This is the first installment in a series of dispatches. Follow along here.
JEAN MARIE RIVER, NWT—If you want to know what our continent's Arctic coast looks like, Google Street View isn't much help.
Take Canada's Northwest Territories. You can vicariously poke around the funky capital, Yellowknife. You can click through the two main bush-breaching highways, see the igloo church in Inuvik, and find where the camera car got lost and turned around at a hunting shack. There's even a photo of stray dogs near the overgrown gas-stop of Enterprise, fitting but random.
Zoom out on the map a bit, though, and you'll find that those photographed areas constitute nothing more than two small papercuts on a whale-sized chunk of land. Most of Google's map coverage of the Northwest Territories is a low-def green blur. In Google's defense, there aren't many streets, not as most Americans or southerly Canadians would recognize them anyway. And it is a really big place, about the size of California and Texas and Montana combined. Google's inability to acquire and catalog the data of this portion of the Earth feeds what we southerners think we know about the Arctic: it's big and it's empty.
But that second part isn't entirely true. Moose aren't the only residents up there, and climate change—warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet—impacts more than polar bears and walruses. Indigenous communities, the traditional homes of the Dene and Gwitch'in and Inuit First Nations peoples, dot the rivers and lakes, outposts of an old civilization in a vast land.
Which is one reason I canoed the entire Mackenzie River this past summer, 1,125 miles from Great Slave Lake, travelling northwest to the Arctic Ocean. Ironically, I went into the wilderness to talk to people. At the port of Hay River I loaded my canoe with peanut butter and oatmeal and video equipment, and over the next 40 days, through thunderstorms, whitecaps, blazing heat, and yes, even snow at the end, I paddled and camped, stopping at villages and fishing camps along the way.
Ironically, I went into the wilderness to talk to people.
I went to listen to the local people, to hear the concerns most important to them. I ended up learning about disrupted hunting patterns and disappearing caribou, fibre-optic lines and road construction, oil drilling and pipelines, and in-ground cold storage shelters that no longer stay cold, among other things. Because this was no see-the-glaciers-before-they're-gone kind of trip. It's already too late for that: the river water is warmer, the ice retreats faster, the forest fires spread further, the permafrost dwindles. Only by getting out on the land do you learn about the unexpected, hard-to-predict, second order effects of climate change. For example, warmer winters mean big, fat bears.
"They don't sleep as long," said Peanuts Heron, a Chipewyan member of the Dene nation. "They wake up fat, instead of skinny. We can't trust them anymore. You can't trust a fat black bear when he hasn't slept."
Lately, that short winter has been followed by hotter summers. For thousands of years, the Dene people have traveled via the Mackenzie River—known to them as the Deh Cho, the "Big River"—to Great Slave Lake and nearby tributaries to fish. But John, an elder in the Slavey band of the Dene nation, told me that traditional pattern has been disrupted as well.
"Fishing isn't like it used to be," he said. "It's too warm. The fish are slow. And too many otters. You put out a net, they take the fish before you get there."
I met John in the little hamlet of Jean Marie River, only three days into my trip down the Mackenzie. By happenstance, I stopped in town just as the 24th Annual Dehcho First Nations Assembly was underway. Jean Marie River barely qualifies as a settlement by southern standards: seventy-odd residents, no stores of any kind, a cluster of log homes and pre-fab trailers, and a volunteer fire station. The band office has solar panels, but a diesel power plant drones away near the gravel airstrip; mail is delivered on Thursdays.
John was in town for the assembly, passing the heat of the day in the shade thrown by the ceremonial hall. The circular meeting space had plenty of traditional elements—fire at the center, fresh cut willow branches blocking the sun—but the tone was official and high tech, interpreters in sound-proof boxes translating English to Slavey and back in real time. The theme of the conference was nominally "Adapting and Thriving with Climate Change in Denendeh," referencing the lands of the Dene people in the upper Mackenzie River valley. Appropriate to the subject matter, it was wickedly hot, even for June. John was sitting in a small group of elders who preferred the breeze outside.
"They never should have hired the lawyers," said Allan, another Slavey man with a mesh-backed baseball cap who was sitting nearby. To say that he was skeptical of the assembly is an understatement.
"This is just like the Indian Brotherhood days, back in the 60s and 70s. Remember that?" Allan said, elbowing John. "They start with the lawyers, and that confuses everyone and gets them off track, and then they talk about treaty claims and not climate change."
Beneath the Deh Cho—up and down the river valley, through the delta, and into the adjacent Beaufort Sea—lies the planet's third largest proven energy reserve. (At 167 billion barrels of proven oil, Canada is behind only Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which have 298 and 260 billion barrels, respectively.) Which is why any discussion of climate change in this region always seems to begin with a discussion of land rights. The federal government, territorial government, First Nations, and commercial interests all have conflicting historical claims. Who may develop the land? Should communities do their part to fight climate change, or focus instead on adaptation, as the premier of the Northwest Territories recently said? What land should be set aside, what should be exploited, and how much? One "interim" land use plan is already a decade old.
Tacked up on the outer wall of the ceremonial hall, above the heads of Allan and John, were a series of laminated cards depicting a timeline of the land claims process. According to the history cards, it began in the late 1800s, when "Southerners find minerals, oil, and gas." After brusquely noting the illegitimacy of the first federal treaties of the early 1900s, the story quickly jumps forward to an almost month-by-month rehash of every legal maneuver, sidebar working group, threat to walk away from talks, and judge's ruling. To the layman, the timelines were filled with jargon and acronyms, almost incomprehensible.
"Thirty years from now, all these kids," Allan said, gesturing to the children running around, raiding the communal cafeteria food line in the adjacent tent , "will still be sitting here, having the same talk."
Allan asked what I was doing in Jean Marie River, an obvious outsider asking questions. I told him my plans to paddle the entire length of the Mackenzie River.
"No one paddles anymore," he replied. "Everyone has a motor boat."
Allan was right. I never did see another canoe on the water during the trip.
Travel support for this series was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.