New feature: From the Arctic archives

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Newspaper headlines tend to recycle certain contemporary tropes about the Arctic. Climate change is accelerating, the race for resources is heating up, and “the Russians are coming!” are some of the most common threads. Given the consistency of themes in reporting on the Arctic, it can be hard to imagine how the region was discussed in previous decades before climate change began to rear its head and before offshore oil and gas became the north’s hottest commodity. Yet the media has discussed and portrayed the Arctic for hundreds of years in ways both surprisingly similar and starkly different from today.

With this new blog feature, Arctic News in Review, I’ll showcase old newspaper reports of Arctic happenings. From perusing through the Library of Congress’ digital archives of newspapers from 1789-1924, the printed pages of the late-19th century and early 20th-century reveal stories filled with characters like self-aggrandizing explorers, overzealous prospectors, and a handful of Native Americans who managed to make money out of the gold and fur rushes that at the same time were desecrating their lands. There are even a few comics about the adventures of strapping young men in the wild and untamed Arctic.

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A comic strip, “Adrift in the Arctic,” from the New York newspaper, The Evening World, on April 22, 1915. 

The historic newspaper pages also show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. The first old newspaper clipping I’m including for this feature, shown above, is the front page of the now defunct Topeka State Journal on December 30, 1905. The front page’s two sole stories concern immigration and the Northwest Passage. These two topics have come up repeatedly in the past few weeks and months, the former most saliently with Trump’s temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and the latter with Crystal Serenity’s pioneering cruise through the Northwest Passage last summer.

The topics are the same, only the characters have changed. In 1905, referring to a newly published report from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, journalist Adelbert Strong writes, “No one who reads the report even superficially can fail to realize the magnitude and gravity of the problems suggested by the rapid increase of America’s alien population.” The differences is that a century ago, the immigrants Americans feared were coming from Europe rather than the Middle East. Italians, Russian Jews, and Polish people topped the list of largest immigrant groups. Italians were even still categorized according to whether they came from northern or southern Italy, for the country had not yet unified.

Strong also betrays a deep fear of “orientals,” specifically Chinese people. He cautions that although the number of Chinese immigrants is low (only 1,971 came in 1905) and largely concentrated in the western U.S., the “problem” could spread to the rest of the country at some point. He warns, “It is only when the total annual influx reaches formidable numbers that the uneasiness which is confined almost entirely to the Pacific coast becomes manifest.”

The irony of American society’s fear of the Chinese is that the story on the bottom half of the Topeka Journal’s front page, which covers the Northwest Passage, illuminates just how obsessed Western explorers were with finding a shortcut to Asia. On December 5, 1905 – a few weeks prior to the edition’s publication on December 30 publication (also showing how relatively slow news traveled in those days), Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Reporter Elbert Woodson, contextualizing Amundsen’s historic journey in the context of previous expeditions, described, “For many generations the avowed purpose of these undertakings was to find a navigable short route from Europe to Asia.” Amundsen was nominally more interested in locating the magnetic north pole, but his journey is still embedded within a history of Arctic exploration that was hell bent on finding a route to Asia even as the Americans were trying to keep Asians out of their own territory.

One hundred years from now, a concerned citizen somewhere may look back and reflect on the hypocrisies of current events in January 2017. Sadly demonstrating how little we have progressed from the past, ours is a world where the U.S. bans citizens from the very countries that its state and corporations seek to exploit for their natural resources. Case in point: within the span of a few days this month, Trump on the one hand brazenly remarked to the CIA on the subject of Iraq, “We should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance,” while on the other hand banned travel by Iraqi citizens and six other countries to the U.S.

Immigration and Arctic shipping routes may very well still be controversial issues in 2117. The subjects might be a little different: perhaps America will fear environmental refugees from, say, Southeast Asian countries ravaged by climate change and deforestation (one of the regions whose countries are most subject to long-term climate risk, according to a German report), while the developments in northern navigation may involve the first navigation of a trans-polar route across the North Pole, which could be ice-free in summer as soon as this year if this Cambridge ocean physicist is proven right.

But while the stories of 1905 have repeated themselves in 2017, we can’t always be guaranteed of having a second chance to repeat our mistakes.

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One hundred years from now, will refugees from a region like Southeast Asia be placed on a U.S. travel ban list? Photo: Inle Lake, Burma, 2012. Mia Bennett.

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The first-ever cruise through the Northwest Passage has set sail

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A tourist vessel outside the hamlet of Kimmirut in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

In 1969, the first commercial cargo ship sailed through the Northwest Passage.

