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The Northwest Passage - Gateway across the Arctic?

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08 Aug 2010
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Four hundred years ago this week, Henry Hudson, on his last of four voyages to the then New World, sailed through the strait that now bears his name towards the vast bay which also bears his name. It would be his last voyage. After overwintering in James Bay several hundred kilometres to the south his crew mutineed. Hudson, his son and several loyal crew members were set adrift in a small rowboat and vanished into history.

But around this time in 1610 he was making his way towards Digges Island off the northern coast of what is now Nunavik, the Inuit territory that covers thousands of square kilometres of northern Quebec. He named the island after his financeer, Sir Dudley Digges, anchored his ship and put ashore for water and food. The latter he found in abundance -- today Digge's is home to 180,000 pairs of seabirds which come every year to breed. It would have been a feast after long weeks at sea.

This is the beginning of one entrance of the fabled Northwest Passage, the "shortcut" to the mysterious east which Europeans sought and died for over four centuries. Hudson was one of the first Europeans but he really entered territory that the Inuit and their precedessors, the Thule and Dorset peoples, had occupied for millennia. This point was made abundantly clear when Hudson's crew clashed with Inuit who already occupied Digges Island. Two crew members died in that short conflict.

Today the passage is the focus on intense debate. As the summer sea ice retreats in the face of rapid climate change, and as the world, ever hungry for more fossil fuels, begins to think of the potential of oil and gas development throughout the Arctic region, attention is focused increasingly on this waterway. The Government of Canada has been clear that it plans to control access to the passage because it considers it to be inland waters, subject to the reach of Canadian law. Other nations, citing the UN Law of Sea, anticipate it will be eventually declared an international strait and open to increased shipping. The vision of a shortcut to Asia is increasingly becoming an economic calculation.

Beneath shimmering northern lights our Students on Ice expedition is sailing these same waters and through so many thousands of years of history. Nearly 80 students from all over Canada and around the world are experiencing the land and water first hand. On the water, we have weathered rolling swells and seasickness and we have seen a bearded seal rise repeatedly to try to figure out if our rubber zodiacs were a threat; on land we have hiked, observed caribou, seen signs of muskoxen, held tiny voles gently in our hands, and tested water for microbes and pH levels.

The students are in the classroom, and often the classroom is a scattering of lichen encrusted boulders next to a gurgling Arctic stream. Or a hillside with a view that sweeps down a fjord carved by glaciers through successive ice ages.

Along the sides of the fjords and hills you can see where the year-round snow pack has melted, leaving behind light patches of earth surrounded by rocks covered in ancient black lichen. These are the footprints of climate change. On the ship, we talk about the oceans and their decline and what this means for the future of life on the planet. But always, we talk about choice. How we can all make choices that will influence the direction of our culture and our planet. How we can choose despair or hope.

We sail on.

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