Globe and Mail: A vacation that can make a difference

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail

A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman's coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman’s coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

Cruising into Pond Inlet is a memorable experience. Having left Greenland’s signature blood-red houses and soaring mountains 450 nautical miles (832.5 kilometres) behind us, Baffin Island’s majestic steep-walled fjords give way to rolling tundra that almost disguises the tiny hamlet of Pond Inlet. Dirt roads lead to nondescript houses; the town’s most prominent features are its hulking white fuel tanks and its name written in pale stones on the hill above.

The Akademik Ioffe is dropping anchor when a passenger asks, doubtfully, “Do people buy things here?”

The answer is yes. Artisans in Pond Inlet carve scenes of hunters stalking their prey into caribou antlers. They sew seal skins into beautiful mittens trimmed with fox fur. They whittle narwhal tusks down to tiny versions of the narwhals themselves.

Shopping might seem like a strange thing to think about when visiting the furthest reaches of our country, but for some travellers, the opportunity to bring home such rare artifacts is part of the allure. While it might seem frivolous, this is serious business: Their desire – and ability – to bring home pricey souvenirs is a vital part of the Arctic economy. But finding ways to integrate cultural practices into income opportunities is still a delicate balancing act this far north.

That day, passengers bought $4,000 in crafts from the visitors centre, according to the manager, Timothy Akoomalik. That’s about average, but the numbers can be deceiving. With carvings going for several hundred dollars – a caribou rack-turned-cribbage board was snapped up for $250 – a few thousand represents only a handful of items. The profits are entirely reinvested into buying more art to sell, with about 75 per cent of the selling price going to the artists.

Some artisans strike off on their own in the hopes of pocketing a larger share. Darlene Simonie, a young Inuit mother, was outside the centre trying to sell a 1.6-metre-long, pure white narwhal tusk for $1,000 to French passengers from another ship.

Money also finds subtler ways into the community. Most cruise ships visiting Pond Inlet pay landing fees and hire guides to give tours, although there is no requirement to do so; some simply drop anchor and come ashore. Colin Saunders, the hamlet’s community development officer, says that a mandatory $2,200 fee will be imposed starting this summer. In our case, the tour closed with a cultural show at the new community centre. Abbie Angetsiak was one of the performers, throat singing and performing traditional songs and dances with her cousins and young children.

“I love performing,” says Angetsiak, who has been doing so for 10 years. Pulling off her traditional amauti, she explains that the $100 she makes for each show supplements her income while she perfects her English at the community learning centre.

With the cruise season beginning to lengthen because of perennially receding sea ice, Arctic communities such as Pond Inlet are discussing how far to go to attract ships. Some hunters complain that they scare off the animals; others become upset when outsiders refuse to play by local rules.

The French-flagged vessel, for example, would be there for two days without paying a landing fee, hiring tour guides or setting up a cultural show. They would also run the stores out of milk and produce. Laurielle Penny, director of Worldwide Quest, the tour company that chartered the Akademik Ioffe, takes a hard line on this kind of behaviour.

“I think they should be driven away with harpoons, if necessary,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a tribute to northern communities, quite frankly, that they even put up with it. … You try to land a ship like that in the Mediterranean … they would never be allowed.”

Most companies do make an effort to have a positive impact. But that means making tough decisions on what to do and where to go. Communities that emphasize cultural development and tourism naturally end up being rewarded with more visits, as well as bonuses such as crates of new sports equipment. With the cruise season limited by Mother Nature, other potential ports such as Kugluktuk and Resolute miss out.

On the final trip across the Davis Strait, we travel back down the Greenland coast, and the contrast between the two countries becomes stark. Greenland’s riches of shrimp, cod and halibut provide a good income for its people, and the Danish government subsidizes the economy to the tune of around $12,000 a person. The result is better infrastructure and a vastly different shopping experience. The passengers revel in Greenland’s souvenir bonanza: Artist co-ops sell crafts in quantity and variety unmatched anywhere in the Canadian Arctic.

I pick up some gifts for friends at a glitzy airport shop: sealskin earrings, muskox-wool bracelets and a CD of modern Greenlandic rock. As we fly back over Baffin Island I look down and wonder if Simonie has sold her tusk yet.

The writer worked as a naturalist and zodiac driver aboard the Akademik Ioffe. Worldwide Quest did not review or approve this article.

The Tyee: How to Save One of BC’s Last, Great Co-op Ski Hills

This article was originally published in the Tyee, where I recommend reading it. It’s prettier there.