In 2013, the first bulk carrier traversed those same icy waters.

And today from the southern Alaskan port of Seward, the luxury cruise vessel Crystal Serenity set off on its historic 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage. If it successfully completes the journey, Crystal Serenity will be the first-ever cruise ship to ply these waters. You can keep track of the ship’s location hereCrystal Serenity has sailed on cruises around Antarctica before, but this will be it’s first time heading to the northern polar region.

The 69,000-ton, 820-foot ship is ferrying 800-odd guests, all of whom paid at least $21,855 for their ticket (except maybe the lone travel journalist, who will be blogging about the cruise). The fact that Crystal Cruises, a luxury outfitter if there ever was one, spells out a dress code for its passengers should give you an idea of the type of well-heeled passengers they hope to attract. Here’s one sampler warning: “After 6 pm, casual daytime attire is not appropriate. Shorts and baseball caps are not permitted for men or women.” In other words, please keep all those “ALASKA: THE LAST FRONTIER” baseball caps you picked up at the airport in Anchorage in your suitcase for the next month.

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Crystal Serenity in Antarctica. Photo: Crystal Cruises

The envy-inducing Northwest Passage itinerary includes stops in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and New England and will wrap up in New York City (where it’s been swelteringly humid lately). Passengers will have the opportunity to go out to shore in zodiacs with biologist guides, listen to lectures by the likes of University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic affairs, and yes – even watch a ventriloquist perform. (His name is Mark Merchant, in case you were wondering.) In case that isn’t enough, there will even be a gemstone trunk show while on board. All while those icebergs glide silently by.

Here are some photos of the types of vistas passengers will enjoy.

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A fjord on Baffin Island, where Crystal Serenity will sail on September 5. Photo: Adam Monier/Flickr. Creative Commons License 2.0

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An iceberg in Disko Bay off Ilulissat, which Crystal Serenity will visit on September 7. Photo: Sarah Cooley

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The town of Sisimiut, Greenland, where Crystal Serenity will dock on September 8.


Escort ship RMS Earnest Shackleton will guide the luxury yacht through the icy waters, while onboard, two experienced ice pilots will help the captain navigate. Crystal Serenity will also be using a higher grade of fuel than mandated to do its part to be green.

Still, despite the three years of preparation that have gone into making this voyage, a lot of concerns remain. First of all, just because the ice is melting doesn’t mean the waters are that much easier to sail. In fact, the opposite could be true since shifting sea ice makes for more volatile and unpredictable conditions. The Northwest Passage is already quite shallow and narrow in parts, and making matters worse, several parts of it have not been charted since the early 1900s. During my fieldwork in the Northwest Territories earlier this summer, one person told me that he thought Crystal Serenity’s crew would have to rely on old maps for some parts of the voyage.

Second, there is not a single hospital along the shores of the Northwest Passage. Children in Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, spend a day and a half flying 2,000 kilometers to Edmonton to get a mere tooth filled. There is a good hospital in a Inuvik and scattered medical facilities in the small towns that dot the Canadian Arctic, too. But in the event of a serious catastrophe in which hundreds of passengers require medical attention, the region just simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.

Two years ago, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, I examined what would happen if a jet plane went down in the Arctic. That situation sounded scary, but those planes usually carry somewhere in the ballpark of 300 passengers. This cruise ship has over three times that.

For most people, a cruise through the Arctic is not going to be within a lifetime’s reach. But there is a way to sail through the north on the cheap.

Four years ago, I paid $73 for a 17-hour journey onboard a Hurtigruten ship from Tromsø to the Lofoten Islands. Hurtigruten ships are far more pedestrian than Crystal Cruises affairs. After all, they’re still pretty much working boats that ferry mail and supplies, along with tourists, up and down the coast of northern Norway. My ticket explained, “Our ships carry goods, vehicles and foot passengers between ports, during day and night, as an integral part of Norwegian daily life. Our ships are calling at ports around the clock. You may expect some noise and vibration in a few cabins during loading of goods.”

In hindsight, yes: I would willingly save over $21,000 to sail through the Arctic if it just meant that I had to put up with some noise. My cut-rate student fare didn’t buy me a room, but it did get me a blanket that I could cozy up with in the commons area once everyone else had retired to their cabins.

Once daylight broke, I stood outside on the icy deck with a group of German tourists, who all wore matching misshapen beanies that said “Hunting the Light.” This sort of kitsch is probably not what Crystal Cruises, enemy of all baseball-cap wearing Americans, has in mind.

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Beanie-wearing German tourists on board a Hurtigruten vessel off northern Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett

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A Hurtigruten ship: essentially a working vessel that carries tourists. Photo: Mia Bennett.


