Travelling with an Open Mind

This new book meets the North on its own terms

Arctic news is dominated by resource extraction, community dysfunction, adorable wildlife, military exercises and rapid change of all kinds, largely originating outside the Arctic region. In Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic, James Raffan tackles and enriches these themes that dovetail with today’s headlines. Delivered via a compelling device of travelling along the Arctic Circle, his central argument is that while climate change happens faster in the North than the rest of Earth, cultural change is blindingly more rapid, and of far greater concern to the people who live there.

Telling other people’s stories, especially those of indigenous people in remote areas grappling daily with colonial fallout, is a fraught undertaking. Raffan understands this inherent difficulty, because sharing such stories is the main purpose of both the book and the travels it is based on. Raffan brings to the task a mix of respect, caution, detail and humility. He is acutely aware that he is neither a born-and-bred northerner nor a member of any of the dozens of indigenous circumpolar cultures. In the prologue he shares his delight that his British immigrant parents chose Canada rather than South Africa or Australia as their post-war home. During a varied career as a writer and broadcaster, experiential education professor and cultural historian of canoes, Raffan has always gravitated to northern portions of this northern country. His online CV shows a wonderful map detailing a half century of trips in Canada by foot, icebreaker, skidoo, snowshoe, road, ski, air and bike.

The travels recounted in his newest book cap off a fascinating (and ongoing) set of life adventures. Building on his experiences in high-latitude Canada, he takes on the bigger northern world, pushing himself beyond regional Canadian stories to rich comparisons of cultures, settings and unfolding histories in all eight circumpolar countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Iceland, a Greenland that is increasingly autonomous from Denmark and Alaska, the state that makes the United States an Arctic nation. Raffan’s account reveals the spirit of an adventurer, the intellect of a geographer, the curiosity of a journalist and the heart of a humanist. He brings these elements together in a way that is not only highly readable, but tailored for the suite of contradictory patterns, ethical conundrums and rapid change that is the modern Arctic.

The book encourages less stereotyping and more thoughtful action on hopeful and troubling trends for Canada’s North, the larger Arctic and the globe. On virtually every page, Raffan oscillates between textured tales of local experience and gentle analysis of broader historical and geographic themes. For example, Stalin’s influence in Siberia was a particularly brutal expression of the generally difficult relationship between most northern communities and the power exerted from distant southern capitals. Through place-based stories, Raffan explores the related theme of northerners reclaiming decision authority. We learn that the arrival of Christianity and residential schools in Russia and Alaska was not fundamentally different than in Canada. Corruption, social problems and inadequate local compensation are common to large-scale extractive resource projects and their government cheerleaders across the Arctic. Raffan the geographer is particularly skilled at zooming in to granular times and places, and zooming back out so readers can digest key temporal and spatial patterns.

Raffan discloses up front that his travels were not a single orderly journey—he took many trips over more than three years—and he does a fine job reordering episodes (and reconstructing dialogue) into what reads as one cohesive narrative thread. With the Arctic Circle as a loose construct around which to revolve, and never straying inordinately far south, we zigzag with Raffan eastward, beginning with a fishing family off Iceland’s remote Grimsey Island, and finishing exhausted and exhilarated 450 pages later, back in Reykjavik at a glitzy international Arctic meeting. Iceland was first settled by medieval Celts and Vikings, and has stayed relatively ethnically homogeneous for a millennium. This sets it apart from the rest of the Arctic, where colonial expansion in the last few centuries has yielded collisions with far more ancient—and tenacious—indigenous cultures. Raffan tells us that “the story begins and ends in Iceland … because this country provides a political counterpoint to the variety of projects in the other seven countries to devolve power to the indigenous peoples of the North.” This theme—not just topdown devolution but emerging ground-up efforts to reclaim power, culture and environmental management—is a recurring contrast to his other dominant theme of colonialism and its aftermath.