Getting up the long logging road that leads to Mount Cain requires tire chains. I should know: I have spent hours digging myself out of the high snow banks that flank the road that takes skiers and snowboarders up every Saturday and down every Sunday.

The snow banks are Campbell Wilson’s fault. A Cain local, Wilson and a few dedicated volunteers run a giant, insectine machine along the 14-kilometres of road to keep it passable even during the powder-iest of powder days.

Wilson, though, is worried about his machine. If the grader breaks down, then people can’t get up the mountain, which could mean the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in ticket sales. It’s not the sort of make or break issue volunteers usually have to think about. But Cain is one of two community-run ski hills in B.C. and the only hill in the province responsible for its own road. Which means that every time Campbell Wilson coaxes the grader to life, Mount Cain’s somewhat eccentric but charming experiment in operating a co-operative ski run manages to live for another day.

Photo by Leif Zapf-Gilje
Photo by Leif Zapf-Gilje

It takes a mountain

Just as Mount Cain can’t afford to replace its grader, B.C. can’t afford to lose Mount Cain. The ski hill, an hour and a half northwest of Campbell River, is a rare vestige of what communities used to be, a village that really does raise the child. It’s not uncommon to see one parent shepherding half a dozen children around the hill while the rest of the parents go for a backcountry run, or an unrelated adult scolding a pack of feral snowboarders.

The skiing is at once central to the community and almost incidental. Skiing brings the community together, but the community is what makes the skiing possible. As a volunteer-run hill, Mount Cain would not exist without donated time. It’s a gift economy run on goodwill, social standing, and, most importantly, necessity.

In 2009, when I first arrived at Mount Cain as a volunteer ski patroller, Helen Brown was running the groomer while her husband, Casey, was the first person to be called to fix a broken-down T-bar or a generator that wasn’t generating. The two were constantly on call, and had been for years. It wasn’t exactly a thankless job –- thanks are easy to come by at Cain -– but it was time-consuming for volunteer work. Helen’s and Casey’s had become the first names you would hear on the radio in the morning, and the lights on Helen’s groomer would burn late into the night.

In 2010, Helen and Casey Brown sold their cabin at Mount Cain, bought an RV, and went on a ski trip through the Rockies. The weight of the mountain had started to lean on them too much, and the Browns needed a break. For a mountain that depends on volunteers to open every morning, the loss of two such Atlases hit hard. But the mountain’s remaining volunteers, and some new ones, pitched in and Cain pulled through.

In a province dominated by large urban centres where community is losing out in favour of commercialism, Mount Cain is a model of a different way of thinking. Its low-profit business model makes the community vulnerable to stochastic events. If the mountain is a symbol of the old ways clashing with the new, then this narrative hinges on the grader.

Land leases have been the saving grace of the mountain’s finances. The Alpine Park Society sold leases every four years to the lucky winners of a lottery. Prospective cabin owners put in a $5,000 deposit, which would go towards their $40,000 lease if their name were drawn; the mountain pocketed this revenue and spent it carefully. Meanwhile, cabin owners did not actually own the land on which their cabins were built, but had a collective agreement with the province through the mountain.

After years of relative plenty, with the proceeds of land leases padding the books and allowing the leverage needed to get grants for infrastructure investments (like a new workshop and lodge), that revenue stream has recently been diverted. Because of a new land use agreement, proceeds from new leases will go to the province rather than the mountain.

That’s a big reason why  Mount Cain’s grader just has to keep working.

Pretty desperate

Wendy Knudson wears the worried look of a matriarch presiding on the brink of chaos. She is Cain’s bookkeeper and a skier’s mother, and the mountain is rife with hazards to both jobs. In 2004, due to a bad snow year, the mountain came close to shutting down, and only loans from locals like Knudson and her partner, Bob Romanow, kept it alive.

Knudson has seen trouble at the mountain, and she sees more trouble in its future.

“We don’t have debt because we had those cabins that we sold. That’s the last — when that’s gone, we’re back to paying $1,000 each if we don’t have enough money [like in 2004-2005]. It was pretty desperate.”

Sitting in the small office above the ticket booth, she scrolls through her records, reading out last year’s expenses. Twenty-five thousand dollars in repairs for the grader. Twenty-three thousand in road widening. Forty-eight thousand in gas. Altogether, the annual costs for the road alone approach $100,000. For a mountain selling just short of $200,000 in lift passes per year, this is not an expense the mountain takes lightly.

