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Arctic Autumn: A Journey to Season's Edge

Arctic Autumn: A Journey to Season's Edge

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by Pete Dunne

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The Arctic doesn't spring to mind when most people think about autumn. Yet in his continuing effort to invite readers' curiosity through unpredictability, Pete Dunne chose to pair the transitional season of autumn with this fragile environment in flux.

The book begins on Bylot Island in Nunavut, Canada, at the retreating edge of the seasonal ice sheet, then


The Arctic doesn't spring to mind when most people think about autumn. Yet in his continuing effort to invite readers' curiosity through unpredictability, Pete Dunne chose to pair the transitional season of autumn with this fragile environment in flux.

The book begins on Bylot Island in Nunavut, Canada, at the retreating edge of the seasonal ice sheet, then moves to Alaska, where the needs of molting geese go head to head with society's need for oil. Then on to the Barren Lands of Canada, and a search for the celebrated caribou herds that mean life and death for human and animal predators alike.

A canoe trip down the John River is filled with memories, laughter, and contemplation; a caribou hunt with a professional trapper leads to a polemic on hunting; and Pete travels to an island in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, to look for rare birds and ponder the passionate nature of competitive bird listers.

No trip to the Arctic would be complete without a trip to see polar bears, so Pete and his wife visit Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world. These majestic, but threatened, creatures lead Pete to think about his own life, our interactions with the natural world, and the importance of the Arctic, North America's last great wilderness.

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Naturalist Dunne (Bayshore Summer: Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place, 2010, etc.)—the vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and director of its Cape May Bird Observatory—explores the rigors of the high arctic, a place where life is pushed to its limits by nature and threatened by the incursions of man.

The author begins his chronicle of the emergence of fall in the far north on the Summer Solstice in June 2007—a day when the sun never sets, a harbinger of the cold weather to come. Dunne and his wife had traveled 2,400 miles to Canada's Bylot Island, a spot 25 miles north of Baffin Island, the largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. To their west was a marshy plain with the world's largest breeding colony of greater snow geese—all of whom would have migrated to a warmer climate by September—and to the north, the Aktineaq Glacier area. They were there to observe the birds and to witness large caribou herds beginning their migratory journey south. Throughout, the author shares magical experiences, such as the moment when he makes eye contact with a polar bear standing on the ice. However, he writes that his major concern is the threat to the geese and caribou—and to nesting raptors such as peregrines and golden eagles—by the combined destruction of their natural habitat from the effects of global warming and "the colossal oil-extracting infrastructure" that he witnessed during a flight over the coastal plain west of Deadhorse, Alaska.

Readers will look forward to his next book, on winter, the last in a projected four-book series.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Chapter 1

Moon Month of Nurrait (June), “Caribou Calves”
Where Seasons Meet

Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada

Expressions of caution and fortune exchanged, John turned and led the rest of the members of our group back to the camp at the mouth of the creek. As arranged, Linda and I struck out on our own, heading west.
  “How about over there?” I suggested, indicating the location of “over there” with a wave of my hand.
  Linda looked in the direction I was gesturing, taking in the snow-covered landscape, whose physical limits were defined by a distant ridge and the sky.
  “What distinguishes ‘over there’ from ‘right here’?” she wanted to know. Coming from the member of our team burdened by thirty pounds of camera gear, it was a legitimate question and maybe one that defied a satisfactory answer. The fact was, in these early stages of the summer thaw, one part of Canada’s Bylot Island looks pretty much like any other—at least any part within hiking distance.
  Rising to the east were mountains whose color and pattern made them look like they’d been cast from scoops of vanilla fudge ice cream—but cheap vanilla fudge. The kind where they skimp on the fudge.
  To the north, bracketed by peaks, was the Aktineaq Glacier, one of the many ice sheets for which Canada’s 22,252-square-kilometer Sirmilik National Park is named. Sirmilik, in the Inuktitut language of the native Inuit people, means “Place of Glaciers.”
  To the west, somewhere beyond the visual limits of “over there,” was a marshy plain that serves as the nesting ground for the world’s largest breeding colony of greater snow geese.
  To the south, across twenty-five frozen miles of Eclipse Sound, was Baffin Island, the largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and home to the majority of the mostly Native residents of Canada’s newest, and northernmost, province, Nunavut.
  There are very few places on the planet where you can look south onto Baffin Island, and, among the planet’s nearly 7 billion human inhabitants, only a fraction might ever have dreamed of doing so.
  One of them was me. One of them was Linda. But wasn’t the other one you?
   Yes, you. The onetime bright and slightly bored kid slouched in one of those plastic desk chairs that ruined the backs of a whole generation. Didn’t you used to sit in class and stare, wistfully, at the pull-down map of the world covering the blackboard and marvel at that patchwork of islands way up there at the top of the world?
  A fragmented land whose color was no color at all. Not red or green or yellow like all the other landforms on the map but white!
  Snow white. Arctic white.
  Didn’t you, as the disciplines that would turn us into well-adjusted and productive members of society were being instilled, study those northern lands and dream of being the adventurer every kid, deep in his heart, knows himself to be?
  Sure you did. There’s a little bit of Robert Service and Admiral Peary in all of us.
  And haven’t you, during all the responsible and productive adult years that followed, feasted upon the pages of travel and nature magazines in barbershops and hair salons (and chiropractic center waiting rooms), thrilling to images of those Arctic lands?
  Polar bears cradling cubs so winsome a panda could die of envy.
  Caribou herds so vast they filled whole treeless valleys and spilled into the next.
  Lilliputian flowers carpeting landscapes whose limits were fixed by the sky.
  And didn’t you, until the receptionist called your name, rekindle those classroom ambitions and vow that someday—when the kids were raised, when the house was paid off—you would finally become the explorer you were meant to be and head. . .
  “Over there,” I said, in answer to Linda’s question, “will give us a much better view to the west.” It was a promise without foundation. Fact is, like you, I’d never been “over there” either, had no freaking idea what we might find. Linda greeted this explanation with silence.
   “What we’re looking for is the place where everything comes together. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. A seasonal and geographic crossroads. A high point and a tipping point, symbolic of summer’s greatest advance and winter’s final stronghold.”
  “Like that point over there,” I said, pointing, once again, toward a volcano-shaped mound mantling a distant ridge.
  “That is not an over there,” Linda pronounced. “That is an up there. And to get up there, we have to first slog across that low, wet marshy area down there. Even from here I can hear the gurgle of water flowing under what has to be some pretty rotten spring ice.”
  Impressed and amused, I studied the pack-burdened form that was my wife—five feet, two inches of blond-haired, hazel-eyed, set-jawed indomitableness. We’ve been married over twenty years, traveling much of the time. She can walk, kayak, and photograph all day and then, in the evening, edit the day’s crop of images. She’s as organized as I am not and as patient as I am exasperating. In addition to being a wonderful partner, she is an accomplished outdoor traveler whose background includes stints as a park ranger in Alaska, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and over a dozen wilderness trips in the Arctic.
  In short, she’s the kind of person whose counsel (and objections) is worth listening to, whether you are traveling in the Arctic or not.
  “You’re not part Inuit, are you?” I accused.
  “No,” she said, letting some of her exasperation show with a slouch.
  “You really think it’s too wet down there?” I said.
  “No,” she corrected. “I just said it was wet and I wanted to know how important it is to go ‘up there’ before we find out how wet.”
  “I do think the photo ops will be better up there,” I offered. “Down here you’re shooting in a bowl; up there we’ll be on top of the world.”
  The photographer in Linda didn’t exactly rise to the bait, but she didn’t dismiss my analysis either.
  “We can try it,” she said, at last. “But we’re going to have to hurry. It’s only an hour until the solstice. Distance is hard to judge in the Arctic, and I’ll bet ‘up there’ is farther than it looks.”
  We did hurry. And the terrain, for once, turned out to be not as bad as it looked. And now you know why Linda and I had flown twenty-four hundred miles from our home in New Jersey, been shaken and stirred for thirty miles over open ice in a snowmobile-drawn sled, and hiked five more just to be here. We were set to mark the onset of autumn, and begin the third book in our season series at the place where seasons meet.
  That place, recent reconnaissance suggested, lay “up there.”

