Sunday, December 22, 2013

From Fish Wars to Broken Bones, Broken Boats and Salvation

Marike and Elisabeth on Quoddy's Run by the North Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm, Alaska
Dear Friends and family,

Fasten your seatbelt.  We've taken some wild rides this year--everything from rough political fights to legal threats and broken bones, our first experiences taking our own boat into icy waters alongside glaciers in Alaska, and then, this autumn, some painful falls.  All's well that has ended well, however--we hope, as we slide on snow covered roads in Quebec into the last days of the year.

We began 2013 in the midst of the "salmon wars." We'd learned in February 2012 that Snow Island Salmon, then a subsidiary of Scottish multinational fish farmer, Loch Duart, had applied for three 18-hectare open pen salmon farms on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, one in the bay adjacent to ours.  Virtually overnight, we were engaged in a mass citizen uprising on the shore, a battle that became more acute as both federal and provincial governments strongly backed this polluting form of aquaculture and heavily subsidized its operations, very much against the wishes of the citizens on the shore, and to the detriment of other local industries like our wild catch fisheries and tourism. Marike served as Vice-President and then President of APES (Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore), the local organization formed to combat the fish farms, and Karin served as a press liaison; we never dreamed we'd ever know or talk so much about salmon life cycles and diseases or sea lice, the differences between and effects of farmed Atlantic salmon on the five varieties of wild Pacific salmon, what goes into fish feed, the effects of fish feces on lobster larvae and the ocean floor, how ocean currents carry and distribute sediments along the Eastern Shore, the effects of storms, cold water and ice on open pen finfish aquaculture, and other unsavory details. The battle escalated in 2013, culminating with petitions in which +93% of the citizens in the affected bays banned open pen farms in their waters, and, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved the sale of farmed fish infected with infectious salmon anemia in grocery stores, APES began a campaign in metro Halifax targeted at consumers.

APES billboard, Halifax (photo by Kristy Depper)
Finally, all of those petitions, signs, bus boards and billboards, contacts with government agencies and meetings with politicians, media interviews, marches, fund raisers and art projects, video documentaries, postcard campaigns, discussions at the fish counters of every grocery store anyone could find, letters to the editor, scientific information sessions--and the freezing temperatures we endured last winter that seem to have frozen to death nearly all of the fish in the only operational open pen fish farm on the shore--paid off: the provincial government decided not to authorize installation of pens in Shoal Bay. In other words, we'd won--one of the very few (the only?) jurisdiction(s) in the country to do so.

Spry Bay Bans Open Pen Fish Farms
Meanwhile, battles at Karin's university, Canada's oldest dedicated arts school, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) raged on, with Karin in the thick of it as a spokesperson for the Friends of NSCAD and one of two faculty representatives on the committee to find a new president for the university--pretty much a hopeless task so long as the sitting government of the day, Darrell Dexter's NDP, seemed in love with the latest bureaucratic fad, MOOCs (massive open online courses--not sure how you teach studio courses that way or mentor anyone), and determined to force draconian cuts and merge the art school into another university (who needs art anyway, right? Hold on a minute, isn't that one of the few sustainable industries in Nova Scotia, alongside lobster fishing?) Some days she was giving media interviews on NSCAD in the morning, and salmon wars in the afternoon, a feat of hat-switching that caused some confusion among her interviewers and no little laughter.

By spring, both our bays and NSCAD seemed in better shape, Karin was back to writing poetry, and the provincial NDP was busy doing some pre-election backpedaling.  Relieved, we were glad to quit Nova Scotia politics and head west, to the warmth and spring flowers of Vancouver Island, where we launched our boat, Quoddy's Run. As always, it was hard to say goodbye to our sweet aging black lab, Bathsheba, and our faithful Dante cat, but we knew they would be in the excellent care of our neighbours, Paulette Gammon and John Zervoudis.

Elisabeth consulting a chart of Alaskan waters
The plan was to meet up with our Oregon-based boating buddies on Blue Pteron, Paul Seamons and Dee Vadnais, in Desolation Sound in early June. Until then, Marike and Karin would do repairs, provision, buy the necessary charts and guidebooks, visit with friends in the Gulf Islands and Vancouver, and wait for Elisabeth to arrive.  All was going swimmingly--the launch went without a hitch; we'd seen many old friends and made a few new friends, survived the last dregs of the sputtering NSCAD presidential search and spring colds and were getting back to writing and painting and photographing and voyage planning, when thump, a legal notice landed in Marike's inbox. Snow Island Salmon claimed that Marike had made nearly a dozen defamatory, injurious or libelous comments about them and their operations, and if she did not apologize immediately, she and hers were going to be very sorry. Panic! Welcome to the world of the SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation); we knew this was an effort to target and intimidate Marike as the key spokesperson for APES, and, since the reporting of fish deaths on fish farms is not required by provincial or federal law, to make certain citizen presentations of the facts disappear.

After many consultations--and the brilliant good advice of our friend John Roston in Vancouver--we developed a strategy for handling the legal threat that involved (thank you John!) a mix of humour, an insistence upon strict facts, and a refusal of the language of harm. Best of all? We didn't have to hire a lawyer! (but we did take John and Karin Biggs for splendid sushi dinner at the end of the summer--much more fun for all.) It took a few weeks for the matter to be settled, however, during which time we nearly lost our minds.

Rebecca Spit, Quadra Island
Minds half gone then, we picked up Elisabeth and headed north to Quadra Island, where we were to meet up with Paul and Dee.  We anchored off of Rebecca Spit and set out for a walk--whereupon Elisabeth, just getting used to new glasses with progressive lenses, tripped on a flat path, fell, and broke her right wrist. No xray machine on Quadra, so she and Karin raced to the ferry and crossed to Campbell River, where she was fixed up in the emergency room. Six weeks in a cast: we would be in Alaska when it was supposed to come off...But it was safer for Elisabeth to be on the boat than at home, where she couldn't drive or cook or fend for herself for a time.

