The Maine doorway to the Arctic

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Maine: Only a hop, skip, and jump away from the North Pole. In yellow and green are shipping routes. It is clear that while Maine is not close to any single dense shipping route like Alaska and the North Pacific Great Circle route, it is instead near a wide variety of trans-Atlantic routes.

A few weeks ago, I took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to the Arctic. Or at least that’s how some officials in Maine might describe my destination, which was the coastal of Portland, population 66,000. That’s because Maine is increasingly looking northeast for political and economic support rather than southwest to the rest of the United States. This new direction in outlook largely draws inspiration from Icelandic shipping company Eimskip’s relocation in 2013 of its North American port of call from Norfolk, Virginia over 1,000 kilometers up the Atlantic seaboard to Portland, Maine’s largest city.

Yet Maine’s connection to the Arctic is a lot more than three years old. My reason for traveling to the United States’ northeasternmost state was to give a talk at Bowdoin, a picturesque liberal arts college thirty minutes north of Portland in the town of Brunswick. For over 150 years, Bowdoin has held a connection to the Arctic through its students and professors. In 1860, a professor from Bowdoin led a group of students to Labrador and West Greenland – two areas that are just a hop, skip, and jump between Maine and the North Pole, as depicted by the above map. Bringing the glory of Arctic exploration at the time to Maine, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two Bowdoin graduates, Robert Peary and Donald MacMillan, led numerous expeditions to the Arctic both together and separately. In 1909, Peary and his team, including four Inuit men and African-American Matthew Henson, claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole after originally setting off from New York City the summer before.

Kennebec_Arctic_HuntingWhile Peary’s claim has been disputed for over one hundred years (the first incontrovertible conquest of the North Pole did not occur until 1928, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen flew over it in an airship), he, MacMillan, and their supporters established a tradition of Mainers in the Arctic that is today being revived academically, economically, and politically. For instance, Maine’s Senator Angus King is a founding co-chair of the U.S. Senate’s Arctic Caucus along with Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. Maine’s North Atlantic Development Office, referred to as MENADO, was formed in 2013 to enhance trade and investment between Maine and the North Atlantic region and to build the state’s Arctic policy. These efforts also connect with New England’s historic connection to the Arctic’s resources, like during the nineteenth century when Arctic whaling expeditions would set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts – the former whaling capital of the world. And in a 1912 issue of hunting and fishing magazine Forest and Stream, an ad for an Arctic hunting vessel for charter out of Boston appeared under an ad for canoes from Waterville, Maine. 

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A Doorway to the Arctic in Maine.

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A remnant of a Grape-Nut box left behind by MacMillan’s expedition team in Etah, Greenland a century ago.

Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, one of two Arctic-only museums in the United States, celebrates the accomplishments of the two eponymous individuals and others, such as Henson, who is often left out of historical accounts of Arctic exploration. One current exhibit, “A Glimmer on the Polar Sea: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917,” discusses MacMillan’s effort to try to find a fabled landmass north of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, which ultimately proved to be a mirage. A Bowdoin team leading an archaeological dig in Etah, Greenland, an abandoned settlement that once was a starting point for expeditions northward, revealed an empty package of Grape-Nuts that MacMillan had brought for the Crocker Land Expedition. Grape-Nuts, as I learned, have traditionally been popular in Maine and New England, with some restaurants even serving “Grape-Nut pudding.” Post Grape-Nuts was so excited about the discovery of Grape-Nuts, which are probably rarer than gold nuggets in the Arctic, that they sponsored the reception for the exhibit. Not to miss a marketing opportunity, they insisted that two dishes made out of Grape-Nuts be served.

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The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College.

Given its hardiness, crunchiness, and caloric density, this New England staple could be considered a food fit for Arctic explorers in line with pemmican and walrus blubber. In fact, Grape-Nuts have also fueled expeditions to Antarctica and Mt. Everest and America’s World War II operations in the tropics. Since I would bet that nobody in the history of mankind has ever eaten Grape-Nuts without spilling a few of these miniscule crunchy nuggets around them, I can only imagine future archaeologists looking for remnants of this breakfast cereal (which also never seems to go stale) in the Arctic and beyond.

After my visit to Bowdoin, I traveled back down to Portland. There, I toured Eimskip’s port facilities, met with a professor from the University of Southern Maine working on Arctic law of the sea issues, and visited the offices of Ramboll – the world’s leading consultancy in the Arctic. Portland, a hip town with a working waterfront and supposedly the most restaurants per capita in the United States, also might have perhaps the most Arctic-engaged people per capita in the nation outside of Alaska.

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Looking up towards Exchange Street in Portland, Maine’s Old Port District.

This fall, since the U.S. is currently chair of the Arctic Council, Portland will host numerous Arctic events building off of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Official meeting, which will take place from October 4-6. With the Arctic Circle conference – “the world’s largest global assembly on the Arctic” – starting the day afterwards in Reykjavik, participants will be able to easily catch the five-hour direct flight from Boston’s Airport, less than two hours away from Portland, to Iceland.

