Life Stories: Ian Jackson’s love for the Canadian Arctic never wavered

Ian Jackson, an accomplished scientist originally from Yorkshire, England, who died last September at the age of 82, completed his undergraduate studies in geography at the prestigious London School of Economics before crossing the pond thanks to a scholarship opportunity at McGill University.


Ian Jackson, second from right, is seen with three other graduate students at Lake Hazen in the Arctic in 1957. Photo courtesy of the Jackson family

Life Stories, a weekly feature, remembers the lives and contributions of individual Montrealers. 

For much of his life, Ian Jackson had a love affair with Canada’s Arctic.

Jackson, an accomplished — to put it mildly — scientist originally from Yorkshire, England, who died last September at the age of 82, completed his undergraduate studies in geography at the prestigious London School of Economics before crossing the pond thanks to a scholarship opportunity at McGill University.

The offer? Spend a full year at Lake Hazen — in the northern part of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut — tracking the weather and performing meteorological experiments. The catch? It would be just him and three other graduate students alone, isolated at one of Canada’s northernmost lakes, for the 12 months. Jackson jumped at the chance, boarded a small propeller plane with his three colleagues, and spent the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 in Canada’s tundra.

“His interest was the weather,” said his wife, Merlyn. “Snowflakes, snow, ice fog, wind.”

Decades later, Jackson published a memoir, Does Anyone Read Lake Hazen?, chronicling the adventure. Among the unexpected challenges of living that far north? No place to sit. Jackson solved the problem by fashioning a homemade chair out of wood scraps from the supply crates that planes would drop. One of the chapters of the book, “Life Among the Carbohydrates,” detailed some of the day-to-day routines of the quartet.

“Although our culinary arrangements suffered from a few disadvantages unknown to Cordon Bleu chefs, our situation was in many ways enviable,” Jackson wrote. “We had a three-burner Coleman pressure range. And it worked.”

“My husband baked the bread,” Merlyn said, smiling.

That year was the catalyst for a decades-long career in science and academia. By the time Jackson retired, his resumé was 16 pages long and featured some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including the likes of the Arctic Club, Yale University and United Nations, where he served in Geneva and New York. He was even featured in the Who’s Who in America books.

“He never, ever talked about himself,” Merlyn said.

A geographer and historian as well, Jackson, who had a daughter, Clare, and grandson, Julius, often gave public lectures about the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and fur trade. He even wrote Letters From the 49th Parallel, a book detailing the process of defining the Canada-U.S. border from the perspective of Samuel Anderson and Joseph Harris, two members of the Royal Engineers.

“Exploration, history, Canadian history, he had the passion,” she said.

And yet as the decades and accolades came and went, Jackson’s love for the Canadian Arctic never wavered. Following his year in Lake Hazen, he continued to frequent the isolated area. He wrote a book about the land, The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger.

“It’s a good question,” Merlyn said, pondering why her husband’s love of the land remained so strong.

Jackson’s last trip to the north was two years ago.

“He was barely able to walk, but I held his hand and he managed,” she said.

If the Arctic was Ian Jackson’s first love, Merlyn was a close second.

The two met 18 years ago when they were both teaching in Connecticut, with Jackson giving her three small gifts on their first date. On Aug. 16, 2001, they got married in a small ceremony and embarked on a life that would take them around the world. They visited faraway places like Cape Town, South Africa and Whitby, England. On Jackson’s 82nd birthday, the two found themselves in a boat on the Amazon.

“We just wanted to travel,” Merlyn said. “We visited all but one continent together.”

When asked for a single memory that stands out, Merlyn had to pause and reflect. After all, there was a seemingly endless trove of stories to choose from, be it her and Ian hosting dinner parties at their home on Nuns’ Island or their many trips overseas. One story had her in tears, though. Merlyn and Ian were in Scotland at a traditional dance, sitting down, when a man approached her and asked for a dance. Ian had no problem with it, so she and the stranger went to the dance floor. They were there for just a couple of minutes before Ian came on, and he and Merlyn began to dance.

“My husband never liked to dance, but when he saw me dancing with another man, that’s when he wanted to dance,” Merlyn said, laughing.

Ian Jackson

Born: February 1935 in Yorkshire, England

Died: September 2017 in Montreal


SOURCE http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/life-stories-ian-jacksons-love-for-the-canadian-arctic-never-wavered
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