Elisabeth helming in her cast
By the time we got to Sointula, where we met with our west coast friends, the original salmon warriors, Alex Morton and co., Snow Island and its lawyer had agreed to drop the suit in exchange for a simple apology for any discomfort caused by our claim in the press that all, as opposed to the vast majority, of their fish had died. Whew! Time for a big celebration, and then we pressed on, northward, arriving in Alaska on July 1, Canada Day.

Karin and Marike in the shadow of the Punchbowl, Rudyerd Bay, Misty Fiords National Monument, Alaska
The trip was hard, gorgeous, wild--and once we got to Alaska, crowded with cruise ships--and intensive salmon fishing. Unlike BC, Alaska has outlawed fish farms, and its wild salmon are everywhere! We saw glaciers, grizzlies, whales, bald eagles, golden eagles and sea lions, Dahl's porpoises, herring, halibut and salmon salmon salmon. Elisabeth's arm healed, and Marike cut off the cast with wire cutters while we were anchored off of Meyers Chuck, Alaska.  Things were looking up--and then, on our way home, back down through the rapids north of Desolation Sound, we heard from Paulette: our dog, Bathsheba had died. A bloody tumour had ruptured in her lungs overnight, and she'd had to be put down. We hadn't been there for her; we hadn't made it home in time. Poor Shebie! Poor Paulette! We felt just terrible, and we still had to bring the boat back to port safely on Vancouver Island, which we did. Then Elisabeth headed home, Karin and Marike put the boat to bed, and flew home--in time for Karin to start teaching her fall term...and prepare her tenure dossier. She'll hear in March how all of the reviews have gone.

When we returned home, the house had never seemed to so empty...Our lone cat, Dante worked hard at keeping watch, even took up begging, in a vain effort to fill the giant hole left by the dogs and cats who have gone before her...(Just what is in those Whiskas anyway? Crack?)

The autumn was full, as autumns are, of renovations, house painting, yard work, wood stacking, and elections....The NDP, which had been our unexpected nemesis, was out; the Liberals in. We'll see how that goes--we're feeling a bit jaded about the whole political process, think painting and poetry might be a smarter use of our time...Marike has resigned as President of APES, and Karin swears she'll have a poetry manuscript together by spring. But by far the thing that has occupied us the most has been the unexpected disaster with the boat: a jack stand crumpled beneath her during a wind storm at the end of September, and all 40,000 pounds of Quoddy came crashing down on the ground. The mast broke in three places, the hull was a bit dinged up, and some of the bulkheads "came adrift," as they say.
The fallen vessel
Karin even wrote a eulogy for the boat on her blog, which inspired Blair Fraser and his wife Sharon, graduates of NSCAD and owners of another PK 44', to assess the damage and decide they could repair the boat. So, in fact, Quoddy's Run will live again, and stronger than ever before. Thanks be to artists, and beauty and poetry and a profound dedication to keeping what is good working in the world.

Quoddy's Run under sail in Jervis Inlet, BC (2012)

Peace and blessings to all this holiday season, and wishes for a very happy (and different!) New Year!


Karin, Marike, and Elisabeth

PS. Stay tuned to our sailing blog, West by East, for postings about our Alaska adventures and updates about Quoddy's repairs.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A DECADE--well, more--IN NOVA SCOTIA (1999 – 2011)

Belated Christmas letter from Elisabeth, Marike and Karin
Since we have now celebrated TWELVE New Years on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, we thought we might benefit from a reflection on our time here.  You’re our excuse for doing this, so we hope you can bear to bear with us in this extra long more-than-decade survey edition of our annual letter.

To be sure, living on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore has great advantages, primarily the sheer beauty of the place--when you can see it.  It is said that skunks have their odour to protect them from predators and the Eastern Shore its fog.  Nevertheless last summer was relatively fog free and, while many of you might not consider 20-25C terribly hot, it was warm for us, so warm that we could swim in the ocean for long periods like fifteen or twenty minutes or even half an hour. 

Karin, ever one to see a glass half full, has taken to photography in order to convince herself and those of you receiving her Picasa updates that staying the course Down East has been well worth it.  So intent is she on her mission that she has upgraded from a point and shoot camera to the top of the line Canon SLR.  Now she resembles one of Canada’s soldiers in Afghanistan, although with more success, as she bazookas around the coastlines and woodlands of the province.  A good thing, too, that she is recording these sites, for the rising tidal surges are washing out the former while the progressive NDP energy policy is soon to eradicate the latter.  Nova Scotia Power has been given the green light, along with the almost bankrupt New Page Paper Company, to generate electricity from renewable biomass: read, Crown land stumpage, or, all of our remaining trees.

At first Marike continued to stride along at her usual breakneck pace as Karin and Elisabeth stopped every other whipstitch to photograph something.  Finally she succumbed to shutter-buggery, feeling lonely out there just looking at things. She has nicknamed the three of us out for a stroll “the snapping turtles.”

Karin not only has a half full glass, she now has a half-fulltime job at NSCAD.  This means that she teaches writing and administers almost full-time throughout the fall, winter and what seems like much of the summer, in exchange for half a salary and some benefits.  This is a fitting economic deal for NSCAD, which is itself on the verge of bankruptcy because its past director renovated a rented wreck into a new campus for $20 M without putting the financing in place, and then he left.  The current president has run away from the problem to South Africa for the next six months.  Who knows where it will all end?

It is unlikely that the provincial government with its out of control deficit will see fit to direct its scant resources away from illness to art education.  Perhaps NSCAD’s Port Campus could become Halifax’s 4th conference centre since the proposed third seems to be garnering funding.  For a mere $169M we, the tax payers, will build the basement of a tower complex where we will bury alive “thousands of projected conference goers.”  We wouldn’t want them to look at the sea--after all they might want to stay and bring a business to the city.  That’s all Nova Scotia needs, more CFAs (abbreviation for “Come From Aways”) our status--once donned, never shed.  We are beginning to agree with the person who said that Nova Scotia is like a motorcycle gang, hard to get into, but then just try to leave it.

