What exactly is the Arctic?
Five years ago, while reporting in northern Norway, my local colleagues asked me whether I considered their hometown of Kirkenes as being in the Arctic. “Well, yes—we’re north of the Arctic Circle,” I said, bewildered at the question. “Ah,” came the reply, as if they’d never thought of it that way.
At 69 degrees North, Kirkenes is along the same line of latitude as Gjoa Haven, around 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, and well above the Canadian treeline. Yet the climate in Kirkenes is a little different. Average temperatures, for instance, are much warmer than in Gjoa Haven, thanks to the Gulf Stream that brings warm ocean currents from the Atlantic to western and northern Europe. While Kirkenes does get short, cold days in the winter and 24-hour sunlight in the summer, it’s also lusher and greener than Gjoa Haven—and it’s got trees.
Like me, some define the Arctic in technical terms: it’s the region north of 66.66 degrees latitude—the Arctic Circle. To others, the term conjures images of endless ice and snow, a land mostly devoid of people, and home only to a man in a big red suit, his reindeer, and his elves. To many inhabitants of the North, whether they’re in the Arctic or the subarctic, the question is irrelevant.
"It's like asking a fish about the water,” says James Raffan, geographer, writer, and former head of the Canadian Canoe Museum. “You ask a fish about the predators or competitors for the same food substrates, and they’ll tell you all kinds of stories. Ask a fish about the water, and it’s a different story, because it’s just there.”
During his travels through Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, Raffan met indigenous leaders ranging in age from 17 to 78. He learned reindeer like bananas, had his future predicted by a Sakha shaman, ate flapjacks with an Inupiaq elder in Alaska, paddled with Inuvialuit youth along the Coppermine River in Nunavut, and toured a couple of self-proclaimed Santa Claus villages in Rovaniemi, Finland and North Pole, Alaska.
To the people he met, living along or north of the Arctic Circle wasn’t as prominent a label or identifying feature in their lives as Raffan expected. Instead, what characterized many of his encounters with Northerners around the world was the feeling that they were on their own.
“There is a kind of pride and sense that being a Northerner has its own set of values,” he says. “I think there is a suite of understanding ... that has to do with self-reliance and knowing that you’re a long way from the heart of the economic engine of the world.”
In the following pages, we’ll focus on some of the things that make Arctic and subarctic communities around the world so different from each other. We’ll ask what the Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut can learn from their circumpolar neighbours. We may be alone in the far North, but at least we’re all alone together.