I know what you are thinking. Anybody who studied maps and dreamed of being an explorer certainly knows that June 21, the date of the solstice, usually marks the first day of summer, not autumn—and so it does! Technically and in fact.
  At 1806 Greenwich Mean Time, or 2:06 Eastern daylight-saving time—the politically adjusted time zone in which Bylot Island lies—the earth’s annual journey around the sun would reach one of its quarterly milestones: the point at which the Northern Hemisphere inclines at its maximum angle toward the sun.
  On this date, all points on and north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude) enjoy twenty-four hours of full sunlight. Were you to watch all day, you’d see the sun go completely around the sky and never dip below the horizon.
  At 71 degrees, 5 minutes north latitude, the coordinates of southern Bylot Island, we would be so entertained.
  Also on this date, at noon, at all points above the tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north latitude), the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. Inhabitants experience the longest day of the year. The Northern Hemisphere receives a maximum amount of solar insolation.
  It is the pinnacle of summer! Tipping point, too. Because also technically and in fact, it’s all downhill from here. The day following the solstice finds the sun lower in the sky. All points lying directly on the Arctic Circle will see the sun dip below the horizon, and each successive day will see this period of disappearance increase.
  Day by day, less sunlight reaches the Northern Hemisphere. Day by day, the Arctic retreats deeper and faster into winter. The midpoint on this seasonal descent marks another quarterly milestone. It occurs on September 22 or 23. It is called the autumnal equinox. Across the most heavily populated portions of the Northern Hemisphere, very probably where you live, relatively mild temperatures prevail.
  Not so at the earth’s Arctic region. Because on that first official day of autumn, the sun does not appear at the North Pole at all. On the Arctic Circle, where the day is evenly divided between twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness, at noon the sun rises a mere 23.5 degrees above the southern horizon, shedding light but little warmth on the earth below.
  In Fort Yukon, an Alaskan village lying just north of the Arctic Circle, the average daily high temperature in late September is in the low forties, and at night, the thermometer dips to the upper teens or low twenties. At Pond Inlet, the native village visible just across the channel, the average daily temperature in late September is in the low twenties.
  Summer in the Arctic is transforming but ephemeral. Autumn comes early and surrenders quickly. All of the Arctic’s denizens, both the hardy ones that migrate seasonally and the hardier ones that remain year-round, accelerate their schedules accordingly.
  “All birds gone in September” is how one of our Inuit guides expressed it.
  Gone where? South. Fleeing to temperate lands where the sun is a year-round resident, not a timid visitor.
  So here on Bylot Island, high above the Arctic Circle, June 21 not only celebrates the first day of summer but also marks the first day of fall. The day the sun begins its retreat, and the earth begins its six-month slide into the Inuit moon month of Tauvikjuaq, “the Great Darkness.”


Meet the Author

Pete Dunne forged a bond with nature as a child and has been studying hawks for more than 40 years. He has written 15 books and countless magazine and newspaper columns. He was the founding director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and now serves as New Jersey Audubon’s Birding Ambassador.

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