Last summer I took a guided group canoe trip in Canada’s Barrenlands — that half a million square miles of Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra west of Hudson Bay and roughly 1,000 miles north of North Dakota.
It’s just as remote as it sounds. All the canoeing on the 11-day trip took place inside the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, a nature reserve half the size of Pennsylvania — and to get there, our wee biplanes flew over a few hundred miles of roadless, unpeopled wilderness, all the way up past the treeline. Only a couple hundred people visit that part of the tundra each year.
Indeed, no one’s every really settled there: The aboriginals who traversed the land in the days before European incursion were nomadic (mostly following caribou herds). The name Barrenlands was bestowed by those Europeans, who found the vast place inhospitable in both winter (when it’s mostly dark and way below zero) and in the abbreviated remaining seasons.
Spring, summer and fall (totaling maybe four months between them) do little to make it look like someplace you’d want to build a house. The forested oases are scarce, the land untillable, the swarms of biting insects stunning in their numbers and voracity.
The principal ground cover, for crying out loud, is lichen, that weird sybiont of fungus and algae, neither plant nor animal, and quite indigestible by humans.
Nonetheless, during my visit, in late June and early July, the tundra was startlingly beautiful. Under the nearly 24-hour sun, the hills and deposits of glacial rock undulated toward the horizon. The air was perfectly clear. And though tundra is desert (based on limited precipitation), water is everywhere, from the big rushing rivers we plied to the lakes, ponds and muskeg, or wetlands, that seemed to compose half of what looked like solid ground. (There’s more detail, and couple photos, in my travel article in the March/April 2010 issues of E Magazine.) Even the lichen, in shades from gray and green to orange, is striking.
During my visit, the Barrens unveiled, it seemed, a new wildflower daily: blues, pinks, purples, yellows, whites, sometimes just downstream of banks still caked with snow and lakes crusted with ice. And the sight of glacial sand snaking beneath the clear water is as striking as the power of small rivers barreling through little canyons to feed the big Thelon itself.
Beauty, of course, is subjective, and my reasons for going there (besides to write about it) were more than to get an eyeful. I wanted to be in a place as untouched by humans as possible — a place where you can literally drink the water scooped straight from any river.
Nonetheless, the Barrens are not conventionally beautiful, in the mountains-and-forests way Westerns like their scenery. And this is important because when we talk about conserving wild lands, the discussion is typically framed in terms of aesthetics. And aesthetics are not only subjective (some people think golf courses are beautiful). They are also a value easily dismissed in a culture that values “economic growth” over all else.
And make no mistake: The Barrens, for all their remoteness, are threatened. Alex Hall of Canoe Arctic, our outfitter and guide, himself led the fight in the 1980s to prevent uranium mining in the immediate vicinity. Yep, uranium — it’s already mined in that part of the world. And both the Northwest Territories, of which the Thelon is one small part, and neighboring Nunavut, also host mines for diamonds and lead.
The mining threat is sure to return. And I can’t help but think that in a world growing short on fresh water, the Barrens’ monstrous supply hasn’t been eyed for a pipeline or two.
Beauty, especially beauty of the austere and remote Barrens variety, will seem a meager defense to conjure when rough corporations hungry for profit next come snuffling about.
And so the other lesson from the Barrens is the value of wild land in itself.
Wild land is, I think, the health of the planet.
The Barrens, for instance, are not only home to Arctic wolves (of which we saw a few), the strange creature known as a musk ox (a few more), and charismatic quadrupeds like grizzles, wolverine and caribou. In summer, they are also a vast nesting and moulting ground for waterfowl (including the newly flightless Canada geese we saw running agitatedly about) who spend most of the year helping maintain ecosystems further south.
The base of that food web, by the way, is those lichen, eaten by the caribou and other creatures (their lone winter browse), which are in turn eaten by the wolves and grizzlies.
It does us good to know such creatures are there, I believe.
The Barrens are also, if we want to get down to terms of raw functionality to humans, a gigantic carbon sink. Those wetlands — the habitats very many modern humans would still consider useless and even repulsive ”swamp” — hold millennia of decaying matter that has helped stabilize the planet’s temperature in a way we’ve seemed to like.
But that peat bog is, of course, threatened too. As global temperatures rise (as they probably already are, even in the sub-Arctic tundra), the permafrost below the turf will melt, and frozen peat will release its methane. That’s a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon.
The tundra seems both very remote, and quite useless to most of us humans. Even the few privileged to visit seem to benefit only from its peculiar sort of beauty.
But in truth this land is very alive, and very close. And it’s the sort of place — like rainforests, and distant oceans — that we can’t live without, even if we never see them.