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Northern exposure: Shedding light on climate change in the Arctic
If you ask Kevin Vallely how he spent his summer vacation, he could regale you with a swashbuckling tale of gale-force winds, beluga whales, wild caribou, ramen noodles, reindeer hunters and the occasional belt of good scotch.
But he'd probably rather talk about thinning ice and unprecedented species migration in the Canadian North — something he witnessed during his recent trip to the Arctic.
In the first week of July, Vallely, along with fellow adventurers Paul Gleeson, Frank Wolf and Denis Barnett, set out in a kevlar-hulled rowboat to tackle the Northwest Passage, from Inuvik to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, in an attempt to draw attention to global climate change.
The crew estimated the journey would take around 75 days, finishing around mid-September.
But last week the modern-day explorers had to abort their ambitious crossing attempt because they'd been unexpectedly slowed and battered by severe weather. They made it as far as Cambridge Bay, a small town in Nunavut located on the southern side of Victoria Island.
Vallely, a seasoned adventurer who's conquered, among other things, Alaska’s Iditarod Trail, isn't second-guessing the decision to call off the crossing.
"Basically (the weather) made the decision for us," he said. "It was just time and we got to a point where we were not going to make it to the end — basically we had to make it by mid-September or we'd be frozen in."
Daylight hours were slipping away, temperatures dropping and snow starting to fall.
They'd travelled approximately 1,872 kilometres of a planned 3,000-km voyage.
"We had some very crazy weather — weather that was not normal, according to locals," says Vallely, a 48-year-old North Van home designer and father of two.
Normally, explains Vallely, the predominant winds in the passage are westerlies and northwesterlies, meaning they should have had the wind at their backs. Instead, they encountered fierce easterlies and northeasterlies head on.
"Strong winds, erratic winds," he says.
Vallely is aware global warming naysayers may seize upon the fact that the passage attempt was thwarted by wind and ice to bolster their argument that climate change doesn't exist, but he offers this strong counterpunch.
"Even on a really bad year like this year, there's still one-third less ice, or will be at the end of it, than there was 25 years ago. Even on a really bad year like this year, it's still happening, and it's happening dramatically."
Even more proof came from interviewing inhabitants of the region, including many elders who'd lived there for 50-plus years.
"Unanimously, every single one of them told us stories of profound changes [that] are happening."
Like tales of creatures from more southern climes making a migration north.
"We saw a grizzly bear on Victoria Island. They didn't exist there — five years ago they never saw one. And crows had never been seen before. [They told stories of] finding beaver up in the Arctic and how they're damning rivers now and effecting the run of the whitefish and how they see more orcas up there and how the sea ice is getting profoundly thinner."
The crew's final stop, Cambridge Bay, was free of ice when they arrived. When they asked a village elder if the ice melted earlier or later in the season when he was a kid, he laughed, saying, "The ice never left."
Soon, stories such as that will be incorporated into a documentary that was filmed by crew member Frank Wolf, also a North Van resident.
"So it's really going to be compelling," says Vallely. "The idea being that the story will be narrated by the people who live there."
"That to me is the most important thing. Bringing back those stories. You can hear all the rhetoric you want from this end but the reality is that the people that live there who experience it day in, day out for the better part of the last five decades tell you it's changing profoundly, well we've got to listen to them."