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On the Arctic Road with Peter Kujawinski

“In the Arctic, roads are magical. They appear in the fall and melt in the spring. Others, buckled by permafrost, undulate in the snow. Many are invisible to the naked eye — caribou migration routes that exist only by instinct. During the sunless, frigid winter, the Arctic Ocean becomes one vast road for polar bears and snowmobiles”—Peter Kujawinski

Peter Kujawinski, a fiction novelist and former United States Consul General for Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories, is the recent author of “The Road to the Top of the World,” a travel essay published by The New York Times. The essay recounts Kujawinski’s trip back to the Canadian Arctic this past December, a journey he made for the first time not as a United States diplomat, a position he held for 18 years in various regions around the world, but as a journalist.

Kujawinski landed in the town of Inuvik under the black curtain of polar night to report on the 85-mile Arctic highway being built in place of the ice road between the town of Inuvik and the village of Tuktoyaktuk. The new highway symbolizes Canada’s national claim to the Arctic, and fulfills, in the words of the author, a “decades-old dream to link all three Canadian coasts.” World Policy Journal’s Ashley Chappo caught up with the novelist and former diplomat to discuss his recent trip to the High North, the construction of the new Arctic highway, and his opinion on the future of the region. 

ASHLEY CHAPPO: You first visited the area in Canada’s Northwest Territories as a United States consul general for central west Canada from 2012 to 2015. What prompted you to take your most recent trip to the region and to write your article, "The Road to the Top of the World," for The New York Times?

PETER KUJAWINSKI: I realized, after recounting my adventures up North with friends and other folks, that they were astonished by the place and what was going on up there. Not astonished in a bad way, but generally astonished in the full meaning of the word. Even within Canada, the Arctic isn’t a place that is very well known. This road that was going to be built was more important than just one road. The more that I thought about it, the more I realized that I could write an article that could not only inform people of something interesting taking place in an area that people don’t know much about, but also provide the opportunity to talk about larger issues, such as the way the Arctic is changing and the way that small communities are trying to figure out how to be self-sustaining. It felt like a really rich place in terms of all of these different opportunities to talk about these issues.

I left the State Department in August, after basically 18 years as a diplomat, to do fiction writing. I may go back to the State Department or may not. It depends. But right now, I write fiction, and this felt like a really good opportunity to also do some writing for another organization. In terms of being a journalist up North, I never imagined this as a straight news article, because I don’t think that the story lent itself to that. This was always going to be a travel essay. I think the reason that the New York Times was interested in having me write it is because I had been up there multiple times before in my traditional role as a United States diplomat, meeting the people, talking about the issues, and seeing what role, if any, the United States played up North. Especially with our chairmanship of the Arctic Council, there was a lot of really interesting stuff to talk about. What I wanted to do when I was up there on this recent trip is avoid talking exclusively to those I normally spoke to when I was a diplomat, like the mayor or the different heads of organizations. I wanted to talk to people on the ground who would be affected by the road to find out what they thought about it. My role was definitely different, but there is not a huge amount of difference between traveling someplace as a diplomat and traveling as a journalist. You are still trying to do the same basic thing, which is to understand the place. That basic challenge doesn’t change.  

AC:  Given your sensitivity to the Northwest Territories from your time as a diplomat, what immediate effects do you think this new highway will have on the region? Are there any foreseeable advantages or consequences of this road to the people or the environment?

PK: The place is very remote, so I think that even with a highway, there probably will not be a huge deluge of tourists coming to the area. I certainly expect that there will be more people and perhaps a significant amount more. Maybe even enough to have a hotel operate in Tuktoyaktuk or a restaurant. But in my experience, the real driver of profound economic change up north would be long-term oil and gas exploration. The area sits in a very energy rich environment. There is natural gas and oil. So, if the companies started going up there—they have looked around but haven’t taken action for a decade because it is not cost effective—that would be the biggest change.