Stuart Abernethy is a serious, hardworking contractor. He is also vice president of the board of directors at Mount Cain. On Christmas Eve, Abernethy took me on a snowmobile ride down the logging road. Boxing Day is one of the most important days for the mountain, and the road had to be in top shape, so Abernethy wanted to check on progress. A few minutes down, we met Lance Karsten, a small man with a huge presence on the mountain. As a skilled carpenter, Karsten built many of the cabins at Cain and helps maintain the public buildings as well. Christmas Eve found him running the D8, a powerful, hulking machine that helps the grader with raw pushing power.

A little further down the road, original Mount Cain local John Rainbow was urging the grader down the shoulder to widen it in anticipation of heavy traffic. In an ordinary business, senior partners step back as they gain rank and influence. At this mountain, seniority means spending Christmas Eve halfway down a logging road pushing snow.

“Cain sucks, tell your friends”

Mount Cain has conflicting priorities for how to move forward. Some locals, referred to as the “draw-bridgers,” want to see the mountain stay small, largely unknown, and, quite likely, unprofitable. These are the people who heckled a former board member, semi-retired tugboat captain Peter Knott, until he stepped down in frustration in 2011. His crime: developing and updating a website for the mountain that was blamed for drawing large crowds.

“We have three or four days a year when we have a lineup, and people are bitching because they can’t ski right on to the t-bar,” Knott recalls. “But those were $20,000 days. Those days are what make the coffer. We need those banner days to survive.”

The result of the tension between the draw-bridgers and the more pragmatic locals is a bumper sticker young local Sonia Nicholl printed last year: “Cain sucks, tell your friends.” Nicholl was summarizing the attitude of many who have been fortunate enough to discover the mountain. While they understand that new people need to be brought in to keep it alive, they advertise reluctantly and ironically.

The draw-bridgers understand what makes the mountain special, even if they know little about what keeps it viable. It is hard to argue that a lot of the mountain’s charm comes from being able to ski directly on to an empty t-bar on a perfect powder day, or from knowing every face at the top of the hill. It’s a magic that can’t be found at a large commercial resort, and it goes hand-in-hand with the other thing that makes the place special, the volunteerism. Without the visibility that comes with being part of a small community, the subtle social incentives to pitch in could evaporate.

A long road

The community is about to get larger, and it could be the next step in keeping the mountain alive. Last year, a new road was built. It was the start of a new development, a plan to build five new cabins – but this development is independent of the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society. The ‘Namgis First Nation has established a land claim in the park, directly adjacent to the borders of the ski area.

Doug Aberley is the treaty coordinator for the ‘Namgis. He first met with the mountain several years ago to talk about what has now become the new development.

“The ‘Namgis have a policy of wanting to be involved with any economic development within the territory,” he said. “We approached the government and had quite a good negotiation with the park society.”

The ten hectares of proposed treaty settlement land could mean a big change for the mountain: for the first time since Mount Cain’s t-bars started turning, a new partner has entered the arena. It’s a partner that can help in many ways. First, the new cabins mean more people can access the ski hill, and it means that the pool of volunteers might have just widened. But most importantly, the ‘Namgis bring a new and powerful voice to the table to negotiate with the province over who should be responsible for the road.

“The Namgis First Nation has offered to cooperate with Mount Cain and registered in a lobby that would see the road become a gazetted part of the highway system,” says Aberley. For a road to be “gazetted,” in legal terms, means that it has passed into public ownership. It means that the province would be responsible for clearing the road, which in turn means that the grader, and Wilson and his volunteer team, can get some rest. It would be one less Damoclean liability hanging over the head of the community.

Things are progressing slowly among the five groups involved – Western Forest Products, which owns the road; the ‘Namgis; the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society; Mount Waddington Regional District; and the province – have yet to come to the table together and decide on a new arrangement.

To Aberley, it seems like a simple decision that would benefit the whole region. “If we’re to compete up here with logging and other industries, we need to have amenities,” he says. “It’s only the same deal they’ve offered every other ski hill in the province.”

“It’s just going to take political pressure,” he says.

Stuart Abernethy has put his money where his heart lies. One year  he chipped in $5,000 himself to keep the mountain going.

That kind of love that the locals at Mount Cain feel for their community is what allows it to keep running. Early mornings shoveling the lift lines, late nights grooming runs, whole weeks spent organizing fundraisers and events, lost ski days fixing machinery, and long hikes through deep snow up the logging road to get the grader started are all done out of that same love.

