James Raffan clearly remembers when he first saw Akshayuk Pass, a natural passage between mountains in Nunavut’s Auyuittuq National Park. Travelling during the late 1970s, or maybe it was the early ’80s (after so many Arctic experiences, the years can blur together) Raffan recalls “these beautiful, arresting, hanging glaciers that were in valleys… and you’d look up at these and try to get some sense of scale.”
But in a story that’s become distressingly familiar over the decades, Akshayuk Pass has been marked by climate change. Warmer summers in the Arctic have led to ice melting and now those once-striking glaciers are gone. “What’s there instead is this kind of scar of wet rock,” Raffan says. It looks raw.
An author, scientist, teacher, and adventurer, Raffan has been a continual witness to changes in the Arctic. Far from your typical northern visitor, he’s built a decades-long relationship with the North and Northerners, and always finds a reason to come back. He’s encountered the North as a scientist (having had a 20-year academic career as a geographer), as well as a northern adventure guide, storyteller (even writing for Up Here), teacher and more. Years of experience, learning and advocacy has led Raffan to become a notable figure in northern-focused circles, leading to being named by Canadian Geographic as one of Canada’s Top 100 Explorers.
His lifetime of exploration has left Raffan with a broad internal map of the North. So it’s hard for him not to see the ways these environments have changed over time, or the consequences of those changes. “When you see sea levels rising and the flooding events that are happening and the life of the people there,” he says, “that makes me sad and scared and really hyper aware of just how present the lifestyle changes of those of us in comfort are for those people on the edges of the Earth.”
And so, in response, Raffan puts on one of his many hats and writes. Over the years he has written about the North in every format from radio documentaries, to articles for publications like Canadian Geographic, to a small library of nonfiction books. Whether it’s about a place, a person, or an adventure, he’s put pen to paper to write about it. But his latest title—Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey through the Fragile Arctic, published in the fall of 2020—is written in a style unlike anything Raffan has tried before.
Told from the perspective of a fictional polar bear on a 24-month journey around Hudson Bay, Ice Walker is rooted in both scientific examination and creative nonfiction, written with a blend of natural and cultural history. Readers become a silent companion to Nanurjuk (meaning “the bear-spirited one”), or Nanu, and her cubs as they face an increasingly unfamiliar world, where the ice is disappearing, southerly predators are migrating north and one wrong turn could put Nanu’s family straight into the path of humans.
When Nanu walks out onto the thinning ice, we walk with her. On this journey, readers find more than a look into the world polar bears face—they also find the insights of a man who’s spent decades trying to understand the Arctic, and who now needs all of us to help change its current crisis.
How does someone describe seeing the Arctic for the first time? “It was awe-inspiring,” Raffan tries. “Different,” is his next attempt. “It was a blend of facts and feelings and impressions that made me want to come back.”
Maybe it’s an impossible task, to put such a moment into words. But Raffan is certain about one thing: the North he saw wasn’t the North he’d come to expect.
Raffan has always had an adventurous spirit. Growing up in Guelph, Ontario, he spent his childhood in Boy Scout adventures and reading authors like Jules Verne or books on John Franklin’s Arctic expedition. Maybe it was inevitable that he’d go on a northern adventure of his own. But when he first travelled to Inuvik in 1977 in his early 20s on a labour contract, Raffan encountered experiences the books couldn’t prepare him for. Jules Verne hadn’t warned him about soothing sunburnt eyes with teabags at two o’clock in the morning, or walking into a bar to hear Charlie Panigoniak sing Hank Williams in Inuktitut.
As Raffan continued to travel, he realized that his childhood books had painted a colonial picture of the North. That version featured lone adventurers travelling to an unknowable wilderness, with few people in sight. Instead, Raffan not only found lots of people in the North, but he realized these people knew the land better than he ever would. Like many southern visitors and transient workers, he quickly came to understand the North was very different than what he’d been led to believe.
“And so, especially [in] my first Arctic trips,” Raffan says, “it became very clear to me that if I really wanted to engage the landscape, I couldn’t do that without engaging the people of the landscape.”
This marked a shift in Raffan’s polar education, which emphasized listening to northern peoples and their lived knowledge—a lesson he has held onto over the many years since. For an example, look no further than his 2014 book, Circling the Midnight Sun. The story follows Raffan as he travels around the Arctic Circle with the intention of putting a face to climate change, and highlights northern Indigenous voices in particular.
In his latest book, our time with Nanu begins on the ice under a February moon. But her cubs’ story starts in the dark warmth of a den. It’s hard not to wish that the young bears could stay there. The world is safer by their mother’s side, where they’re not yet aware of a world filled with dangerous creatures, fragile ice, starvation and humanity’s damaging mark on their home.
Ice Walker is more than a simple story about polar bears, however. Raffan hopes the book will serve as “an embodiment of a life of learning that has been respectful and that honours a multitude of ways of looking at land and landscape, and also a multitude of ways of honouring different perspectives, different types of language, about human enterprise in non-urban places.”