I think that the road will certainly help the residents of Tuk and probably increase tourism. But I think that there is a lot that has to happen for it to become a really big tourist destination. I could see it happening 10, 15, or 20 years from now. Ultimately, I go back to the fact that the population there is just very, very small. This is a massive region. Inuvik is not a huge town and Tuk has about 1,000 people. And those are the two biggest places in a huge area. One road is likely not going to change that too much. What will change it is if there is long-term infrastructure development. We will see. The road could lead to all of those things, but it could also just lead to improving the lives of the people in Tuk and increasing tourism by a modest amount. I think that it is very hard to tell.

AC: Within the Northwest Territories, the road has been in discussion for over 50 years. Why do you think it took the Canadian government so long to build this highway?

PK: It is a pretty hefty price tag. It is actually quite expensive, and ultimately, if you look at it just on paper, it is connecting a village of 1,000 to a town of 3,000. Is it worth it? I don’t know. I think that that decision is up to the Canadian government. Infrastructure is always going to be very expensive way up north. Building something like this is always going to be a lot more difficult than building something of the equivalent length in the United States. So I think that what determines whether or not you build this road is that it has to be about more than just linking to the population. There is also a national sovereignty issue here. I think the Canadian government has been interested in this road for a long time because it will finally touch the Arctic Ocean. From a national sovereignty perspective, I think that this road will be something that the Canadian government very much wants.

The other reason, and this is what people told me when I was up there, is that there were talks to extend the Dempster Highway, which right now goes all the way to Inuvik, back in the 1960s. They were going to extend it to Tuk, but at the time, the residents of Tuk weren’t sure that is what they wanted. There was a lot of uncertainty. Given their uncertainty and the fact that it was expensive even then, the government decided to end the Dempster Highway at Inuvik.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a road wasn’t a huge deal for a long time because there was an ice road that connected the communities for at least four or five months out of the year. It wasn’t as if they were totally cut off. There are other communities further away that are totally cut off and it is unlikely that there will ever be a road to these really small communities. So it is a pretty complex decision to go ahead and pay for it. As someone who has been in government for 18 years, it does not surprise me that this kind of project took a while. The good aspect for it taking this long, at least from my experience up North, is that now people are all pretty excited about it. The local community is behind it now.

AC: With increased jockeying for control of the Arctic, as evidenced by the Russian’s symbolic planting of a flag in 2007 at the bottom of the Arctic seabed, would you describe the road not only as an economic decision, but also as a largely symbolic gesture?

PK: Yes, absolutely. I think that that was probably key for the national government. The national government has a lot of different competing priorities and they invested hundreds of millions of dollars into this road. One of the main reasons for this investment is that they want to be able to show how active they are in asserting sovereignty over the Arctic. I was curious to see when writing the article whether or not the new government of Prime Minister Trudeau would have the same view as Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Interestingly, they did. They released a press release when the construction season started, saying that this is happening and that things are on target. I found this move very interesting because a national government usually doesn’t release a press release about an 85-mile road. Obviously, there are bigger issues there for them. I think that it is a bi-partisan thing and the national government seems to be supportive of that. Now, whether or not they would be supportive of additional big infrastructure asks, I don’t know, but certainly there is a big symbolic value to have a road that the ordinary citizen can drive through. That sense of linking together this massive country from coast to coast to coast is something that resonated. Maybe not among everyone, but certainly among the higher levels of government for a long time.

AC: The ice road is a way of life for Northern people, but once the new highway is finished, the ice road will be gone. Can you describe the general sentiment in the region as the construction continues on the highway? Have there been any major controversies that you are aware of?

PK: No. There are no major controversies that I am aware of. I think that there are continuing discussions of whether it is on time or on budget. I think that the government has been pretty clear that it has been on time and on budget. Building a road like this is a pretty uncertain undertaking because the only time that you can build it because of all of the water is during the winter. You have to be able to roll these massive trucks on frozen-over lakes. Then you are building road above permafrost and have to make sure that the permafrost doesn’t melt. It is very complex. Talking to people who are working on it and who have planned it, they don’t know of a similar undertaking anywhere in the world. It is just a very complex place to build that kind of infrastructure. My sense is that they have been planning it for a very long time and because they have been planning it for such a long time, none of this is a surprise to people. People who fly in and out of Tuk and who have to fuel up their cars know how expensive things are up there.