Raffan adopts a novel narrative structure that allows for relatively fair and equal treatment of the top of the planet. Each of the book’s 24 chapters focuses on a single time zone, starting and ending at Greenwich Mean Time (Iceland at the Arctic Circle). This structure means Raffan takes a deep dive (200 pages deep) into northern Russia’s cultural diversity and geographic enormity, a boon for readers already familiar with North America’s North, and entirely proportionate as any top-down glance at a globe reveals, although it may feel as if Alaska and Canada get short shrift.

On the way we spend time with real people in all eight circumpolar countries. Raffan helps us discover the unity and diversity of the contemporary North. The commonalities can be mundane or surprising: brutal cold snaps, summer bugs, country foods, melting sea ice and permafrost, alcoholism, suicide, language retention, remoteness, social media, cultural pride, resource extraction, self-determination, travel snafus. Perhaps more importantly, Raffan encounters diversity across the Arctic, those small tangible differences among geographies, habitats and cultures that illuminate what desk research done down south never could. For instance, the forested Norway-Russia borderland is home to semi-domesticated reindeer, producing a profoundly different style of nomadism and settlement than that among Nunavut’s marine mammal hunters. And the modernity of urban Greenland contrasts with the austerity he finds across Siberia. Yet Raffan manages to weave all these divergent details into helpful, coherent themes.

The book’s unique value stems largely from what it is not. It is not a nature story; rather, it is a strongly anthropocentric piece by a mature and open-minded observer—and participant. Raffan is not in this for adventure or discovery in the style of Franklin, Shackleton or Amundsen, nor is he the modern version of swashbuckling polar explorer with skis, dogsleds and endurance tests. Despite the Circle motif, the narrative is no geographically arbitrary outing to a pole, ice cap, floe edge or peak. It is not nerdy policy analysis, cultural anthropology, economic manifesto or environmental advocacy. It is neither investigative journalism nor reflective memoir. In his prologue Raffan declares this “is not a textbook or a scientific tome—nothing of the kind. It is one person’s account of getting a notion and enacting it, with all of the joys, fumbles, and surprises along the way, amply illustrated by the faces of northerners … who welcomed a ‘neighbour from across the pole’ with open arms.”

The arbitrary conceit of traversing the Arctic Circle enables Raffan to intersect the full variety of conditions necessary to appreciate the region. Following the line eastward, he encounters boreal forests, sea ice and tundra; oceans warmed by the Gulf Stream and open water that used to be sea ice; peoples including Dene and Inuit in Canada and Alaska, Sami in Scandinavia, Danes and Inuit in Greenland, staggering ethnic diversity in Russia and global immigrants in larger centres; industries including mining, oil and gas, forestry, shipping and tourism; local foods, languages and traditions of all kinds, and the good, bad and ugly of governance. Raffan grinds no axes, but his sympathies lie with ordinary individuals whose lives are buffeted by change.

On the rare occasions when the reading becomes a slog, especially in the Russia chapters, this only reinforces the landscape’s breadth and the ingredients of authentic curiosity-fuelled travel: bone-breaking stints in decrepit Soviet-era trucks and planes, crowded herders’ tents, an extended hangout with an Evenk shaman, semi-autonomous okrugs, or administrative districts, and “man camps” at mines and hydrocarbon fields. Raffan recounts specific sensory experiences (fermented caribou milk, smoked horsemeat, walrus stomach drum dances), adding historical context (hardships during the world wars, systematic efforts to extinguish Native cultures) and pan-northern themes (the spiritual and ecological significance of ravens, bears and reindeer). In travels by plane, car and boat, he shows us that these “normal” conveyances, like ordinary people and their circumstances, are often extraordinary this far north.

Tales like these could all be told with an eye to shock value or isolated but entertaining anecdote. Raffan tells fine stories, but has given much thought to whatever bigger conclusions can be fairly and accurately drawn. He understands the risk of being a “parachuting” outsider leaping to well-intended judgements and developing the illusion of expertise. He sticks around most places long enough to build trust and have a good shot—for an outsider, anyway—at developing genuine understanding. Admirably, he often shows up in the dark, cold reality of northern winters, not just in the “midnight sun” time of the title, when most visitors go.