Even overworked volunteers Helen and Casey Brown still spend time at Mount Cain. Their daughter, Megan, grew up at the mountain, and got engaged on its slopes this winter; their son, Lucas, has meanwhile become one of the primary groomer operators. For a family that has grown up at the mountain, losing it entirely would be unthinkable.

Cain is expecting more than 20 centimeters of fresh snow on its 4.5 metre base this weekend, and around 200 people are likely to head up the road to ski and board in the plush powder. Let’s hope Campbell Wilson can get the grader to work one more time. But if this unique community is to survive, the mountain and its new partners the ‘Namgis may have to convince the provincial government that it is worth saving.

The Big Melt and its Global Implications

First published (with some revisions) by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in their quarterly magazine, Wall Papers. Check it out in pretty, glossy format here.

Photo by Jimmy Thomson

The Arctic Ocean is in the midst of major climatic change, with its once robust sea-ice cover visibly retrenching more and more every year.  As that ice melts, chemistry and circulation patterns are shifting, and scientists are just beginning to understand how serious the consequences may be for the rest of the world’s oceans.

“We have a marine arctic that is not simply passive – it will kick back,” warned Eddie Carmack, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It is to our own good to explore effects that might lead to regime changes.”

Dr. Carmack was part of a leading group of Arctic scientists taking part in a 3-day workshop titled, “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the Arctic Ocean,” held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in May 2012.  The workshop was envisioned by UBC professors Philippe Tortell and Roger Francois as a way to discuss strategies for monitoring the Arctic Ocean that take into account the importance of both terrestrial and oceanic fields of scientific research, and the unexpected rapid pace of changes occurring in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack described the rapid pace this way.  In 2007, he took to the sea in the “Canada’s Three Oceans” project, traveling by icebreaker along the entire coast of Canada in order to establish a baseline for future effect of climate change. This baseline would be revisited in 2050, or so went the original plan. “It’s changing so fast,” he said, “there are things they can already say.”  Climate change impacts, such as increased stratification, shifts in population structure among plankton and bacteria, and ocean acidification are already becoming apparent in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack laid out an extremely complex set of findings presented in a series of diagrams that showed how circulations between the world’s oceans interact, and argued that more needs to be explored regarding the biogeochemical distributions in the oceans in order to be able to predict what cascade effects and unintended consequences many of these changes might have. “There is a danger in waiting too long to begin new policies,” he warned.

In addition to Dr. Carmack, researchers traveled from all over the world, covering everything from glacier melt in Greenland to trace metals in estuarine systems in Russia to warming experiments in the Canadian tundra.  Part of the impetus for the workshop was to underscore the importance and cooperation around the new GEOTraces initiative, a monitoring system set up to better understand the changes. With international participation from over 30 nations, GEOTraces collects information on trace metals in the world’s oceans, which can be limiting factors for biological productivity, sources of contamination, or indicators of past and present climate change. The collection of this data requires ship charters, international permits, and a lot of money: some working groups during the conference were therefore devoted to these difficulties facing researchers.

Many of the researchers pointed out, like Dr. Carmack did, that the Arctic is “not just about bears, pteropods, and seals, it’s about the people.” To that end, the workshop also featured a public panel, appropriately titled, “The Big Melt” at the Vancouver Aquarium. Moderated by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, the panel discussion featured Dr. Carmack alongside UBC Professors Michael Byers from Political Science and Candis Callison from the School of Journalism. All of the panelists, each coming from a different angle, nevertheless had much in the way of common ground: the need for more international cooperation, inclusion of northern communities, and proper communication of these issues to the public were all expressed.

According to Dr. Callison, science can often only be expressed to the public by portraying it in human terms.

“Facts and information become meaningful when they intersect with ethical and moral codes,” she explained. “After listening to an Inuit person talk about changes they’ve witnessed, passing climate change as a somehow normal and natural occurrence is not possible.”

Encouraging interaction between scientists from a diversity of nations, in conferences such as this one, is a valuable part of the process of bringing the world’s northern nations together to address the multitude of changes occurring in the Arctic.

As Dr. Byers noted, “an organization is only as important as the people in the room.” Conferences like this are a vital step in continuing to bring important people into the room to advance the international dialogue regarding arctic climate change, and the international gathering was representative of the way forward in understanding its future impacts.