I think people are really excited that it is happening soon. In Tuk, I don’t know of anyone who is unhappy—obviously, I didn’t speak to everyone, but I spoke to a smattering of people. The people all seem to accept it and are happy with it. Not only is it a road, but it is also something that they are benefiting from in terms of employment for their younger people. In Inuvik, it didn’t seem to me that it resonated as much as it did in Tuk. Obviously, Inuvik wouldn’t be that impacted by it because they have road access. I think, overall, people have accepted it and are happy that their region is getting this kind of attention. There definitely is a sentiment among people that because their population is so little compared to other big populations and because they are way up north, they are out of sight and out of mind. This is definitely changing that dynamic.

AC: Can you describe your emotions of riding the ice road, perhaps for the last time? In your article, you say, “Though I understood why some welcome the road, I felt a pang of sadness at something man-made and permanent cutting through this wilderness.”

PK: I was out in this cabin, and it was about the most remote place that I had ever been in my life. For tens of miles in all directions, there is just nothing, and there never has been anything. It is just tundra. I can understand why the road is being built and empathize with the people who live there, but it is yet another place from this point forward that isn’t really going to be wild. It really won’t be a frontier once you start putting a road in. I think that point is something that impacts people like me because I don’t live there, but I think that it is more important to figure out what the people who actually live there think. The people who actually live there want it and the reason they want it is that they think it is going to make their lives more substainable. It really does emphasize to me how you have to be thoughtful about infrastructure. It is not always the case that more infrastructure is better, and we have to think about what is appropriate infrastructure.

I am not a specialist on this, but I do think that the way that they have done it, making it as low impact as possible by making it just a gravel road and trying to really protect the permafrost, is an important thing. Then, in terms of the ice road, I think it is going to be weird for the people from Tuk. They can’t go on the ice road anymore. There will still be ice roads. There are ice roads all over the place way up North. That aspect of going on the ice won’t change. But there are at least two or three generations that have grown up on that road. We think of these things as permanent, but they are not. I was talking to people who grew up with teams of dogs instead of snow mobiles, and now no one has teams of dogs. Everyone rides snow mobiles. The advent of the ice road didn’t really happen until people had cars. You didn’t need an ice road before that. There is a temporary nature to all of these things, especially in the Arctic. I think it is just so fascinating that roads ebb and flow with the season. And I think roads are always going to be a relatively temporary thing. I like the fact that this road is being built, but at the same time, it is not necessarily carving a swath through. Yes, it is going to be maintained constantly and it is going to be opened year-round, but it is being built on top. I think that building on top is more respectful to the amazing environment.

AC: Can you talk about the region’s infrastructure needs and the impact of having so few man-made roads on the people and the economy?

PK: A road like this is something that gives people hope. The problem with living far up North is that, especially in the world that we live in, you feel very cut off. You depend on the oil and gas company coming in and putting down this huge investment. Or, you depend on the government giving you something. Things just don’t happen to a place like Tuk because it is just impossible to get there. They do get tourists, but it is really the tourists that are the heartiest tourists, the ones whose life goal is to go to the Arctic and touch the water. That kind of thing. It is just hard to be able to imagine that you can set something up, like a restaurant or café, because it is just so remote.

I think that most of all it gives people in Tuk the hope that their community can be truly self-sustaining. The reason that I say truly self-sustaining is that a lot of these communities up there used to depend on fur, which has gone basically by the wayside. It was mainly subsistence living and that has gone by the wayside too. I don’t think that there are many people who would want to go back to living day-by-day depending on what they catch. So, if they didn’t have the road, you would have this continuing question in a place like Tuk: Is it really sustainable? Can we build this community and make it a thriving community?