Raffan’s sense of humour cants to the charmingly absurd. He dumpster-dives for stray notes to reconstruct a missed meeting on reclaiming local food traditions in Jokkmokk, Sweden. An emaciated stuffed polar bear at a Norwegian Arctic Circle tourist trap has a “very clean and fluffy coat that had been splendidly finished by the taxidermist with a creme rinse that smelled faintly of lavender.” At a similarly cheesy Christmas village complex in Finland, he opted not to visit “Santa’s underground grotto (some kind of cave complex with special lights … what he needed that for was a mystery verging on creepy).” He is not above the odd snarky comment on how a major global soft drink brand may have co-opted an iconic, culturally important northern mammal in its marketing campaign. And he compares his arrival at an apartment in Magadan in the Russian Far East to a Mission: Impossible episode.

Because Raffan cleverly plays every card of diplomacy and luck he is dealt, he sometimes finds himself with a special exalted status, especially in Russia. For instance, he is met at Yukutsk airport in Siberia by the “barrel-chested … gentle giant” professor Vyacheslav Shadrin, who is “interested in helping a writer from Canada understand and appreciate what was happening with culture and climate change” in the region. Raffan soon realizes that this star academic with a hyperactive mobile phone was the longstanding elected chief of the Yukaghir people spanning three time zones, whose comment to Raffan is typical of leaders he meets across the circumpolar world: “They call me about everything. I wish I could solve all their problems but I can’t.” Raffan is treated by Shadrin to a whirlwind of meetings “that left my head spinning” and to a continuous stream of “editorial comment and one-liners” from his “inimitable, indefatigable” translator. In small communities across the Arctic, he discovers that leaders, young and old, tend to wear many hats from hunter to shaman to politician to oil and gas negotiator. Specialization, it seems, is a southern luxury.

As the book progresses, so does the ability to compare regions of the Arctic. Raffan recounts one interaction in Russia in which elders are amazed to learn land claims and treaty rights are constitutionally protected in Canada. Raffan summarizes the Canadian situation to these elders as one of “resistance, persistence, and negotiation … and patience. But what is written in law and what happens on the ground are often very different and, in that sense, my country in many respects is no different than yours when it comes to many of the issues that are of greatest concern to you today.” Raffan knits these larger ideas and particulate experiences together by means of his own thoughtful analysis and commentary. His easy tone tempers the serious pan-northern issues he encounters (suicide, alcohol abuse, food insecurity). Raffan does not shy away from the ugliness in the contemporary north, or from its natural and human beauty. He situates field observations against an intellectual backdrop of writers from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Farley Mowat, recounting a tirade from an old Inuk about whom Mowat got personal details wrong.

The late Tlicho chief Jimmy Bruneau (Northwest Territories) coined the phrase “strong like two people” for the idea that experiential land-based knowledge and western education could be mutually reinforcing, that combining the best of traditional and modern ideas and practices is the key to adaptation and resilience. Raffan encounters such people everywhere he goes, from a rural teenaged girl taking on Norway’s state-owned oil company to Alaska Native elders running diversified corporations. But late in the book, he ponders at length whether “fate control”—a rather arcane social science term meaning the ability to control one’s own destiny, which he extracts from an Arctic Council report—is critical in understanding converging themes of hope and despair he diagnoses across the North.

The Arctic as homeland is the dimension southerners usually do not fully comprehend, the one the mainstream media miss. This is the gaping hole Raffan fills in the panoply of popular Arctic literature.

He makes the case that building relationships and humbly listening to northern voices—those of the people with the biggest stake in the region’s future—are the best ways to confront unhelpful stereotypes and seemingly intractable rates of change. It is fashionable to talk about “cumulative effects” of development and climate change on Arctic environments and communities. Raffan’s intertwined vignettes from eight Arctic nations pack a different kind of cumulative punch. Without romanticizing, they leave a sense of hope for a thriving, sustainable Arctic once again fully led by smart, creative northerners, aided by allies like Raffan nudging the rest of us to consider where we fit in.