A Disappearing Home in a Warming World

Oct 14, 2016

By Brian Castner

When I met Wilfred Jackson—an elder of the Dene First Nation in Fort Good Hope, a small indigenous village in the remote interior of the Northwest Territories—he had just killed a moose. Even at the age of 76, Wilfred shuffles so fast around his home, a modest clapboard heap bowed by the melting permafrost, that you barely notice his limp, the toll from decades of trapping, hunting, and fishing. He has dark skin, an avian nose, and a distinguished shock of gray hair that sticks straight up.

Wilfred has lived in and around Fort Good Hope for his entire life. The town of barely 500 people sits on a bluff above the flood-prone Mackenzie River, known to the Dene as the Deh Cho, or “Big River,” overlooking a valley so vast it seems untamable. The Arctic Circle is only a few miles to the north; to the south, the Ramparts, a series of sheer limestone cliffs. To the east and west stretch endless boonies of black spruce and mosquito-clogged muskeg, the land of Wilfred Jackson and his ancestors. This is a place defined by the virtual absence of man: The Northwest Territories is nearly as big as Alaska, but only 40,000 people live there, and Edmonton, the closest city of any size, lies 1,000 miles away.

I had come north to canoe the Mackenzie River, the second-longest in North America, and meet some of the indigenous nations most vulnerable to climate change. This inaccessible corner of the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, but Wilfred and many of his kin still look to the land for sustenance. “Our culture is the land. Take that away, we go away,” as one elder told me.

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