Brian Payton on his inspiration for The Ice Passage
In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Banks Island — the westernmost island of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago — to collect information for a story about climate change. That summer turned out to be a historic one: The fabled Northwest Passage, which passes along the north and west coast of the island, was not only open for the first time in recorded history, it was virtually ice-free.
In the community of Sachs Harbour (pop. 130), I interviewed Inuit elders, some of the last to be born in igloos and raised “on the land.” They described the old ways of life, as well as dramatic and troubling changes observed on the land, ice, and sea. I also learned about the connection between these families and the remains of a ship that had been abandoned long ago on the north coast of their island. That ship was HMS Investigator.
I accompanied a local hunter as he tracked a herd of muskoxen. Along the way, he took the time to show me ancient stone caches and tent sites left behind by his ancestors, as well as newly-parched marshes, melting permafrost, and vast tracts of shoreline turned to mud and flowing into an almost iceless sea. He wanted me to observe for myself the transformation taking place in the Arctic. It is not the same world he knew as a boy — and the pace of change is accelerating. This is a message he and members of his community have long been repeating to anyone willing to listen.
A few months later, in the winter of 2007, I returned to Banks Island aboard an icebreaker, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen. I was granted a berth among a large, international team of biologists, climatologists, and polar ice scientists — some of the foremost authorities in their fields. I accompanied them as they scooped, drilled, shaved, melted, and shone light through the various stages of polar ice; as they surveyed the atmosphere above and measured the biomass hauled up from the water below. Among these researchers, I found a sense of urgency and purpose, as well as a growing sense of alarm. Like the Inuit who continue to rely on this environment, they found themselves duty bound to broadcast their increasingly dire news to the world.
Back home, sorting through all I’d learned, I was struck by what little we outsiders understand about this changing wilderness and how we must now scramble to fill enormous gaps in our knowledge. Most of all, I was captivated by the evident link between our civilization’s desires and its destiny. For centuries, we have dreamed that the Arctic would turn out to be a different, more useful place than it appeared to be. From it, we wanted one thing above all else: a way through. We now seem certain to realize this vision — but at a cost both incalculable and unforeseen.
The more I dug into the journals of the men who had been shipwrecked on the edge of their newly-discovered Northwest Passage, the deeper I fell under their spell. These were complex men, each revealing himself according to his character and station. Scattered and largely forgotten, their story challenged me.
The final voyage of HMS Investigator is a profoundly revealing adventure. It is a story of ambition, misunderstanding, and hubris that has come to haunt both land and sea. Brought to life again at this moment in time, it offers not just an epitaph for an imperiled wilderness or a glimpse at an altered future, but a way of understanding why it was all destined to be.