Marike has given up job hunting in Nova Scotia for good now.  At first she had some doubt about the outcomes of sending her CV to various solicitations since nothing ever came back from the endeavour.  But now, after being told by one institution that they had called off the search, preferring no one to her, and by her psychotherapeutic colleagues in the city to learn cognitive and behavioural therapy rather than try to be the only trained psychoanalyst in the city, she has decided to stop trying to add a dash of difference to  the mix.  Not much of a mix really though since immigrants and visible minorities do not come or stay here in any significant numbers.

But who wants a job anyway? It would interfere with our most extensive and thrilling pastime: planning.  Planning is Marike’s speciality, but she consistently sweeps Karin and Elisabeth up with the force of her energy and vision.  We think we are at plan # 24698 already although that may be a gross underestimate.  So far this year we have planned to sail across the Pacific three times--planned 3 x not sailed 3 x: once to sail through the Panama Canal and north to Maine, once to take Dockwise to BC, once to stay in Mexico and get new sails, and then once again (making 4x—yes, we do have trouble counting) we decided, let’s go to BC after all.  Thus we have finally booked passage of Quoddy’s Run on Dockwise Yacht Transport from La Paz, Mexico to Nanaimo, BC.  The exorbitant cost for this adventure will be covered posthumously by Karin’s grandparents, who have kindly left her a small inheritance.  Karin’s grandpa was a rather staid, cautious man, so we deem it fitting that he should help us to set off on the great adventure of exploring Canada’s west coast (and who knows, maybe even traversing the North West Passage!)  Her grandma would have loved to hear all about it, we are sure.

So it is that in order to work out how to renew a much needed proximity to our families and old friends in Central Canada and the USA, we are going sailing on Quoddy’s Run in British Columbia and frolicking with our friends out there.  Perfectly logical, n’est-ce pas?  This way we can continue planning and avoid solving the logistics of how to orchestrate such a move.

 A little eco-house on the land Marike inherited from her parents on the Bay of Quinte next to the old family cottage which is now Judy’s? But wait, it has to have studios and bedrooms for the three of us, plus guest quarters and enough wall space to house our art collection.

What about a pied-a-terre in Montreal?  At least then we’d be close to our own psychoanalysts.  That might help.  Sounds like a good idea, until you try to rent or buy a place that has a yard for the dog, room for other pets, bedrooms and studies for the three of us--and of course, centrally located with a consulting office for Marike who would have to practice 24/7 for the rest of her life and then some in order to afford the rent or the mortgage on such a space.

Instead of building, renting or saving for any of these plans, last summer Marike planned and helped to renovate our studio into a guest house (Any takers?  We’re looking for a renter for the season!) She’s taking a little breather from Green politics (worried about splitting the progressive vote) in order to dedicate herself to some small practical green projects—beginning with an eco-toilet and a grey water-treatment pit.  (Bottoms up!) 

We hadn’t made any art in the studio since the freezer truck—which has now ceased its racket--was pointed at it.  Last summer many friends and guests availed themselves of the place, reporting perfect functioning of the sewage treatment plant and great delight at such a lovely place by the sea.  We too were delighted to have their visits.  

Ever the contrarian, Marike at once began carving whale bone and oil painting, neither of which should be done at home.  But what else could she do? Whale bone dust wafted throughout the house and the place smelled like a dental clinic for whales

 A further avoidance strategy for moving ahead on any of our relocation plans was also devised by Marike and Karin who, as soon as the mortgage was paid down, rushed out to buy a used camper van, a Roadtrek, now fittingly named Toadwreck (it’s old so we go slowly in it, mainly to avoid consuming more fuel than a jet engine would), in order to pursue another project – visiting all of Canada’s National Parks and making a photo book about them.  So far we have ventured out to Keji for a long weekend and posted nothing though we have the blog site mocked up.  
Amidst this flurry of activity Karin managed to produce a book from her blog, Visible Poetry.  Quite amazing really--both the book and the fact that she managed to do this despite all of Marike’s distractions.  Marike did manage to distract herself sufficiently so as not to finish a collection of short stories.  And still she threatens to start a novel.

But what of Elisabeth in all of this?  Thankfully for her, she misses out on most of the talk since her hearing is greatly diminished.  We used to tease her that it was a fitting ailment for a psychoanalyst, and now we suggest to her that it is a blessing in disguise while she lives with the two of us – but we are not sure she’s heard us.  If she did, she doesn’t let on; in true psychoanalytical silence she carries on sanely with her photography, email correspondence, and vacations with French friends and family – Venice last summer and Vietnam this winter.  Only the letters WXY and Z remain.  An avid flower gardener, Elisabeth also applies her green thumb to vegetable gardening; at least that way we have gourmet greens to eat in these recessionary days.

While we did not approve of Mr. Harper’s stimulus plan--which appears to have spent something like $50 billion dollars in order to leave a legacy of back yard decks across Canada--we did nevertheless avail ourselves of the renovation tax credit and now defunct energy efficiency retrofit incentives.   Ah those bleeding heart liberals who can never be consistent!   We maxed out the allowances, working alongside our trusty carpenter, David, to replace doors and windows, insulate the basement, replace the furnace, install a fireplace insert, and fix leaks.  We have reduced said leaks from around 30--that’s more than our boat has--to just one mysterious source.  This huge house can now be safely left without fear that it will flood, cost thousands to heat, or become covered in soot from an exploding furnace.  We HOPE we’ve covered all the bases.