This principle shines throughout the narrative, from details like Nanu’s Inuktut name to a preface that speaks to the long relationship between polar bears and different Arctic peoples. Chapters are marked by months introduced alongside traditional names, such as the ‘Miscarriage Moon’ and the ‘Freeze Up Moon,’ and before Nanu is even introduced Ice Walker relays a Greenlandic Inuit story that shows the intertwining of people and bears. From the beginning, this book makes clear that it’s more than a natural science story.
Even the focus being on polar bears speaks to that multilayered understanding, and ties back to Circling the Midnight Sun. “The last line of that book is, ‘We are the bear,’ referring to 27 very contentious seconds of animation in Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth,” Raffan says. “And the argument in that book is that we humans are the bear swimming around in a warming soup of our own making, looking for a place to call home, and that story… had a lot of content from Northerners, particularly Indigenous Northerners, for whom the sort of line between people and bears wasn’t quite as distinct or actually much more fluid than the sort of categories in Western thinking, in Western imagination.” Nanu’s story is a lot closer to our own than some readers may assume.
We all know the story about climate change—it’s featured in the news on a daily basis. Almost every summer, it seems like somewhere in the North has broken a new heat record. Northern communities are dealing with a variety of worsening dangers, which take the form of floods, coastal erosion and changing weather or seasonal patterns. For polar bears, the story is just as bleak, so much so that an August 2020 Nature Climate Change article estimates that most polar bear populations will be gone by 2100.
In response to this reality, Raffan built a call to action into Ice Walker’s narrative. He does this through an appeal to readers’ hearts. It’s a method he was inspired to try after working with filmmakers such as Goh Iromoto, who directed The Canoe, a short film Raffan wrote. Filmmakers, he says, often focus on swaying an audience’s feelings, which produces powerful results. Seeing that, Raffan reflected on his own writing, and wondered whether his past work had ever changed anybody’s behaviour.
If he wrote a book about humanity’s relationship with nature, and aimed it at readers’ hearts the way filmmakers do, what would that book look like? “And the answer to that question… is a project, a book, a very short little book called Ice Walker that took four years to write, that is an amalgam of story and message,” Raffan says. “But it’s also a blending of what I’ve learned in 40-plus years of research and travel in the circumpolar world that touches on natural history, cultural history, and the way they’re intertwined.”
In the face of a fast-approaching future, and a seemingly apathetic present, does Raffan have any hope that change will happen? Well, yes. “I’m of the opinion that hope is something we choose to hold,” he says.
It’s true the world can be a depressing place, for polar bears and people alike. Life can feel especially frustrating when people are ignoring the need for change, allowing calls to action to go past them. Raffan’s not immune to that frustration. When he’s feeling pessimistic, he worries about how people can know what’s happening to the Earth and still choose to do nothing.
Ice Walker is a direct challenge to that apathy in some ways, as joining Nanu will hopefully create space for readers to rethink the way they live their lives and do something about their impact on the planet.
But even in the depths of pessimism, Raffan can always find hope again in young people—particularly northern youth.
“People often ask me, ‘is the world different because of climate change?’ and the answer is absolutely it’s different. Places I went in the ’70s or the ’80s that were full of ice are not now. But back in those days, you never heard throat-singing. You never heard young people standing up, to be proud of who they are. You didn’t see tattooing anywhere except anthropology textbooks, and you didn’t hear Inuktitut being spoken by young people the way you do now, and that absolutely fills me with hope.”
Raffan believes that cultural shift is key to the solution of climate change. A person can’t understand the northern climate without northern culture. They can’t be separated, he says. When it comes to polar bears, you need to understand them in both a scientific sense and as part of the “northern ethos, in the northern imagination, in the northern traditions, in northern communities.”
Through that blend of science and traditional knowledge, there’s a chance the future could be far happier than it’s expected to be now—and not just for Nanu. “Because we are,” Raffan says,
“I really believe, we are the bear.”
The North isn’t just a place to visit, Raffan says. Going North has become a sort of “seasonal rhythm” in Raffan’s life and a perpetual education he doesn’t want to end. He’s continually drawn northward and believes he will be for the foreseeable future. It’s only getting easier to find a reason to return, after all. Whereas Raffan’s first trips to the Arctic were rooted in adventurism or scientific inquiry, he’s since realized that there’s so much to the North—so much to learn and to see, so many people to meet and places to return to—that his reason for returning doesn’t matter as much.
“I don’t have a list of places I want to go,” Raffan says. “I have a list of things I want to understand and learn about… I want to keep exploring the edges of what I know by talking and doing things with people. And I have no idea what those will be.”
Hopefully, Raffan will find new reasons to continue that cyclical rhythm until he can’t do it anymore. And even then, he’ll probably replay those trips in his head, continuing the cycle mentally.
But, in a time where the land grows more and more unpredictable through climate change, how long will the North in Raffan’s head match the North that’s actually there?
Back in Nanu’s den, her cubs stir and begin their own lives of northern adventure. The moment when they will peek their heads outside and meet the world is unavoidable. The future waits for no bear.
Raffan, through Ice Walker, asks an equally unavoidable question: what future do we want to create for them?