With Crystal Serenity focusing on the icy and pristine, it obviously won’t be taking tourists to see the blight that exists throughout the Canadian Arctic. Amongst the ruins of bygone development are untethered oil rigs, and perhaps soon, the Port of Churchill. Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port was shut for good earlier this month and is now hoping for a government bailout. These are the type of rusty, gritty places that you’d have a better chance of getting to with a good pair of boots than wingtips.

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An abandoned oil drilling platform off Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo: Mia Bennett


Although it’s unclear what will happen to the forlorn Port of Churchill, if all goes according to plan, Crystal Serenity will dock in New York City on September 17 and its passengers will waltz into the bejeweled night. If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration doesn’t decide to rescue the port, perhaps Churchill could look to the Chinese. That first bulk carrier that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2013 is owned by a Chinese-state owned company, the first cargo ship to make the trip in decades the following year was Chinese-chartered, and I’d venture that a fair number of tourists on Crystal Serenity are from China, too.

So the first-ever cruise through Canada’s fabled passage is headed northwest, but really in the Arctic, all signs are pointing east. I guess those people five hundred years ago who thought the Northwest Passage would lead to the riches of Cathay have finally been proven right.

***

“We were the first that ever burst
into that silent sea.”

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)

What does the sudden closure of Canada’s only Arctic deepwater port mean for Arctic shipping?

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The Port of Churchill has seen better days. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons License, Martin Lopatka.

Arctic shipping is not off to a good start this season.

On July 25, the privately owned management company, Omnitrax, announced that it was shutting down the Port of Churchill, giving some 40 workers the dreaded two-week notice. Shipping usually runs from late July to early November, meaning that this year’s shipping season will barely even get started before being drawn to an abrupt close.

Churchill exports grain, minerals, and timber from Manitoba and Saskatchewan while importing ore, minerals, steel, and petroleum products for markets in Central and Western Canada and the U.S., according to Omnitrax‘s website.

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Palmer, F. Hudson Bay Route Possible Port Terminal at Churchill [map]. In: F. Palmer. Report on the Section of a Terminal Port for the Hudson Bay Railway. London: Harrison & Sons, Ltd., 1927. Image Courtesy of University of Manitoba : Archives & Special Collections, from Flickr/Creative Commons, Wyman Laliberte.

The port has a storied history, too. In the 1930s, the Canadian government built the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay railroad to improve import and export possibilities for Western Canada, promote northern industrial and community development, and enhance Canada’s northern sovereignty. Somewhat under the radar, it also played its part in improving relations with Warsaw Pact states during the Cold War, too. The port exported wheat and barley to Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, as this Montreal Gazette newspaper clipping from 1981 reports.

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In 1992, building on these little-known but longstanding trade ties, Canada and Russia signed the Arctic Bridge Agreement to promote shipping between Murmansk, a port city in northwest Russia, and Churchill via the Barents and Norwegian Seas and Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada. According to the plan, Murmansk would export mineral and timber products, and Churchill would continue shipping out grain.

That plan never really came to fruition. Today, concentrating on the decidedly unglamorous world of bulk and grain shipments, the Port of Churchill doesn’t rank high on many Arctic cruise itineraries. Most visitors come by rail or air rather than by sea. Located on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay, the town offers one of the closest and most accessible Arctic experiences for the many Canadians who live in central Canada and Ontario. Fluffy white polar bears, spawning, chubby beluga whales, and the colorful northern lights are the main draws for tourists.

At the bottom end of Hudson Bay, however, Churchill is far from the Northwest Passage. As such, it likely won’t benefit from any increase in cruise tourism along the Canadian shipping route. Crystal Cruises’ landmark luxury Arctic voyage this summer, for instance, will call on Uluhaktok (Northwest Territories) and Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet (Nunavut), but not Churchill, Manitoba.

A micro and macro-level shock

The closure of the Port of Churchill comes as a blow for the local economy. It’s the largest single employer in the town of 800 people, and approximately 50 port employees have received pink slips.

And at a macro level, the port’s shuttering may deliver an even bigger shock to plans to build out Northern Canada’s transportation infrastructure and develop the regional economy. For all the talk of building deepwater ports in Canada’s Arctic from Tuktoyaktuk to Nanisivik it appears that the Port of Churchill, North America’s sole existing deepwater Arctic seaport, is not even viable. Why would companies or the Canadian government want to invest in building additional deepwater ports in the Arctic when they can’t even keep the only operating one afloat?