We are more ambivalent about the huge shore remediation work, forced upon us by rising water levels and high tidal surges.  Fearing a “washed out dyke,” we had huge stone walls constructed between us and the sea.  Still, when the bill for this arrives we may well have to wash out to sea after all.  Then again, perhaps instead of selling Quoddy’s End, we should have merely allowed the house to float to an alternative site.

Speaking of blessings in disguise, this time as tragic horror, we now have only two rather than three animals to move, if and when we ever do.  Last winter, while Karin and Marike were sailing in the Sea of Cortez with Allister, a friend whom we met in the Arctic, our precious Linus cat was fatally attacked by the neighbour’s two Huskies on our deck.  Courageous Elisabeth rushed out to grab her from their jaws, alas too late, but not before the beasts got in some chomps on her hands as well.  We told Elisabeth that she was going to extremes to avoid having to help stack wood or, heaven forbid, move furniture.  
Now don’t go confusing that neighbour with the one who pointed the freezer truck at us and only killed two of our cats while threatening to kill the rest of us.   Not at all!  Of the five neighbours on our street they are two distinct addresses.  Still, we try to appreciate them all, since their numbers are decreasing.  One has gone out West to work in the oil patch and stave off financial ruin due to the collapse of the lumber industry and the price of lobsters in the Maritimes.  Yet another tragically blew his head off this autumn, and in the process broke the hearts of the remainder of his family members.  At least the drug dealer is still of sound mind and body.

Yes, things were so cheerful in West Quoddy this December that we could barely imagine tearing ourselves away.  What, and miss the annual drunken red wine fling, now so much less exciting and so much easier to clean since we replaced the white broadloom with hardwood floors.

Nevertheless tear—or at least pry away--we did, naturally, following weeks of to-ing and fro-ing over the difficult logistics of the trip with a dog in tow.  We loaded the car and the new Thule roof ski box (and we do have the bill for that!) full of skis, boots, dog bed, baking, and gifts, many of which looked as though they had been inspired by Amy Sedaris’ book Crafts for Poor People, finishing with a real fir tree from the back forty.  And then we almost didn’t blast off.  On the last evening of work in Halifax, Karin returned to our friend Peggy’s house where she rents a room, only to surprise a crack addict in the act of robbing the place.  As he left, computers, cameras, and jewellery under his arm he turned to Karin to say “Sorry,” of all things.  Karin’s parents, veterans of the inner city in Columbus, Ohio, were naturally, as were we all, relieved that Karin was not hurt, but they couldn’t get over this one thing: a thief who apologized and didn’t assault you! That’s just “the Nova Scotia way” we explained-– even the thieves are polite as they rob you blind.  After hours spent with the police and hammering planks of wood over the broken door, a much shaken Karin hopped in the car and off we zoomed to Quebec.  Finally we actually pointed in the right direction although, of course, there are plans to take Toadwreck to Newfoundland next summer.

Boy! Were we in for a culture shock!  After more than ten years away: SNOW! And it stayed on the ground!

We were graciously feted by our friends and family:  among them, Kevin in the Eastern Townships, Aaron, Tara, Henry, Emily, Yvonne, Barry, Matt, Danica, Charlotte, baby Lucy, Marie-Therese, Jean-Francois, Mathilde senior and Rosalie in Montreal, Marie-Luce, Mathilde junior, Hans, Helene, and Paul in La Prairie,  and “Chalet Emilie” in Saint-Alphonse…And there were so many others we wanted to see but couldn’t this trip—we’d no idea that we still knew so many people! 

Much reciprocal wining and dining occurred. Followed by sleeping in, and then more wining and dining.  We tried really hard to reduce the whining, and found that, mostly, in such company, it could be done.

We carried on intense conversations about all kinds of things and continued talking--especially when--we disagreed.  Marike, who often feels like a pit-bull in a teacup shop in Halifax, had her muzzle removed!  Karin perfected her French and now ca n’en finit plus.  Elisabeth reassumed her role as grandmere, even making chicken soup for the granddaughters.

We found that small towns the size of Sheet Harbour were decorated, filled with pedestrians, and offered up delicious duck meats, boutique chocolates, and reasonably priced champagne.  Best of all, other customers also filled their carts with such delicacies--rather than boiled dinner, salt cod, hamburger soup, and cheese whiz.  It’s not galloping but lonely gourmets we’ve been all these years!

Imagine: we were thanked for our gifts.  Folks responded to our crafts as though they were works of art.

Playfulness was everywhere. We even fell asleep watching a video of fog rise and monks stare into the sun and eat bad food slowly at a Carpathian monastery with our friend Kevin.  Marike swears the monks were actually lively during the one afternoon a month they’re permitted to speak, but Karin slept through that bit and can’t really verify it. 

Near our pine sheltered chalet in Lanaudiere, we cross-country skied, hiked the snow-covered back roads, and skidded around the frozen lake.  Sheba played ski patrol dog for Karin who fell—her count—no fewer than 77 times while accustoming herself to the novelty of short steep icy slopes.  We were accompanied by friends who also liked to move outdoors energetically and at all hours of the day and night.  (One or two of them might still be walking around the lake, we’re not quite sure.) We lit candles on our imported Christmas tree and our guests did not panic or threaten to throw pitchers of water at the tree.

Most extraordinarily of all, Karin and Marike went to Les Bains Nordiques/La Source  in Rawdon, a zen geo-thermal hot spring where, for hours one night, we varied heat, cold, and relaxation in one of the most aesthetically pleasing architectures we have ever experienced.  Outdoors.  In the snow! In -11 degrees! Our hair froze and ice formed on our feet as we walked around without flipflops and still we enjoyed it! Really! You will too, so long as you bring flipflops. And maybe a toque.

Poor Elisabeth came down with bronchitis and could not join us in many of these pleasures.  She still has not recovered and it now appears that she has pneumonia.  (And she never went anywhere where her hair could freeze!  How did this happen?) We and her doctors are keeping a close eye on her.