This ease of connection between Maine and northern places like Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland underscores Maine’s relative proximity to the Arctic, even if its actual inclusion within the region is up for debate. Folks in Alaska are grumbling about having to fly all the way to Maine for the Arctic Council events. In reality, Alaska is more isolated than Maine in relation to where a lot of the current Arctic development is happening: in the North Atlantic rather than the North Pacific. For all of the Canadians, Europeans, and Russians based in their nation’s capitals and centers of power who have to travel to the U.S. this year for Arctic Council meetings, Maine is closer than Alaska. It’s more or less business as usual, then, with the future of the Arctic being decided in the south.

In my next post, I’ll write more about Eimskip’s operations in Portland, Maine – a state which I heard one Icelander refer to as being like “Iceland that speaks English.”

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Or you could take this Polar Express train stationed in Portland, Maine to the Arctic.

Seen from space: Canadian highway to Arctic Ocean nears completion

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The highway between Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik as seen from space on April 6, 2016. The Mackenzie River is visible to the left of the photo, and the Anderson River is visible on the right.

A few days ago, The Washington Post ran a story about the Dalton Highway in Alaska. This packed gravel road courses north from Fairbanks up to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean, where the oil fields of the North Slope lie. The newspaper headline read, “This 414-mile road to the Arctic Ocean is one of the world’s most remote highways.”

That Alaskan highway will soon have some competition from its neighbor.

On April 7, two crews working in Canada’s Northwest Territories met in the middle and filled in the gravel to connect their respective sections. One part extends south from Tuktoyaktuk, and the other section extends north from Inuvik, the town of 3,463 where the Canadian highway system currently terminates.

The dumping of the gravel by two earthmovers to connect the two road sections could be called the Canadian Arctic’s “Golden Spike,” drawing a parallel with the ceremonial moment in 1869 when the Union and Central Pacific railroads were joined at Promontory Summit, Utah. The hammering of the Golden Spike into the tracks fused the United States of America together by rail from sea to shining sea.

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Lots of ceremony for the hammering of the Golden Spike in Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.

The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway, which will be finished in 2017 if all goes according to plan, will connect Canada from sea to sea to sea – from the Pacific to the Arctic to the Atlantic. A permanent connection to the frozen ocean, which is currently only accessible by ice road in winter, may allow Canada to carry out oil and gas exploration in the resource-rich Beaufort Sea.

The road, which Inuvialuit-owned Northwind Industries is constructing, was originally budgeted at CAD $299 million. While the government has claimed that the expensive project will greatly benefit the 900-odd residents of Tuktoyaktuk by lowering their costs of living and improving transportation access, it may in fact disproportionately benefit the oil and gas companies that seek easier access to the North. Whereas The Globe and Mail in 2014 called the forthcoming highway “a new lifeline to the Arctic coast,” seen from another perspective, the road could prove to be a hangman’s noose if it succeeds in facilitating full-scale fossil fuel extraction in the Beaufort Sea.

The historic moment at kilometer 50 of the new highway was captured on video and set to triumphant music for the Government of the Northwest Territories.


What hasn’t yet been reported is that NASA’s Landsat satellite also passed over the highway on April 6, just one day before the final gravel was poured. The timing is quite fortunate since Landsat only passes over any given spot on Earth every 16 days. Even more serendipitously, the skies over the Northwest Territories were cloud-free that day, allowing the satellite a clear view of the black road cutting across the white snow below.

Here’s how the 137-kilometer long, two-lane Canadian highway, which is due to open in 2017, looks from 438 miles out in space. Some might call it a lifeline, while others might call it a scar on the tundra. And some might just simply see the road as concrete proof of mankind’s extension northward, whether foolhardy or awe-inspiring.

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Satellite imagery originally downloaded from the U.S. Geological Survey’s EarthExplorer.

Talk on April 13 at Bowdoin College, Maine

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Survey lines for oil and gas exploration cut a grid into the Siberian taiga in the Sakha Republic, Russia.

For people living in or near Maine, I’ll be giving a talk at Bowdoin College tomorrow night (Wednesday, April 13) called, “Perspectives on resource extraction in the global Arctic.” The talk is open to the public and it’s sponsored by the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center – both of which I’m excited to visit. I’ve never been to Maine before, so it will be neat to witness how the state is making forays into the Arctic. One example, as I’ve mentioned before, is the relocation of Icelandic shipping company’s Eimskip North American port of call to Portland – just thirty minutes south of Bowdoin.

Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Although foreigners have journeyed to the Arctic since at least the 15th century in search of natural resources, the global networks engaged today in extracting the region’s commodities are bigger and more complex than ever before. By relying on approaches from  political geography and remote sensing, I’ll shed light on the contemporary pathways and processes of Arctic resource extraction.


I hope you can make it!