I think one aspect is having access to cheaper goods. That is a big issue. The price of milk in Tuk is double what it is even in Inuvik because of how expensive it is to fly stuff in. Across the board, things are going to be much less expensive once the road gets built. This opens a path for Tuk to become a self-sustaining community. Ultimately, I think, that is what people want. They don’t want to move down south. Their entire lives and traditions are based on being in Tuk. But they want to figure out ways to make a life so that they just don’t depend on the government or the hope of a big oil and gas company coming in. I think that this hope is ultimately where a road becomes more than just a road. To a certain extent, for some of these people, a road is a lifeline. They hope that this is going to be the first step toward making this a place that they can expect their children to go back to and thrive in.

AC: There are concerns about the impact of climate change on the new road as the Arctic warms at a profound rate. Climate change will no doubt put the infrastructure of the North under added stress. Do you think that there has been enough attention paid to the challenges that climate change presents in regards to this new project? 

PK: If you ask people in the region about that, they will tell you that they have been concerned about climate change for decades. They have seen it happening and are concerned with it. But I think that they reflect the view that many people have around the world: they are concerned about it, but they are also concerned about the sustainability of where they live. While there are some people against oil and gas development because of the climate change impacts, there are others that want the oil and gas companies to come in because it means that they will get more money and make the situation better for them.

I think that the complexitiy of climate change and people’s concerns about both the environment and having a livelihood are reflected all around the world, and especially in a place like the high Arctic. In terms of the road itself, they are doing a lot to mitigate the impacts of climate, especially because they are building it up high above the permafrost. They are already expecting that there may be places where the permafrost melts, so because of that, they will have to build it up in certain areas, I think that this is something that they kind of watch and worry about, but they are also worried about whether their son or daughter gets a job that will allow them to stay in a place like Tuk. It is a complexity that I think they struggle with daily, just like a lot of people do.

I think that the complexity of economic tradeoffs versus concerns for the environment is played out everywhere. But I think it is especially something that people worry about in the Arctic because not only is the environment changing, perhaps more rapidly because of climate, but also because they are so dependent on the land in terms of their world view and their culture. It is something that I think is on the top of their minds.

AC: As you said previously, after leaving the United States diplomatic core, you have devoted your time to writing fiction: co-authoring the Dormia series with Jake Halpern and publishing a novel for young adults. Was Nightfall, your 2015 novel published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, influenced at all by your journeys to the Arctic region?

PK: It actually is very much influenced by my travels up there. The concept of the book is based on an island, Marin's Island, where there is 14 years of total sunlight followed by 14 years of total darkness. The people on the island have to leave because they can’t survive in the 14 years of total darkness. The whole concept of a 24-hour day and a 24-hour night was very much inspired by my experience in the Artic. When I was up north in the summer time and it was 24-hour sunlight, it was such a bizarre experience. I had traveled all around the world as a diplomat, but nothing really prepared me for it. It was just such a weird thing. When I was up there in December and it was 24-hour darkness, nothing really prepared me for that either. I was expecting some sort of absolute night for 24 hours straight. But it was actually incredibly beautiful. There were these long, lingering sunrises and sunsets, without actually seeing the sun. It was pretty magical. All of that background definitely went into Nightfall when I was writing.

AC: Do you hope your book will educate young readers about the Arctic?

PK: I have heard of people using the Arctic setting as a way to talk about the Arctic with young readers, just because it is one of these really profoundly unique facets of living up North. When I do school visits, I definitely talk about the Arctic, and I also talk about my background as a diplomat. The goal for the book is not necessarily to talk about the Arctic, but at the same time, I think people really enjoy hearing how the book was inspired by my travels up there. The book definitely leads to people looking at a region that they may not have really thought about before, which is great.

AC: When do you plan to visit the region next?

PK: I don’t know for sure. Right now I am contemplating doing a fiction book based up there, just because I find the place to be fascinating and compelling. If I land up doing the book, I may travel up there over the next year or so to do additional research. At the very least, I would love to take the new road. I would love to be able to go on an epic road trip way up north and bring my family, because I have made some really good friends up there and would love to introduce my family the place. So, sometime over the next couple of years. We will see.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

[Photo courtesy of Adam Jones, Ian MackenzieSmsh63, and US Embassy Canada]

 

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