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Global Warming 101 on the Arctic side

The farther Will Steger clambered up the frozen cascade on the Weasel River, the better he grasped the immensity of the task ahead.

The frozen river twisted through a chaos of boulders, dropping three and four feet at a time. The channels of river, bereft of snow and treacherous to walk on, twisted and plunged among the mayhem of rocks.

Occasionally, Steger would mutter something profane. He looked back downriver at the four dogsleds and his teammates in the Global Warming 101 Expedition. Somehow, each of those 700-pound sleds would have to be muscled up this labyrinth of ice.

Abby Fenton of Minneapolis came up to join the scouting.

"Well, it's not impossible, but it's going to be an epic," she said.

And so the epic began. For most of eight hours, the team heaved and grunted and shoved and pulled. This was by far the biggest challenge the group had faced since leaving Iqaluit on Feb. 24. Steger and seven teammates will travel 1,200 miles across Baffin Island, interviewing Inuit people in villages along the way. Through the trek, Steger aims to show the rest of the world that global warming's effects are being felt acutely by these Arctic people who are still tied to the land.

Team members had come 28 miles since spending a week in the Inuit village of Pangnirtung, where the Inuit had welcomed them warmly. The dogsledders had made 20 miles on March 18, the first day out of the village, winding through Pangnirtung Fiord and up the Weasel. It is huge country, a mile-wide river weaving through a valley flanked by peaks rising up to a mile high from the water's edge.

The team had now entered Auyuittuq National Park, whose name means "the land that never melts." But, in truth, the glaciers that lie atop the mountains and drape into valleys have been receding for many years, older Inuit say. That's why Steger brought his team here, where their video cameras can capture what remains of the glaciers and record Inuit elders talking about what climate change is doing to the land on which they depend.

As the team attacked the falls, the wind increased, and now it was driving a fine mist of snow and sand into the faces of the mushers and their 42 sled dogs. All eight team members, with the help of the straining dogs, would shove one sled up the jumble of rock and ice a few inches at a time. The dogs, feet flailing at the polished ice, did their best but were of little help.

It took the team six hours to cover no more than 200 yards, climbing perhaps 100 vertical feet, most of it near the top of the falls. That night, John Stetson filed a satellite-phone dispatch to base camp in Pangnirtung.

"I've traveled more than 100,000 miles by dog team," he said, "and I've never in all those miles been on anything like what we went through today to get up the trail."

"At first, it didn't look like it was possible," Steger reported in his dispatch that evening.

Once on top, caught by darkness and the building storm, the team was forced to camp on the barren ice, driving ice screws into the river to secure their tents. Steger said in a phone report that night that it was the worst camping spot he had ever been at, and he has traveled to the North Pole and across Antarctica. Temperatures dipped to 20 below zero that night, and the wind was relentless, Steger and Stetson said in satellite calls to their Pangnirtung base camp.

The next day, on a Monday, Steger reported in a satellite call that winds had reached 70 miles per hour. The wind snapped at least two tent wands and ripped some tents. The team didn't try to move. Stetson invented a new sport: He stood on the glare ice in his camp booties and let the wind push him. When he got going too fast, he would crawl to the rocks along shore and work his way back upwind.

The first day out of Pangnirtung had been just the opposite of the waterfall scenario. On a recent Sunday at dawn it was clear at 30 below zero, revealing a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains across Pangnirtung Fiord. A small knot of onlookers from the village turned out for the team's 10:30 a.m. departure.

Simon Qamanirq, an Inuit team member from Iglulik, had spent much of his time in Pangnirtung rebuilding his sled in the high school shop. Its runners were adorned with the signatures of many students.

The fiord is more than two miles wide at Pangnirtung, and the vast country swallowed up the caravan of dog teams. In the distance, dwarfed by the mountains, they looked like centipedes crawling along the ice. The procession was led by the Inuit teams of Qamanirq, 54, and Lukie Airut, 65, also of Iglulik. Their dogs run in fan-hitch formation, each dog connected by long strands of sealskin to the sled with small rings of caribou antler. Then come the two Minnesota teams of Stetson's dogs, running tandem on their ganglines.

"The pace is intense," Stetson said. "It's the difference between an Outward Bound trip and a professional dogsled expedition."

The day was windless, and the team stopped a couple of times for snacks and hot tea from their Thermoses. The Minnesotans munched energy bars, while the Inuit used snow knives to carve themselves chunks of Arctic char from whole frozen fish. The mushers presented a contradiction in trail clothing as well, the Inuit in their loose-fitting anoraks or parkas, Qamanirq in his caribou pants, the Minnesotans in one-piece insulated suits spangled in red, blue and yellow.

In 15 days on the ice leading to Pangnirtung, the two cultures had already learned from each other, Qamanirq said.

"We learned that computers could function in this kind of climate and that (the dogs) could survive on southern dog food," he said.

But the teams had brought along seals from Pangnirtung to supplement the dog food, and that night in camp each dog got a chunk of it. They pawed and gnawed it until their legs were stained with seal blood.

As the shadows crept up the mountainsides, the four tents were pitched on the ice. They, too, resembled insects, but in larval form. Two people to a tent, a two-burner Coleman in each for heat and cooking. With re-supply at every community along the way, white gas is not a precious commodity.

Steger, his work for the day completed, looked around at the frozen river, the bulwark mountains, the deepening blue sky. The temperature was 17 below zero. The evening was windless. Except for this ephemeral community of dogs and humans, the country was empty for miles and miles.

"It's so nice, it's hard to go inside," Steger said.

Sometime in May, Steger will go back to Minnesota and continue his fight to curb global warming. But his tentmate, Theo Ikummaq, will go back to his home in Iglulik and continue to cope with a changing Arctic.

"We don't know what's to be in 10 years from now," Ikummaq had said in Pangnirtung. "What's our lifestyle to be? We're not certain. We're adapting to change as it comes, which has been the case for 6,000 years. But it hasn't happened this fast in the past."