “I felt that all our security was a waste if we didn’t leverage it and push ourselves out of our comfort zones” (p. 32). This aspiration, along with a desire to see the effects of climate change through the eyes of people who are experiencing it, resulted in his traverse of the Northwest Passage.
From June to September 2009, Dueck and a crew varying between two and three people made the transit from Victoria to Halifax, a distance of 8,000 nautical miles or 15,000 kilometres. Their home for the nineteen-week journey was Silent Sound, a refitted forty-foot cutter rig sailing boat built in 1979 by Amor Marine of Richmond, BC. The difficulties of negotiating an Arctic waterway in a small craft are well-explained, and there is no shortage of sailing drama and interpersonal clashes. The story also comes alive through Dueck’s relating of his encounters with local residents on several stops at communities along the route (Dutch Harbour, Tin City, Wales, and Barrow, Alaska; Herschel Island, Yukon; Tuktoyaktuk, Sachs Harbour, and Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories; Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, and Pond Inlet, Nunavut; Nain, Labrador). Descriptions of the small communities and the people with whom he engaged are lively and empathetic. At each stop, the crew learned about issues facing the local inhabitants, and Dueck skilfully distils these many themes into an accurate description of Arctic society.
In Alaska he learns about the tensions between oil and gas development and people’s need to follow traditional hunting practices for their physical and cultural survival. On Herschel Island researchers tell him of vegetation species encroaching from the south, causing the disappearance of the lichen crucial for caribou subsistence. At Sachs Harbour he sees how weather changes, in the form of shifting global wind patterns and the increasing frequency of thunder and lightning storms, concern hunters. At Ulukhaktok the multigenerational scars wrought by the legacy of residential schools still results in a grandmother’s wish for her granddaughter to “make the best of both worlds” (p. 161). At Cambridge Bay he sees the pathos of young children playing outside in the early morning hours because their parents are drinking.
And throughout the book is the theme of climate warming. In many communities residents talk about atypical animal sightings—sea otters and porcupines around Wales; red fox at Herschel Island; grizzlies on Banks Island; the interbreeding of polar and grizzly bears in the Western Canadian Arctic; a brown eagle at Pond Inlet. Salmon berries ripen earlier each year in Wales, where in 2009 the sea ice broke up in May rather than June. Likewise, in the winter of 2009 there was no airstrip off Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait, because the sea ice was too thin. Scientists studying the permafrost on Herschel Island tell Dueck that permafrost temperature has risen by 2°C over the last one hundred years and that the thawing permafrost allows the release of methane, which contributes to climate warming. It is a poignant irony throughout to realize that without climate change causing a great reduction in sea ice, this particular voyage in a small sailing craft likely would not have been possible.
Dueck notes many other themes common to most of the communities, such as sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic; the inadequacy of opportunities and jobs, especially for young people; the distance between young people and their traditional culture; difficulties of hunting and travelling on sea ice of unpredictable thickness; health status and longevity; the effects of booze and drugs; the impact of resource development providing jobs on traditional hunting culture; and the potential for increased shipping through the Northwest Passage. With each of these, Dueck hones his journalistic skills to understand how the people living these challenges genuinely think and feel. Throughout the book, the reader senses that the Arctic is fragile yet enduring, as are its people. While communities deal with grave dilemmas, people are meeting challenges and looking to a future for their children.
Sketches of historical European voyages into the Arctic are interwoven with the geography through which Silent Sound passes, and the Franklin expedition of 1845 makes an early appearance in the book’s second paragraph. The two small maps showing Silent Sound’s route are well drawn and easily comprehensible, and the sailing glossary is very handy for ‘landlubbers.’ The text contains a few misstatements that require rectification. The language spoken by the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic is Inuktitut, not “Inuktituk,” as the word is commonly mispronounced; and the singular of Inuit is “Inuk.” From his stop in Sachs Harbour, Nunavut, the author re-tells a story about two Inuit hunters, one of whom was a shaman, being attacked by Quechan Indians whose arrows passed through the shaman without harming him. As the Quechan live in Arizona and California, I assume that this contact was with one of the indigenous groups of the Western Subarctic rather than the Quechan, perhaps the Gwich’in. With regard to the timing of the migration of Thule people, ancestors of the modern Inuit, it is now thought that this cultural group spread from Alaska into the Canadian Arctic in the 13th century AD,  although the date of AD 1000 has long been attributed to this occurrence. Dueck also misstates that the 129 men of the final Franklin expedition “succumbed to cannibalism” (p. 16), while physical evidence indicates that, though many took this resort to preserving life, not all of them did. There are also several typographical errors (“Torngate” rather than “Torngat”) but these inaccuracies do not detract largely from the quality of the work.
The book is a good read. People with little or no experience of the Arctic and its peoples will appreciate the author’s explicative prose. For those to whom the Arctic is a familiar and well-loved place Dueck’s descriptions ring true, particularly those of community life and weather. Images and a blog of the expedition can be found at www. openpassageexpedition.com.
Page revised: 19 March 2018Back to top of page