Arctic climate change has spawned a hybrid species

Puritan contributor gillian harding-russel published “Missions: then and now” in Issue 27, Fall 2014. Her poem is about winter, the quest for the Northwest Passage, and the melting of the Canadian Arctic.

Winter has intrigued me since I was a child. A fresh snowfall, with its shimmering lights, is so entrancing, and snow is quite wonderful when it can be shaped into castles, but I was once trapped in my brother’s snow fort and had to be rescued from my ivory bubble of air by a hard shovel. As a child, I hated bundling up for winter—snow pants and boots and gloves and scarves—but soon realized their importance when the temperature dropped below zero (in Québec, where I grew up, even zero Fahrenheit, with the humidity, was something to be reckoned with). I remember walking home from school in an icy wind so that I arrived at the door crying, and on another occasion when I was 12, getting caught in a blizzard while cross-country skiing with a group of friends along a very long trail in the Laurentians. With the white-out, we lost our way, and like Franklin’s men, seemed to be walking in circles around a lake. Disoriented and hypothermic, I just wanted to lie down in the snow to fall asleep (I was so tired), and had to be carried the rest of the way by my older brother, who finally made it back to the chalet at the centre of the ski club. Now that I am older, a part of me still enjoys the challenge of facing the elements. Here in Saskatchewan, we have impressively low temperatures, but, luckily, it is a dry cold.

When my brother, who is a decade older than I, was offered his first summer job as marine biology student in the Arctic, I was excited for him. During the summers of 1962 and 1963, he, Skipper Ingram Gidney, a lobster fisherman from Sandy Cove N. S. and another graduate student Dave Patriquin joined The Fisheries Research Board of Canada, and aboard M. V. Salvelinus explored a maze of channels from the Mackenzie Delta to Franklin and Darnley Bays. In 1964, my brother and another marine biologist Marty Weinstein were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to carry out a research grant obtained by Max Dunbar at McGill University to study plankton and ocean currents on an American ice island T3 (calved off Ellesmere Island and that may no longer exist with all this glacial melting). When my brother left in June of that year, I asked him to send me pictures of the place. He described where he was going as a land of ice and snow, but that there would be sunlight for the whole season, so a white land under eternal light (no bedtime!). To me such a setting seemed as magical as that in Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen. Mind you, my brother, who was a scientist, discouraged such romanticism. He was going to study such things as ocean currents, plankton, and small plant-animals that you can only see under the microscope. To discourage my fey nature, he once sent me a postcard of a polar bear that was supposedly signed by the polar bear: “Sorry. I ate your brother. He tasted good.”

With my romantic view of the north somewhat tempered by a respect for winter after my various experiences in snowy, but clammy, cold Québec, and then in more biting Saskatchewan, I was fascinated as an adult by stories of Arctic exploration and Franklin’s doomed voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. What hardship those explorers must have suffered after the mild, rainy, and very green British Isles! I think that I can understand the allure to set out on such an expedition to such young men as Thomas and John Hartnell, whose father was the shipbuilder for the then high-tech Erebus and the Terror. When one is young and immortal, why not? Their remains were discovered preserved in perma-ice on Beechey Island in the 1980’s , and the sight of their faces, their features still distinguishable, including a full head of hair under John Hartnell’s cap, struck me with horror. Both young men’s eyes were wide open to the arctic night and their teeth bared in an eternal grimace. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live on such a ship as the Erebus in the high Arctic when the maximum temperature below deck is estimated to have only reached a high of 10 below, while the temperature outside the ship was between 40 and 50 below. (These temperatures are often reached in the high Arctic, and I have read that temperatures since the nineteenth century have risen approximately 8 degrees).


gillian harding-russel is obsessed with the Arctic

Since the mummified remains of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and John Braine were discovered, I have read various historians’ accounts and been fascinated by Franklin’s expedition. I actually wrote the first three pages of “Missions: then and now,” in 2006, after reading an article in The Beaver (now entitled Canada’s History). In fact, I sent the poem to The Puritan’s Thomas Morton contest in June, a few months before the latest discovery of the Erebus derelict near King William’s Island, in the Queen Maud Gulf.

Perhaps because my father was an amateur naturalist (he was actually a professor of English Literature at the Collège Militaire Royale in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu), and my brother was a biological oceanographer, I have always been concerned with the environment and the animals that depend on it for their existence. Humans have made their imprint on the land, usually in the name of progress, and this so-called progress has always been detrimental to the animal population. I am saddened by the growing lists of endangered animals on the prairies (see Trevor Herriot’s insightful Grass Notes) and in other parts of the world and am disturbed by those species that have become extinct during my own lifetime.

However, I am also buoyed by such animals that have managed to survive by mating across species. For instance, I first read about how wolves were dying out in Eastern Canada, but, by interbreeding with the more resilient coyote, had managed to produce a new breed, “the coy wolf.” Similarly, with the retreat of the ice cap, polar bears have been found to mate with the grizzly to create the fabulous breed, the grolar or pizzly (depending on which breed it resembles more, I guess). The crossing of others species are also in the works. I read in up here, a local, Yellowknife magazine, that belugas had mated with narwhales to produce the narluga, and that hooded seals were expected to mate with harp seals to produce the nonsensical sounding “hooded seals of the harp,” and that many more fantastic hybrids are predicted.

How contingent events in one’s life sometimes seem! As if there were some shaping force of the psyche that might be orchestrating events around it as during a lucid dreaming spell. My fascination with the north and my desire to learn about it was further advanced when my daughter moved to Yellowknife to be with her partner, a geologist, whose first job after graduating turned out to be in that location. In that city, not to paved with gold, but “on top of gold” (and diamonds!), I have now walked down the main drag named after the explorer John Franklin (the very long Franklin Avenue), and have even talked to a gentleman (Stephen Daniels), who had been working with the Parks Canada crew retracing Franklin’s first journey along the Coppermine River a few years ago. The world is both enormous and finite, and its intricacies within that scale endless.

I hope this outpouring at least sheds light on some of the personal passions that led to my penning “Missions: then and now.”

gillian harding-russell has published three poetry collections and several chapbooks. Her work has come out most recently in I Found It At The Movies, ed. Ruth Roach Pierson (Guernica, 2014), and will soon come out in the sports anthology Between the Lines, eds. Dwayne Brenna and Lacey Thiessen  (University of Saskatchewan Press, 2014). A series  on Fafard is also coming out in Descant, two poems in The Antigonish Review and individual poems in Fieldstone and Freefall.

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