2016: The Arctic in Photos

In 2016, I traveled to far-flung parts of the Arctic I’d never before visited. I spent over two months of last year in the North, bundling up for deepest winter in Russia’s Sakha Republic and seeking shade from the unrelenting sun of an Arctic summer spent above the treeline in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I also returned to more familiar grounds in Iceland’s charming capital, a city that seems to metamorphose with every visit.

The North’s stark and impressive beauty never ceased to amaze, but more memorable were the people I encountered during my long journeys across tundras and mountains. At times I wouldn’t see another person on the road for hours, and then suddenly I’d be offered a cup of tea made from wild herbs, a bowl of hot borscht, or a piece of fresh-baked bannock in a welcome resting spot.

The hospitality that fills out the wide spaces of the Arctic is what makes it a place that keeps calling me back year after year. Sometimes, in moments when the mercury drops to 40 below, I’ll have fleeting thoughts of switching my research focus to a place like Southeast Asia. But then I’ll remember the mornings sipping Nescafe 3-in-1 out of a quickly melting plastic cup while staring at Soviet apartment buildings, the long evenings playing checkers inside a community center on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, losing every time to a man wearing a ring he had carved into the shape of a polar bear, and the nights spent swimming in the Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun with a sun dog arcing across the orange sky, and I know I’ll be back.

Below are a selection of photos from my journeys across the Arctic in 2016. Most of them haven’t appeared on my blog before.

As for how this year is shaping out, so far, I’m planning to make a trip to Barrow, Alaska for Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s Arctic Business Development tour. In March, I’ll make a return visit to the Northwest Territories to travel along what will likely be the last-ever ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Later this year, a permanent highway connecting the two towns – and therefore connecting Canada to the Arctic Ocean by land – is supposed to open, thereby replacing the seasonal ice road. I’m also hoping to return to Russia and to Iceland, possibly to hike in the Westfjords. Readers, if you will be in any of these places, feel free to drop me a line.

I look forward to another year sharing writings, photos, and maps from the northernmost places on Earth with you and thank you for accompanying me on the journey so far.

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Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia. The city sits on the edge of the giant Mir mine, the second-largest open pit mine in the world. A plume rises from the city on the right, and a sun dog sits in the sky on the left.

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Our little bus waiting for us to finish looking at the open-pit mine in Mirny City.

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Children throwing snowballs in the main square in Mirny City.

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The cafeteria lady at the Mirny Polytechnic Institute in the Sakha Republic.

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Our fur-hatted tour guide explaining the local sights. A large poster commemorating “70 Years of Victory” in World War II hangs on a building in the background.

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A Yakut woman selling fish, vertically frozen, at a market in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic and one of the coldest cities on earth.

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Schoolchildren learning about traditional Yakut culture in a school in Namtsy, a village north of Yakutsk.

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Schoolchildren in music class, with portraits of classical composers hanging over head.

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Hikers walking on pebbles alongside the Ogilvie River on Canada Day Weekend in the Yukon.

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A rainbow at 1am, and a dog, in the Yukon.

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Taking photos of the midnight light from Goldensides, a trail in Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon.

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A moose swimming in the pink fluorescent rays of the 4am sunrise at Two Moose Lake in the Yukon.

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A panorama of the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. Full size here.

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A girl, her little sister, and their pet dog in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

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Kids on their bicycles in the community of Reindeer Point. An abandoned oil rig floats in the water, where it has drifted since the 1980s.

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Fishing at midnight in Tuktoyaktuk. The dome-shaped objects on the horizon are some of the world’s largest pingos, which are ice-cored hills.

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A family out for for some fun at the beach in Tuktoyaktuk. Coastal erosion has caused the ocean to creep up much farther inland than it has in the past.

To understand the road to the Arctic Ocean, first go south.

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The Dempster Highway heading through the Ogilvie mountains, viewed from Sapper Hill in Yukon.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in the Northwest Territories studying the new highway being constructed between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Work on the road began under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013, and it should be completed by October 2017. Once all of the “furniture is put on the road” – that’s to say, all the speed limits, interpretive signs, and so forth” – the highway will open, becoming North America’s only public road to the Arctic Ocean. The Dalton Highway in Alaska only reaches so far as the southern limits of Deadhorse before becoming an oil-company-only access road to the North Slope.

In Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of a little under 900 residents whose economy has been in the doldrums since the oil boom ended in the 1980s, people are hoping the new road will bring more tourists while lowering the price of groceries and fuel. Others are worried about the road’s impacts on the crystal-clear lakes it passes as it winds up from Inuvik, a government center of 3,000 people, to Tuktoyaktuk (called “Tuk” by locals), on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Many from Tuk spend the long summer days fishing (or, during the frigid winters, ice fishing) in the Husky Lakes, as they’re called, catching trout and other types of much-needed protein in a place where milk costs upwards of $10 a jug.

The Inuvik-Tuk Highway (ITH) will extend the more famous road that currently terminates in Inuvik: the Dempster Highway. This 740-kilometer long gravel-surfaced road bears the nickname “The Road to Resources.” That’s because the road was originally approved in 1958 by newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who envisioned opening up the North to resource development via the building of roads. The Dempster Highway was conceived of as providing year-round access to the rich oil and gas resources in the Mackenzie Delta, where surveying and exploration had begun the year before.

After about twenty years, the highway was finally completed. The discovery and development of oil and gas resources next door in Alaska in the early 1970s gave the Canadian government the impetus it needed to jump start the project, which had been put on hold in 1961 after just three years of construction due to political infighting between the federal and territorial governments. The Canadian government’s desire to display sovereignty in its northwest Arctic played a major role in building the Dempster, just as it does today in extending the highway to the shores of the Northwest Passage, where outwardly signifying Canada’s sovereignty was high on Harper’s agenda.

Traveling the Dempster – a mix of gravel, mud, culverts, and potholes which together represent the challenges of road engineering and design in a permafrost-laden environment – gave me a grasp of the vastness and richness of Canada’s North. The irony is that I wouldn’t have been able to see these spaces without the road, but the road has also permanently altered the communities and environment along and around it in ways both good and bad. As one person in Inuvik remarked about the forthcoming ITH to me, “It’s progress, right,” while another person in Tuk commented that the new highway, which will allow permanent, year-round access, will bring “more drugs and alcohol, certainly, but that’s part of growing.”

I traveled the Dempster in the opposite direction of most visitors, heading south from Inuvik all the way to Tombstone Territorial Park and then back up to the North. Most people climb up the road in their RVs, Ford F-150s, or motorcycles beginning in Dawson. (I also spied a couple of avid bicyclists starting out from Inuvik and making their way down to Brazil, mirroring the “Antipodes Expedition” from Ushuaia, Argentina to Inuvik in 2004.)

I’ll write more about my experiences along the Dempster and the ITH in the coming days and weeks, but because time is short and I have my fieldwork to get back to, for now, here are a few snapshots from the road, quite literally.

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Big sky country.

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The Dempster Highway curving along the side of the hills, with the muddy Engineer Creek flowing in the foreground.

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A hidden fishing spot off the side of the Dempster in the Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon.

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The highway as it stretches through Tombstone Territorial Park, viewed from Goldensides.

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Time to head back north.

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The soon-to-be-completed highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, as seen from a low-flying Aklak Air propeller plane.

 

 

Winter in the World’s Coldest City

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A fish vendor drinking berry juice at the local market in Yakutsk. Life is pretty good!

As Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer in the United States, what better time than to look back on a winter spent in the world’s coldest city? Yakutsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, may or may not be Arctic. I asked a few residents and its designation seemed to be up for debate. The cold, however, is undeniable. The mercury drops to -60° in winter, but while I was there in February, the unusually warm temperatures of -35° and sometimes even -25° made people announce that spring was already here. But no one was taking off their fur hat.