Alas, Karin and Marike were enjoying themselves far too much to continue skiing and Nordic bathing so they interrupted themselves by jumping into the car for a long drive to the Bay of Quinte to check out the right of way to our land and potential building sites, capped with a speed date dinner with friends Gale and Therese.  (Gale is Marike’s “fixer” in Napanee on this project.)  Then back to Montreal late at night and out onto the road home to Nova Scotia in one of the winter’s worst storms.  Ah the excitement of winter driving.  It is kind of like downhill ski racing only with all of the competitors on the course at once.  Our friends cried: “You could have been killed!”  Now that would have been going too far in the wrong direction.

Don’t worry.  We’ll be back!  Plans are afoot (#25304) to rent a chalet in Lanaudiere for a month or two or four—or maybe even buy a place—next year.  We’ll keep you posted.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Arctic Adventures--From Northern Greeland through Canada's Northwest Passage

I. High Arctic revelation
Summer in Greenland overturns all expectations, illusions of northern waters
SUNDAY SPECIAL to the Chronicle Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada)
Sun. Dec 13 - 4:46 AM

Ilulissat, Greenland, nestled in the rocks, resembles a Nova Scotia fishing village.

The Clipper Adventurer. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

A mountainous iceberg in Ilulissat ice fjord.

Shipmates look like dots on the landscape while the ship is dwarfed by the mountains surrounding Karrat Fjord, Greenland. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a three-part series about a voyage to the Arctic. Next week: birthplace of icebergs.

GREENLAND LOOMS over the map of North America, more than two million square kilometres of ice and rock, the largest island that is not a continent. With just 57,564 inhabitants, it’s the least densely populated country in the world. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go there, particularly during the summer, the season of the midnight sun?
Is it true what we’ve been hearing, that northern waters will soon be ice-free? Should adventuresome ordinary sailors be tempted into Baffin Bay and beyond?

We wanted to find out, and so we signed on for a 22-day cruise with Adventure Canada aboard a Russian-built ice-class vessel, the 118-passenger Clipper Adventurer.

The itinerary called for us to fly from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, an international airstrip deep up a long, ice-free fjord where we’d board the ship. We were to sail up the west coast of Greenland as far as ice conditions permitted, stopping to explore various capes, fjords and islands.

Then we’d cross to Ellesmere Island, officially re-entering Canada in Grise Fjord, Nunavut, the northernmost community in the country.
A second leg of the voyage called for us to nose our way through the Northwest Passage, stopping for ancient archeological ruins as well as abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company and RCMP posts. We were also to spend time in northern hamlets from Resolute to Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay.

Although we’ve read many accounts of the north and are avid admirers of Inuit art, we had no idea what to expect. The north remained sketchy, unimaginable territory, a wild fantasy zone populated by deranged explorers, pelt-wearing hunters and ever smaller polar bears drifting on disappearing ice floes into a midnight sun.

Greenland was a cipher and the Canadian north nothing more than a series of large blank wedges on the map, sparsely populated frosty territories where grave social and environmental problems seemed to be unfolding.

If we prepared for anything then, we prepared for tragedy. But what we found were spaces so beautiful, so vast and so stunning that our sense of the order of the world has been utterly and completely altered.

There is a reason why travelers to the Arctic tend to return, inflamed by arctic fever. Nowhere else in the world is like this. It will defeat and reverse and meet every expectation you could possibly carry. This alone makes the trouble of the trip worth it. And yes, you will see polar bears and narwhals and bird colonies consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and thousands upon thousands of icebergs glistening bluely in the sun.

It was late evening in early August when the Clipper Adventurer hauled anchor and began to steam the 168 kilometres down the Söndre Strömfjord to the sea. The temperature was a balmy 17 C and the sun was still high in the sky. (We were relieved by the warmth — we did not expect that — but also worried. Was this evidence of global warming or just summer in Greenland? In a month, we heard, it would be zero again.)
Energized by such intensity of light so late in the day — who expects to see shadows near midnight? — and the excitement of being in the Arctic, we remained on the deck throughout much of the night, watching as the ship ghosted between high cliffs of ancient metamorphic rock.

A guide told us that Greenland was the site of an ancient northern "ring of fire;" these cliffs in the fjord were some of the oldest visible rock in the world; more than one billion years old on the north side, and nearly three billion years old along the southern wall.

The sun set at around 11:30 p.m. but rose again at 2:30 a.m., so the sky never really darkened.
We waited above-decks to see what was around the next corner and then the next, and the next.

Each view was more extraordinary than the last: clear blue-green glacial waters, multicoloured cliffs marked by striking vertical black slashes, thickly grooved white glaciers flowing into the fjord or retreating up the mountains, a ruby ball of reflected sun striking ice, a cliff face, another cliff. And then, as we approached the sea, our very first "bergy bits."

The next afternoon we stopped at an abandoned research station in Faeringe Nordhaven Fjord. This was our first real walk on the tundra, our first real view of a landscape above the tree line.

Here’s what struck us about the tundra: how familiar the springy, peaty soil made of composted plant matter clinging thinly to bedrock, the fatty tiny leaves of northern succulents like Labrador Tea, the cornucopia of blueberries and crowberries, the stunted growth of the brush, the low carpet of brightly-coloured leaves, grasses and mosses; all were exaggerated reductions of much of the vegetation found on the windy, barren coastlines of Nova Scotia. Minus the ubiquitous black spruce, of course.

There’s a running joke in the Arctic: "If you get lost in the woods just stand up." Tiny arctic willow and dwarf birch trees, trunks no wider than your little finger, crawl horizontally along the rock. Because the trees are so small, you can see forever.

We were startled by an arctic hare on a ledge, watching us, its ears enormous, its fur brilliant white. Snow buntings and wheatears flitted from cliff to cliff. We waded through bogs filled with cotton grasses, photographed bright pink dwarf fireweed and lavender arctic harebells no larger than a thumbtack, picked edible mushrooms, tasted leaves, swatted midges.

