by Glen Herbert
For three days in April, scientist, writer and explorer James Raffan will be in residence at Rosseau Lake College. He’ll be working with students and staff around issues of conservation and environmental stewardship. The visit culminates in an evening of conversation, held on the campus, about his life, his work, and the state of the North.
“We act on what we feel.”
In 2020, Raffan was named by Canadian Geographic as one of the “90 most influential explorers in the nation’s recorded history.”
He has spent his life travelling the North by almost every conveyance imaginable, from snowshoes to nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Along the way, he has woven together the stories of places and people. In his latest book, “Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic,” he uses the perspective of Nanu, a polar bear, to reflect the beauty of the Arctic as well as how it’s changing.
While he’s written more than 20 books, “Ice Walker” is unique in that it is science told through fiction. Despite writing so many books that were “aimed at the front part of people’s brain,” Raffan has said that “I’m convinced more so than ever that we don’t act on what we know, we act on what we feel. … I wondered what it would be like to write a book that was aimed at somebody’s heart first.” Artist and writer Robert Bateman said Raffan “captures the smells, sounds and feel of the Arctic, and that “Ice Walker” “is important reading.”
Seeing the world
Raffan's journey north began as a graduate student at the University of Guelph in the 1970s. In one study, “my job was to teach an adult male polar bear to press paddles,” he writes, “to assess the spectral sensitivity of the bear’s eyes. … Day after day with that magnificent animal — who was slowly going berserk in captivity — led me to leave the pursuit of natural science in a lab setting.”
While he spent time as a high school science teacher, later completing a doctorate in geography, there was always that pull to move and to pursue natural science firsthand. “I have a keen sense that although science is a powerful tool,” he said, “it is really just one way of appreciating our world.”
Raffan is most commonly described as an explorer. That doesn’t sound like a 21st century job, but it’s a good way to describe what has been his life’s work. Driven by passion and curiosity, he learns about the world, firsthand. Through his books, films, and talks he then shares what he’s found.
James Raffan will be speaking at Rosseau Lake College on April 13 at 7:30 p.m. For details and tickets, see: