Meet James Raffan. Speaker, Author. Adventurer.

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JR's Arctic Backpack

When everybody in our household has their own stuff, I think this pack from L.L. Bean's actually belonged to my wife, Gail. But travelling long and hard for this project, I had to travel light and have what I needed at hand, in case my luggage went astray, and this little blue daypack became my carry-on and hold-all for necessities of life (digital recorder, camera, journal, toothbrush, extra layers, etc.) but it also became the place to stitch patches and memento markers that people gave me all along the way, a puffin from Grimsey, a seal from Greenland, a flag from Alaska and lots of other little spots of colour. At some point or other in the journey, every souvenir spent at least some time in this container so it becomes an apt organizer for detailing this little material portrait of my travels.

Skiing Hunter from Kyshik, Khanty-Manisiysk Automous Okrug

This guy, with his wooden rifle, woolen parka, fish skin leggings, leather boots and hand-carved skis made from Siberian black spruce was given to me as a sample of the kind of things they are making in a little provisional craft shop to sell to tourists if/when they ever come to visit. He reminds me of a play put on in the local school where an actor on stage in more or less the same outfit, including the skis, did some pantomime hunting and then pulled out a huge cell phone with a long antenna showing how technologies can blend in the modern era.

Tanned Reindeer Hide Pouch from the Gift Shop in the Sami Museum in Lovozero, on the Kola Peninsula in Northwestern Russia

Exquisitely made with two colours of leather piping, beaded blanket cloth inset and braided cinch cord, this little pouch holds memories of events where Sami leaders in Lovozero, in traditional dress, had similar items tied to their belts or on their persons somewhere.

Beaded Moosehide Gloves from FYU

When in Fort Yukon, Alaska—Gwich'in Country, on the Yukon River right at the Arctic Circle—I asked after local crafts and was told that there was nothing in town but that when I passed back through Fairbanks that there were a couple of shops, one downtown and one out near the airport, where items like these handsome beaver-trimmed, pile-lined handmade moosehide gloves were for sale.

Arctic Circle Matches from the Polarsirkel Sentret at the Arctic Circle in Norway

In Norway, "Arctic Circle" is a brand of merchandise for sale that is marked onto everything from socks and key fobs to high-end woolen goods. Two things make me laugh about these: first, I had to lie to get them onto the plane home, attesting that there was nothing flammable in my bag (I'd forgotten at the time that they were there, so technically it wasn't a wilful statement of mistruth ...); and secondly, like the T-shirt I bought to mark cross the Arctic Circle in Norway, the text on this package was in English only. The only clue that these might have come from somewhere outside North America was the small Norwegian flag on the side of the box.

Birchbark Box from Khanty-Mansiysk

I love this box, partly because it was a present from the President of Yugra State University in Khanty-Mansiysk but also because it is made from the bark of a white birch tree, which reminded me so much of home. The tooling was so formally Russian but the construction technique and the material were so traditional, and so similar to something you might find in Boreal North America.

Poster for Arctic Faces & PlacesA special addition to the Kingston-area launch festivities for the new book, in collaboration with Wayne Morris and David Menard, co-owners of Kingston Frameworks Gallery, James is mounting an exhibition and sale of some of his spectacular photographs taken during his four-year journey around the circumpolar world to research Circling the Midnight Sun.  

Although James is perhaps best known for his writing, award-winning images from his adventures have been published by a host of outlets including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Nature Canada, Explore, The Globe and Mail, and his work has been featured in many books and exhibitions over the years. And, of course, his insightful and often arresting photographs are always a memorable feature of his popular lectures and public presentations.

Arctic Faces & Places is a rare chance to experience an intimate glimpse into the lives and locales James visited in Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland on his way around the world.  Stay tuned for details of exhibit launch events in conjunction with Kingston Writersfest (September 24-28) and Art After Dark (Friday, September 25th).

Every memento has a story

At just about every stop along way around the world at the Arctic Circle, people gave to me, as part of their welcome, local crafts and curios, things to wear, and other mementos to help take a piece of each place home.  It was only after a couple of years on the road that I came to the realization that this marvelous little collection of precious things was in itself a portrait of the people and the journey as much as my journals, photographs, audio or video recordings.  Each artifact is made of local material by local hands in the tradition of the people of that place.  And none more beautiful or meaningful that the Love Bracelet made by Albert Olanna in Shishmaref, Alaska. Read more

Dateline: Glasgow, Scotland, on a speaking tour with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Strathclyde University Business School residenceMan stays in fancy Strathclyde University Business School residence for final presentation in Airdrie, Scotland. Checks in late in the afternoon with bespoke host and shepherd, Dr. David Munro, Director Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Man’s given 42 minutes to relax in hotel room before driving to Airdrie to setup. Once in room, man notices bidet in bathroom. Man has never had room with bidet before. Man opens suitcase, irons and few clothes before curiosity gets better of him.

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From time to time, people write to me as Executive Director of the Canadian Canoe Museum with questions about the boats in their lives. One of the most lively go-rounds about a mystery craft has happened over the last few weeks. It has been a delightful journey through the world as seen by curators and boat experts around the world. It started with an email from Graham Mackereth, who is the Managing Director of Pyranha Mouldings in the UK, maker of kayaks for all seasons. He has written to me about something else but added the following codicil to his note:

Incidentally whilst writing I’ve been moving some of my canoes, ready for displaying a few, and it reminded me to try and find out a bit more about one which I’m very uncertain about. This is an Inuit style kayak, made from birchbark, over an inuit style frame -ever heard or seen such a kayak? I’m looking after it for the BCU, and am not sure if its aboriginal or a UK craft enthusiast playing. The BCU certainly don’t know and its source passed away a few years ago. Read more