Disappearing land

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been taking a few days off to visit a land almost at the top of the world, and sees it disappearing.

(Lange) The Canadian Airlines 737 takes off from Edmonton headed north. Below it, the quilt of green and yellow fields and their farmhouses, each with its windbreak of poplars, fades to scraggly taiga. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, muffin, and coffee, we descend over the vast, gray sheet of Great Slave Lake, and land the way we took off, straight north into Yellowknife.

Half an hour later we take off straight north again, on a turboprop with its cabin divided between freight and passengers. The taiga changes to tundra. At noon we land at the dirt airport of Kugluktuk, with the dark water of the fabled Northwest Passage filling the horizon ahead.

Larry meets us there, and carries us down to his dock at the mouth of the Coppermine River. The little Volvo diesel grinds into life and begins throbbing eastward along the north coast.

It’s a 15-hour run to the dropoff; I spend the time marveling that we’re looking south at the North American continent. For about a week, the four of us will wander the coast without another soul around – just fish, birds, bugs, and wild animals: caribou, musk oxen, grizzlies, wolves, and ground squirrels.

There are no more remote places on the globe. Big capital is moving north, following ore body discoveries and the recent approval of a diamond mine in formerly pristine tundra. You hear South African accents these days in tiny Inuit hamlets.

During our first trips here 15 years ago, we rarely saw another party. But in 1993 we were dropped off at a headwater lake, and heard the pounding of prospectors’ helicopters around the clock. The schooner that met us stopped several times to pick up sacks of gravel from diamond prospects. Now, in order to avoid the march of progress you have to go farther and farther afield, where no resources have been discovered. Two of our trips did that. The last one was so successful in that respect they couldn’t even find us at the end of it!

Five years ago about 60 percent of the vast area known as the Northwest Territories was conveyed to the native people who’ve been here for millennia. Known as Nunavut – “Our Land” – it’s open for business. Campers like us, who spend only a small part of their trip budget here, are encouraged less than those who take guided tours. Soon there’ll be all-weather roads, and thanks to global warming, a deepwater port on the coast where freighters can dock year-round.

So like the early explorers of the American West, we’ll hike the empty land where the animals are only wary and the fish still as long as our arms. We’ll pass ancient archeological sites and pretend not to hear the distant thunder of the coming storm.

This is Willem Lange in Nunavut, and I gotta get back to work – but not today.

(Host) Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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