Monday, July 18, 2016

2016 Arctic Day 3 - Ottawa

This entry might be a short one - I'm typing it on my phone as I sit in Ottawa Airport waiting patiently in between student arrival flights. It's been a great pre-expedition program so far, with a really dynamic group of early arrivals. 

Yesterday was a whirlwind of walking and sightseeing and airport runs and eating. First stop was a farmers market at the newly redone Landsdowne Park in Ottawa. It was really difficult to walk the aisles with amazing and delicious varieties of food and not be able to buy much because we were out and about for the rest of the day. But I did manage to find some yummy homemade, all-fresh Popsicles to quench my thirst on a hot day. I'll be honest, I had three different kinds. 

After lunch, we headed to the Mint for a tour of their facilities. It was interesting to compare what they do to our beautiful facility in Winnipeg. After the tour, the group went to do some shopping. Luckily I had an airport pick up, so I got miss out on that. Not considering that a loss. 

Picked up a number of students and staff coming in from Iqaluit. One of the staff was Annie, a now-retired teacher from Iqaluit and one of the sweetest ladies I've ever met. She'll be mostly teaching students some traditional sewing and needlework. One of the students also brought some "country food" with her. Not sure exactly the contents, but likely some char, seal, muqtuq (whale skin and blubber) - and sadly none of it for us. 

With our group now numbering 16 students, we headed to dinner and then to Parliament Hill to watch their light show called Northern Lights. It was a beautiful program, better than the previous one, in my opinion. Even got me a little misty-eyed at the end after acknowledging those we lost in war, and then the crowd spontaneously stood and sang along to O Canada. 

Then it was bed for everyone but me, as I had one last airport pick up at midnight. Got them in safely and headed to a much-welcomes slumber, only to woken an hour later by two Northern students who couldn't sleep because of how warm their rooms were. Being a larger guy and not liking the hot conditions either, I could certainly relate. I gave them a few tips on how to cool down their room and beds, took them to get some VERY cold water to cool down their inner temps and tucked them in as best as possible. Just another normal day for an SOI chaperone. 

Today is airport arrivals for me. I'm stationed here from 9am to 6pm greeting new staff and students and sending them on with our van drivers. Makes for a long day, but I specifically request it each year. Even though I only get to see the students for a short period of time today, I'm the first smiling face they see coming off the escalator from their planes, and I'm glad to play a small part in starting their experience off on a safe and welcoming one. 

Flight from Toronto coming in! Let's go greet some students!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016 Arctic Day 2 - Ottawa

Hello, from sunny and hot Ottawa!

OK, I'm dedicated to trying to do this on a regular basis, so here's a brief and somewhat disjointed update...

Flight from Winnipeg was delayed by more than two hours... as we're sitting on the tarmac waiting for departure, I'm literally watching the flight from Calgary carrying the first two students that I am SUPPOSED to be greeting in Ottawa slowly creeping closer and closer. Luckily, we take off just with a good 20 minute head start.

Arrival in Ottawa was early yesterday morning - 1:30am EDT. As predicted, my plane beat the one with the two students by a few minutes. Collected the first two SOI expeditioners and away we went to our temporary home at the University of Ottawa. After check-ins, it was after 3am before we hit the hay - and I had to be up for an 8am pick-up at the airport!

Groggily, I made my way to the airport and met Joe Thrasher, a Grade 12 student from Inuvik. There were some luggage issues, so we had some time to chill in the airport and chat. Despite the muggy-hot weather, hockey was the main topic of conversation! This is another of my favorite things about SOI, the chance to chat and get to know some of these amazing students!

Luggage in hand, we headed to Ottawa U, where I dropped Joe off into the capable hands of the SOI team, and I headed to the train station to pick up a group coming from Montreal - mostly students from Nunavik in northern Quebec, plus one staff - SOI 2015 Arctic alumni, Gabi Foss! After some intros, we were all on our way in the giant 10-seater van to Ottawa U.

After some yummy lunch (fajita buffet!), we loaded up the vans and headed to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. I have to admit, this was my "recommendation" as a sight to visit - not just because I love space stuff (I do!), but because they are hosting a temporary exhibit about Star Trek. Now, anyone who knows me, knows I am a little bit of a Trekkie (warning, extreme under-exaggeration here). Unfortunately, the exhibit was too expensive for all the students to go see, but while they went to explore the GREAT rest of the museum, I snuck away (with permission), to go see this exhibit while I had the chance.