"Everything is edible," our guide, artist and adventurer Jerry Kobalenko, reassured us.
"In the Arctic, no plant can waste energy creating the complex proteins that make up poisons."

Before heading back to the boat we climbed the highest ridge and looked around.
Our shipmates were tiny specks, like us. Water pooled on the ground everywhere, and echoed the landscape back to us: vast, lush, verdant, frozen.

II. Greenland’s iceberg factory
Glaciers spill into ice fjords filled with wildlife in a northern wonderland

Sun. Dec 20 - 4:46 AM

Ice plugs Karrat Fjord. Just visible in the background is the glacier responsible for much of the ice in the fjord. (Photos by karin cope)

Pakak Inukshuk and Aaju Peter perform a drum dance among the remains of an ancient Thule camp at Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut.

The Greenland fishing village of Ilulissat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series of stories about a voyage to the Arctic Ocean by Eastern Shore writers Karin Cope and Marike Finlay-de Monchy. Next week: Sea ice and polar bears off Ellesmere Island.

WE WERE surrounded by thousands of icebergs.
As we headed north along the west coast of Greenland, the Clipper Adventurer steamed through a vast field of towering white fantasias, some trailing streaks of mud. Others seemed to emit a blue glow, above and below the water. Some were rough, some were smooth, some flat, others spiky. Sometimes, you could hear the ice hissing as it melted into the sea. Now and then, with a thunderous crack and splash, an iceberg split apart or became top-heavy and turned over.

Disko Bay, on the west coast of Greenland and 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, is one of the most prolific iceberg factories in the Arctic, and because the movements of the ice stir up the water, it’s also very rich fishing grounds.

Here, inside of Ilulissat Ice Fjord, an enormous glacier called Sermeq Kujalleq runs, like a massive river, from the ice cap to the sea. This is the most active glacier outside of Antarctica; every year, 35 cubic kilometres of ice flow into the sea here, where they crack off and create icebergs. As the icebergs calve, they crash and bang and create small tsunamis — signs on the beaches near the town of Ilulissat warn visitors to step back lest they be swept away.

We docked in Ilulissat, a shrimp and fish packing town with a population of around 5,000, and walked through town to the cliffs above the Ice Fjord, where thousands of icebergs are grounded against the sea bottom. They looked like the work of a mad city planner; huge glowing white architectural monuments ranged row upon irregular row.

Later we surveyed the Ice Fjord by Zodiac. Ice monsters — or perhaps angels — hovered over us. Light tumbled through strange keyholes high in the ice walls and bounced from one point to another. Newly calved icebergs were crusted with mud and stone; older bergs that had already rolled were smooth and sharply curved and clean. We traveled slowly among the behemoths, quietly, trying to keep a safe distance, in case they should roll or break apart.

Ice wasn’t the only attraction above the Arctic Circle, however. The air was warm (10-17° C) and the sun never set. Cam Gillies of Eagle Eye Tours helped us to see and identify kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, ivory gulls, gyrfalcons, snow buntings, harbour seals and bowhead whales. We saw polar bears and muskox and three small fox kittens.

All the coastal towns we visited in Greenland — Ilulissat, Upernavik, and Qaanaaq — featured small brightly painted wooden houses, in deep blues, yellows, rusts, greens, ochres and reds, scattered across the bedrock. Steep staircases run up and down between the dwellings, and large insulated pipes carry power and communications lines across the rock.

We were welcomed warmly in every community by emissaries who came on board to greet us, to eat with us, to sing with us, and, in Upernavik, to challenge us to a soccer game. The Adventure Canada team was roundly trounced by a changing crew of fishermen and fish packers on lunch break, a man who scored a goal against us while taking a call on his cellphone, a mom with a toddler, and several elders.

Adventure Canada had secured the services of Aaju Peter, a Greenlander now living in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
A singer, clothing designer, legal student and able cultural interpreter and translator of English, Inuktitut, Danish and various Greenlandic dialects, Aaju traveled with us, taught us words and songs in Greenlandic and Inuktitut, and facilitated a number of conversations and exchanges with residents of the communities we visited.

In Greenland, where it is legal to sell wild game, Aaju often went ashore to purchase fresh musk ox, reindeer, Arctic char, and halibut for the ship’s galley. And one afternoon, on the tundra steep above an icy fjord, she spread a table of "country food" delicacies for us to sample: raw seal and whale meat. (Cooking this food is not only disgusting, according to most northerners, but it destroys all of its vitamins and essential nutrients.)

At 77° north, Qaanaaq is the northernmost hamlet in Greenland. Squeezed between mountains and the sea, the town spreads across desertic scree. Removed 153 kilometres from more hospitable terrain in 1953, to make way for the U.S. Cold War Thule airbase, Qaanaaq’s inhabitants survive by hunting narwhal, seal and long-line halibut fishing.

Housed in a building once inhabited by Knud Rasmussen, a small museum showcases the history, artifacts and artworks of the community. Here you can see explorer Robert Peary’s ethnographic portraits of his young Greenlandic wife in various states of "native" undress. The museum also details Peary’s theft of the bulk of an iron-rich meteorite that had supplied inhabitants of the entire Baffin Bay region with iron for tools for more than 1,000 years.

Qaanaaq might be remote, but it is not out of touch, nor have its residents ever been. Many of the "great" northern explorers and whalers owe their survival to the ingenuity, hospitality and hunting skills of these "Arctic Highlanders" as John Ross called ancestors of this community in 1818.

Today, Qaanaaq is home to the world’s northernmost breakdance crew. Dressed in unlaced high tops, slouchy pants, graffiti shirts and cool sunglasses and copping moves from Brazilian capoeira, these talented teens are obviously global citizens. They gave us an impressive show.

How far north did we get?

At 78° 13’ north, in the early morning in thick fog, the ship stopped with a mighty crash as we lurched up against impassable floes of very hard multi-year ice descending from the polar ice cap and clogging the narrows of Smith’s Sound.