I was told that Yakutsk is so cold because the mountains surrounding the city trap all the frigid air. Situated in the middle of Russia’s largest republic smack dab in the center of the Russian Far East, Yakutsk is one of the world’s most remote cities and has no permanent connection to the outside world. There’s a thoroughly modern airport with international flights to places like China and South Korea, but no bridge to the Russian railroad and highway systems that terminate on the other side of the massive Lena River. Effectively, Yakutsk is a city of 300,000 people that, despite being in the middle of nowhere by most standards still appears vibrantly cosmopolitan in many ways. Yakutsk feels like it’s straddling two continents, Asia and Europe. Some people have narrow green eyes and red hair, while others look more typically Asian. Yet nearly everyone speaks Russian, and many are also practicing Orthodox Christians. More than half of Yakutsk’s cars are imported from Japan and thus have their steering wheel on the right side, but the cars drive on the right side. Buses, however, are always made in Russia and have their steering wheels on the left side – “for safety,” as one person told me.

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A Yakut woman (Yakutka) demonstrating a traditional ceremony at a national restaurant outside Yakutsk.

Yakutsk also feels like a city that is straddling time, for the its built environment fuses its traditional heritage, Soviet past, and Asian-oriented future. Walking north along the main boulevard, there’s a green wooden building sinking into the permafrost with an old poster advertising an emergency number in Soviet times on its side. A few meters away stands a billboard for medical tourism in South Korea. Farther up the boulevard sits a huge concrete monument, likely built in Soviet times, featuring the horse-hitching posts emblematic of the region. North of that lies the Chinese market. The vendors, most of whom come from the northeast Chinese city of Harbin, used to sell their wares outdoors until Chinese money funded the construction of a permanent building. They may not have been as hardy as the locals, who still continue to sell their frozen fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables out of doors in winter. At the indoor Chinese market, all sorts of goods made in China are for sale including medicinal products, knock-off traditional Yakut boots (onti), and souvenirs like teacups and plates decorated with Yakut horses.

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A billboard for a Korean medical center next to wooden buildings sinking into the permafrost. Dial “01” for a Soviet emergency.

So what is day to day life like in winter the world’s coldest city?

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Waiting for the bus in platform heels. Who cares if the sidewalks are icy? A low, transparent fog is common in Yakutsk on winter mornings.

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Waiting for the bus into the city at an old Soviet bus stop on the outskirts of Yakutsk.

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Walking around the city is faster in winter because you can take shortcuts across all of the frozen rivers. Think of them as pedestrian ice roads.

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An orthodox church and a whale skeleton (despite Yakutsk being extremely landlocked). Welcome to Russia’s North!

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There is a lot of construction in Yakutsk, a city whose population has grown in recent years even as many other cities in eastern Russian have shrunk.

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Kids playing on top of a giant snow pile on the sidewalk.

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Winter cold doesn’t prevent street food or night life, because you can get shawarma 24 hours a day at this walk-up stall on the main street, Prospekt Lenin.

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Or you might fancy Korean food at this restaurant at the Chinese market. The Korean mixed rice dish, bibimbap, is very popular in Yakutsk and is made more familiar by being called “Корейский плов” (Korean plov, after the Russian/Uzbek rish dish).

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A Korean sauna next to the Chinese market.

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A building financed and designed by a Chinese company in central Yakutsk.

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You can also buy milk in frozen disks. No plastic jugs necessary. One disk was equivalent to about one dollar. Take home a fish taller than you for dinner while you’re at it.

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More fish than people are standing in this photo.

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You can also buy fish lying down on top of a Japanese SUV if you are so “inclined.”

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Although this man was not taking up the poster’s suggestion of eating ice cream, I saw a surprisingly large number of children walking around Yakutsk eating ice cream. One person said it was “because the weather was getting warmer.” On a related note, Finns and Icelanders also consume huge amounts of ice cream, so perhaps there’s a correlation between cold temperatures and cold food consumption.

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Lenin still watches over the main plaza with outstretched arms, while children romp down an ice slide erected for five months out of the year across the street.

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A big open area where cows used to graze that is now surrounded by tall apartment buildings.

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Traditional, low-slung wooden buildings in a neighborhood adjoining the more modern, Soviet part of Yakutsk.

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Dormitories at the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk decorated with murals saying “Victory! 70 Years,” commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.

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Heating pipes are pretty much everywhere. They can’t be buried underground because they’d melt the permafrost.

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Winter sunrise in Yakutsk with the temperature hovering just over -40. The cold is so extreme that it makes the steam plumes from all of the heating facilities turn horizontal in the sky.

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One way to keep warm at home: Have a pet chow-chow.