'It's an awful lot of change'

Steve Bartlett
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Veteran coast guard captain concerned about melting Arctic ice

Capt. Perry Stares aboard the Terry Fox while it was docked at St. John's harbour last week. He'll soon head north for the last time. He's spent 37 years with the coast guard and suggests it's a rewarding career young people might want to consider. Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram


Capt. Perry Stares is retiring in less than a year and he's worried.

Not about life after 37 years with the coast guard, or anything like that.

The ice-breaker captain is troubled by the Arctic sea ice, or lack thereof.

"It's melting out faster. It's clearing out quicker and there's not so much of it building up," he says.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program recently released a report stating that the past six years were the warmest ever recorded in the North.

The organization - which advises Arctic nations, including Canada, on threats to the region - also predicted that during this decade, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer, likely within 30 to 50 years.

Stares captains the ice-breaker Terry Fox, and he's witnessed what's happening in the Arctic ice first-hand.

He's made 15 or so treks to the North since his first one as a teenaged officer cadet aboard the Louis St. Laurent in 1976.

In those 35 years, the St. John's-based Stares has seen a dramatic change.

The coast guard is reaching places that were once "ice choked" earlier than ever. Even some of the more difficult places to access had no ice during his last run.

On the bridge of the Terry Fox, Stares gets a little philosophical and says what's happening worries him as a human being.

"It's an awful lot of change and we all know a man's lifespan is just a blink of an eye in terms of geology and oceanography and planetary systems, so to see that much change in that short of time, that's a bit scary."

Stares will pilot the Terry Fox in the North for the last time in mid-August, when he'll sit at the helm for six weeks.

The ship will deliver cargo to remote places.

He's looking forward to experiencing it all again, and says everyone should see the stark, but stunning, vistas, the polar bears, the whales, the walruses, the wolves. ..

"When we are travelling up there, it's hard not to be up on the wheelhouse looking, because there's just so much to see, every time you come around another turn."

And he doesn't want that to change. He says the North is a fragile place, and people need to pay close attention to what's happening.

"The season is so short in terms of bio-activity. An oil spill up there could linger so much longer and be almost impossible to clean up if it gets in the ice."

Stares points out there are a lot more regulations for ships entering the Arctic and says he's glad the rules are there.

He tries to do his part to protect the region. The Terry Fox has four gigantic engines, capable of generating 17 megawatts of electrical power, and his challenge is not to use it.

A silver lining on an cloud, dark cloud - the melting often gives him the option of going around ice instead of through it.

"I'm just trying to keep our carbon footprint as low as we can. That's the goal now. If I can use less power, I will. Every time I put those sticks down, it's a big plume of carbon dioxide going out the stack. I'm keenly aware of that, and I want to keep that down."

Stares is set to finish his career next spring, after a final winter breaking ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, "keeping Canada's economy moving."

He'll retire to his native Brooklyn, Bonavista Bay, but the Arctic won't be far from his mind.

"The North gets into you, doesn't it? Someone described it as, when you go North the air is so clean, the vistas are so great, it's like 15 years worth of blur drops away from your eyes. I've heard it described as that. It's like everything seems more surreal, more sharp, you know."

He'll probably return as a tourist, finally taking his wife to a place she's undoubtedly heard so much about.

"After this year, I'll leave with some regrets, but I'm leaving coast guard. I'm not leaving the Arctic. I'll be back."

He might hope he won't see a noticeable difference in the amount of ice when he returns, but that likely won't likely be the case if the predictions come true.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: bartlett_steve

Organizations: The North

Geographic location: Arctic Ocean, Canada, St. John's Brooklyn Bonavista Bay

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Recent comments

  • Maxine
    June 28, 2011 - 12:30

    A very interesting article and I hope everybody who reads this, really takes it in and realizes what we're doing to our environment and that we all must do our part to protect it. I sometimes worry about the future generations and what they will have to face.