For the last century or so, often ice-free in the late summer, this passage was, ironically, thanks to climate change and the increased melt and breakup of the polar ice cap — clogged by old, super-hard ice.
There was nothing to do but to turn around and head south until we could cross to Ellesmere Island.

III. A harsh beauty
Arctic exacted tribute from early explorers

SUNDAY SPECIAL to the Chronicle Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada)
Sun. Dec 27 - 4:46 AM

A view of Gjoa Haven from the beach on a foggy August day.

Graves of RCMP officers from the 1920s overlook Dundas Harbour. Apparently, the officers went a bit mad. It seems that one shot the other then committed suicide,* though of course, since they are both dead, no one else knows exactly what happened. (* In fact, this is incorrect--see end of article for correction.)

Passengers from the Clipper Adventurer cross the tundra to an abandoned RCMP post in Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut. Fresh polar bear tracks have been sighted, so guide Aaju Peter carries her gun. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Third and final part of a series about a voyage to the Arctic.

HEADING SOUTH through sea ice along the east coast of Ellesmere Island was hard. In fog, the Clipper Adventurer slowly hunted for leads along the floe edge. Occasionally we spotted a lone male polar bear on the pack ice accompanied by rare ivory gulls hoping for remnants from a seal catch.

At Coburg Island, we took a late-night Zodiac trip along high cliffs where thick-billed murres and other seabirds nest. Along with Prince Leopold Island in Lancaster Sound, Coburg contains a crucial rookery for seabirds feeding on fish, squid and shrimp in the storm-stirred Arctic. The sunny midnight sky was filled with half a million screeching parents and their fledglings.

We cleared customs at Grise Fiord, the northernmost Inuit settlement in Canada. Like Resolute, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, Grise Fiord was created in 1953 by the federal government to ensure Arctic sovereignty claims.

Several families from subarctic Hudson Bay and Baffin Island had been assured of housing and ample game in these new hamlets.
When they arrived, there were no buildings. After great hardship, hunters learned where to hunt beluga and narwhal. These were northern deserts.

Years later, after an inquiry, compensation was paid to these settlers, but no formal apology ever offered. Despite government subsidies, housing, nursing stations, schools, air service, the annual sealift, and social insurance, living here is still a great challenge, especially for increasing numbers of youth who have few local employment prospects and little experience of the outside world should they finish school and decide to leave.

Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world, is separated from Baffin Island by Lancaster Sound, one of the world’s most nutritious feeding grounds for marine animals. The RCMP station at Dundas Harbour, established in 1922, consists of derelict buildings and a well-tended graveyard. The site was abandoned after just ten years following the suicide of one officer and the death of another.

On Beechy Island we visited gravesites of three members of Franklin‘s 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. Even in the height of this tundra-flowering, luminescent summer, Dundas and Beechy seemed barren and desolate. In 1846, all 129 members of Franklin’s expedition perished. Ironically, the Canadian Arctic archipelago was charted by 81 subsequent expeditions launched, at huge expense, to search for Franklin or to relieve searchers.

During the long cold run through Peel Sound between Prince of Wales and Somerset Island, we studied ice charts from Environment Canada revealing extensive ice coverage in Bellot Strait.

Luckily the strait was sufficiently ice-free to enter. Afternoon sun at our backs illuminated high red rocky hills on either side. As we passed the northernmost point of continental North America, extremely strong eddies caused by the meeting of tidal waters from both the Atlantic and the Pacific stirred up many nutrients, attracting a plethora of marine life. Polar bears, including mothers with cubs, fished from ice floes or wandered high in the hills. Narwhals crossed our bow and grazed like slowly moving logs along the shoreline, their strange tusks barely visible. A bowhead sounded. Dozens of belugas spy-hopped, popping their white heads in and out of the swirling water.

Fort Ross, a Hudson Bay Company fur-trading post, established in 1938 and abandoned two decades later due to intractable ice conditions, lay at the east end of Bellot. Now derelict, it was obvious that the main house had been built to impress. The oval door frames, desks and cabinetry were crafted of fine woods. An adjacent building, in good repair, shuttered against marauding polar bears, still provides shelter for hunters, fishermen and sailors. Inside we found a working oil stove, plenty of fuel, bunks, a functional stocked kitchen, a logbook, even a bottle of rum!

Heading south through the Franklin, Ross, and Rae Straits, the fog froze on the deck. A northerly had blown broken-up ice from the high Arctic down through McClintock Channel and into Larsen’s Sound, named after Captain Henry Larsen nearly lost his ship, the RCMP vessel St. Roch, in the crushing ice of these waters. The second vessel to complete the Northwest Passage, the St. Roch was the first to do so in both directions.
Adventure Canada had insisted on hiring Capt. Kenth Grankvist, a Swedish ice master with 30 years of experience. Unlike many captains, he loves to work ice. For 36 hours in thick fog he never left the bridge, searching for leads through multi-year ice. Occasionally the hull met ice with a crash.

Finally the sky and the ice cleared as we approached Gjoa Haven, a sheltered harbour on King William Island. Elders and schoolchildren performed throat-singing and drum-dancing, then fed us fresh bannock. We learned about a birthrate so high that housing and medical care cannot keep pace. Prices for fresh fruit, vegetables and milk in the Co-op and North stores are outrageous. Life is hard here; each Canadian Arctic community we visited left us with many questions and no real answers.

The coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in narrow, shallow, twisting Simpson Strait, was just beginning to set and repair buoys for the late summer sea-lifts of heavy objects and fuel to northern communities.
On Jenny Lind Island, in Queen Maud Gulf, an abandoned DEW Line radar station, originally designed to detect Soviet nuclear bombers, was being dismantled.

A hike on vast Victoria Island revealed caribou and tundra swan. At Prichard’s Point we came upon a well-preserved wreck and our first driftwood, flowing up from below the tree line along the great northern rivers.