Still, it will be surprising if the Canadian government lets the port be closed for good. Given its high symbolic status, it’s possible that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government may move to nationalize the port and buy the port back from Omnitrax,  one of the largest private railroad and transportation companies in North America. Omnitrax will be able to keep chugging along even with the Port of Churchill’s closure given its continental-wide operations (a map of its ports and railroads is available here), and it has actually only operated the port for fewer than 20 years. Previously, a crown corporation owned by the Canadian government called Ports Canada operated the port. The government also sold the Hudson Bay Rail Line that extends to the Port of Churchill to Omnitrax in 1997.

Re-nationalizing the port may reveal that a great deal of northern infrastructure, and perhaps even Arctic shipping, simply isn’t economically viable in this day and age – even with climate change and longer shipping seasons. On land, thawing permafrost poses problems for the railroad leading up to Churchill. The issue of shifting ground is common throughout much of the Arctic, making intermodal transportation (smoothly integrating shipping, roads, and rail) more complicated than in the South. And at sea, even though there is less ice in places like the Northwest Passage, there isn’t much more demand in northern markets for goods, while growth is better in the more southern reaches of Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Arctic deepwater ports: a house of cards?

The dismal economic viability of a lot of Arctic infrastructure means that it is important to carefully scrutinize plans such as the recently announced memorandum of understanding signed between the Government of Nunavut and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA). They wish to construct a 227-kilometer road to a proposed port at Grays Bay in the Northwest Passage. The road could potentially open up a number of mining regions and provide all-weather access to the Northwest Territories’ diamond mines.

Together, the Government of Nunavut and KIA hope to lobby for federal funding to cover three-quarters of the port’s $487 million price tag – over $365 million, in other words. This would be even more money than the $300 million spent on the 140-kilometer highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, in the Western Arctic. Construction on that road is nearly finished, and locals and government officials alike there are anticipating a deepwater port to follow. Some have even taken to calling the road “the world’s longest boat launch,” suggesting that even if Tuktoyaktuk erodes away into the ocean as is already happening, there may still be a port up there.

But when Arctic shipping appears to be drying up in Canada – first with the bankruptcy of Northern Transportation Limited Company, which provides resupply by barge to communities in Northern Canada, and second with the closure of the Port of Churchill – spending hundreds of millions of dollars on roads to the ocean with no real hope for viable ports in the near future seems foolhardy. Even though the climate is changing, the philosophy, “Build it and they will come,” still doesn’t necessarily apply in the Arctic.

Decades-long concerns

Today, the Port of Churchill only ships two percent of Canada’s grain exports. Todd MacKay, Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it well: “If customers are choosing other ports to ship grain, the reality is that more taxpayer dollars won’t solve the problem.” Throwing more public funds to construct big-ticket roads and ports in the Arctic will not result in Hong Kongs, Singapores, or  even Reykjaviks sprouting up from the tundra, no matter the appeal of glossy brochures promoting Northern development.

This has been true even prior to the current blitz by members of the media, governments, and corporations who are heralding a new era in Arctic development thanks to climate change. In 1994, politicians were already worried about the Port of Churchill’s viability and shelling out of money on the Arctic Bridge project between Murmansk and Churchill. The following is a transcript from an oral question period from the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba in 1994 (full transcript available here).

Mr. Daryl Reid (MLA – Transcona, Manitoba): I would like to ask this government: In light of the fact that we have spent taxpayers’ dollars here in the order of several hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ dollars on the consultants for this Arctic Bridge agreement, what do we have to show for those hundreds of thousands of dollars that we have spent?

Hon. Albert Driedger (Acting Minister of Highways and Transportation): Mr. Speaker, the initiative was initially taken in terms of trying to see whether we could assist CN, the Port, everybody in terms of doing more trade through the Port of Churchill. That is why the Arctic Bridge concept was developed. The reports have been coming forward. We are still hopeful that there is going to be activity taking place.

The federal minister Axworthy has said that he himself will also be working in that direction to see whether we can get new enhanced business coming through the Port of Churchill.

So it is not a matter that we are trying to keep the Port of Churchill down. We have been and will continue to do everything we can in terms of enhancing it, including the aerospace thing, the national park out there. If we can get some activity going through the Port of Churchill, I think we have a positive thing going.

Over the years, it seems like polar bears are actually the main thing that have kept Churchill’s economy afloat. The development of the local tourism industry, as Ed Struzik detailed in a story for OpenCanada recently, has helped Churchill from being a one-trick pony completely reliant on the port. Now that the port’s future is up in the air, Churchill may turn into a one-trick polar bear.

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Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Gary Ullah.