We travelled by zodiac up the Coppermine River to Bloody Falls, site of a massacre of Inuit by Dene hunters accompanying Samuel Hearne in 1771. Later, the summit of a red-bushed mountain revealed the winding path of the mighty Hood as it reached Arctic Sound.

At longitude 118° 13’ W, just before Amundsen Gulf, we toasted Amundsen’s first Northwest Passage as well as our own; it is still a navigational challenge, history in the making, and a life-altering experience of natural beauty!

Marike Finlay-de Monchy and Karin Cope are freelance writers who live on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.

Incorrect information appeared in a photo caption in the Dec. 27 edition of The Novascotian. We reported that at an RCMP station at Dundas, N.W.T. in the 1920s, one officer shot another and then committed suicide. In fact, while one officer did commit suicide, a second shooting death almost a year later was officially ruled an accident. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

You almost received a Christmas letter just like the one we sent to you last year:

We are still dwelling on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore with greater or lesser ambivalence: the landscape is so beautiful, the social and professional opportunities so scant.

Karin is still teaching part-time at NSCAD and still hoping that something more permanent will open up. She does enjoy teaching arts students who are interested in creating things and not simply criticizing. She set herself the task of developing a syllabus that used images and ‘zine and book-making to inspire writing skills, apparently with a great deal of success.

As well, Karin is becoming a very accomplished photographer since she started borrowing Elisabeth’s good Canon camera--the Rebel XTi we gave her for Christmas a couple of years ago. Check out Karin’s images online: and at

Elisabeth continues to be the inspired flower gardener of Quoddy’s End. She works for hours and months expanding her rock garden. She is a less inspired but nevertheless constant vegetable gardener at Quoddy as well, always struggling with the scarcity of sun and prevalence of fog. We just cannot get a tomato to ripen here but the apple trees did produce this season for the first time ever. And we grew dozens of potatoes in seaweed—clean and delicious!

Elisabeth is still an avid photographer, specializing in macro-photos of tiny plants which she then blows up into something quite magical. She celebrated her 75th birthday this November and is still learning new computer skills with which to work her images. Go Elisabeth! She proves that it’s never too late for an old French lady to teach herself new tricks! For some of her images see:

As well as struggling with the medium of acrylic paint, Marike has continued to work on realizing her dream of a green development. She has gotten some major approvals for an “open concept development” scheme from the Halifax Regional Municipality Development Office. This involved a little help from a recently elected provincial NDP MLA—and was despite an obstreperous and insular city councillor. We will not name any names.

Several people we can (and want to) name have contributed to the early conceptualization of the plan. An engineer, Steve Campbell, graciously walked the land with Marike, suggesting house sites and offering advice around community infrastructure (paths, septic, etc). And New Hampshire-based architect, Thomas Hopper, has made some lovely early designs of a green micro-house.

Alas, these things are now on hold however, until we see whether Karin has more secure work at NSCAD and whether the entire project can be made feasible economically…

As she awaits these verdicts, Marike has concentrated on the less glorious but perhaps equally green tasks of energy retrofitting our house in town (now rented) and here at Quoddy. The main obstacle is getting workmen to come quickly!

Last Christmas day was deeply creased by the death of our beloved 13-year old “wolf” dog, Binky—she died in Karin’s arms of congestive heart failure; we buried her the next day beside her old pal Negrita, back beneath the trees by the pond. We miss her enthusiasm and spirit every day!

In the new year, Elisabeth travelled to Montreal and then France to visit friends and family. She welcomed her goddaughter Florence’s new child, Aliosha/Leo, into the family at Antibes. For photos see

And Karin and Marike enjoyed some fantastic sailing in the Sea of Cortez. Our friend, Sea King helicopter pilot, Major Barry Leonard, joined us for a few weeks. We also met some new friends, Paul Seamons and Dee Vadnais, aboard Blue Pteron, from Oregon, with whom we buddy-boated (the first time ever) for many miles and anchorages. We thoroughly enjoyed their company over many tequilas, fine meals, political conversations and outdoor painting sessions taught by Dee. We are hoping they will come sailing with us this winter for a time! (Views of travels with Paul and Dee on Blue Pteron at and other nearby posts.)

That seemed as if it would be it for 2009. Then Marike got restless in August. She started hunting for a trip to Bali or a safari in Africa, only to receive an Eagle Eye Tours flier announcing spots still available on summer Arctic cruises. Hmm she thought, we never see mention of these trips in the media in the Maritimes… I wonder if we could do some writing to help pay for this….

Those negotiations successful, within two days the three of us packed, then drove to Ottawa, where we visited with Barry and friends Ken and Moira Gibson. Then it was onto a charter bound for Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where we boarded the Clipper Adventurer for two back-to-back cruises: Into the High Arctic, and Through the North West Passage. What an adventure! In many respects, we have yet to return from the north in our imaginations. The midnight sun, thousands of icebergs, thick tundra, tiny brilliantly coloured vegetation, Arctic mammals and birds of all sorts, colourful towns in Greenland, northernmost settlements in Canada, and vast vast spaces: all have left an indelible mark on us. We have Feverus Articus now, and are conspiring to find other ways to travel north again. We’d like to be able to stay in one place long enough to contemplate and absorb it, to find the language fitting to describe this part of our nation and world. (See here, for ongoing updates on the arctic journey—several articles are just coming out now, during the holidays.)

Yes, it is true; the ice cap is melting and breaking up in Canada’s north, and the implications are ponderous--which is one reason why Marike continues to work for the Green Party of Canada. She has asked to shift portfolios on Shadow Cabinet from Arts and Culture to Mental Health.

We could tell you what our plans are for 2010, but we never really do know what is going to happen next. But when it does, we’ll tell you about it!

All the best for the holiday season.

Marike, Karin, and Elisabeth