Captain Mike says "Engage!"
And it was great! See attached picture. Actual memorabilia, some cool interactive games and lots of science. I am definitely going to push to get this at the Manitoba Museum, if we can. Now before you think me a bad chaperone abandoning the students to go see something on my own, I technically was supposed to do that, as I had an airport run to do to collect some SOI staff. So why not take advantage and get to sit in the Captain's chair of the Enterprise!

Airport run complete, all that was left for the day was dinner and then bed for some much needed sleep. And now with 7 hours of sleep under my belt, we're off to a farmer's market, the Mint, Rideau Hall, a haunted tour, and a light show at Parliament Hill - along with more airport runs to collect more new SOIers!

Have a great day! 

Friday, July 15, 2016

2016 Arctic - Day 1: Winnipeg to Ottawa

Me looking BADASS with a radio! Copy that!
Hello friends!

Well, I'm not sure how many of you are actually looking at this, considering I haven't written an entry in three years. So why am I back? As I type this, I'm a few hours away from departing on my EIGHTH Students On Ice Arctic Expedition! That's right, eight. I can hardly believe it myself. I'm so grateful that the organization, and Geoff Green especially, knows I can make a worthwhile contribution to the expeditions and brings me along.

But I guess the better answer to why I am back blogging is because I found it a great way to record my thoughts and memories of these great experiences, and I've felt less... complete (??)...  in the past few years when I haven't done them. Now, having said that, I can't make any promises that I will be able to keep it up all expedition, or even more than just this one blog. My role with SOI has expanded greatly in the past three years, and finding the time to sit and write a blog entry is increasing challenging during the long and usually exhausting days. There's also a question of access to internet to post the blog, but there are ways around that.

So be aware, blog readers, this may be my only entry. LOL!

What has changed with SOI since I last blogged? Well, a lot. The organization has grown immensely. There have been a couple of key changes in the core team. As mentioned, Geoff is still CEO and Expedition Leader. But the Education and Logistics Managers have changed, both for this year. Those are two key positions, and under other circumstances, I would be worried. But I had a chance to meet with Scott and Jenn a few weeks back when we road-tripped to Quebec City to take some qayaqs to our floating classroom, the Ocean Endeavor (I'll explain that in a future blog hopefully). And I can say with 100% confidence that we are in good hands with them. But not only that, they are all part of an amazing  team at SOI HQ that has grown much larger in size, to the point that they had to expand their offices! Every one of them are an integral cog in the wheel that makes these expeditions go smoothly, and it's awe-inspiring to watch them work and play a small part in helping them. There are even some interns who are former students from previous expeditions!

And the size of the expedition team has also expanded. We now have 120 students coming each year and they include a few university-level students as well. The staff team is up to 80, including some incredible people - too long to list, go to the SOI website to check them out - I'll also tell you about them in future blogs. I can tell you that U.S. Ambassador to Canada, and his wife, are coming. And, he isn't listed yet on the website, so maybe I shouldn't mention it here - but there is royalty coming. I kid you not.

As usual, I'm most excited for the dynamic that will result from putting all 200 of these diverse and unique personalities together on our floating classroom, the Ocean Endeavor. I'm hoping to blog about them as much as possible over the next few weeks. We have a truly international group, with students from China, Malaysia, Greenland, India, France, Monaco, the U.S. and of course, almost all the provinces and territories of Canada. I can't wait to meet them, and in fact, I will be doing so right as soon as I land in Ottawa - two students are arriving a couple of hours after I do.

So a lot of changes with SOI - and a lot of changes with myself in recent months. Maybe that's the biggest reason I'm writing a blog again. Not to sound too cliche, but I'm hoping to get a little grounded and center myself during this year's expedition. The changes I'm going through have been stressful, to say the least, and the remainder of 2016 looks to be filled with challenges. I might go into detail about them in a later blog, but needless to say, I'm hoping that the expedition will give me that injection of strength to power me through these troubled times.

And the adventure... continues. Come along with me!

Here's a link to the expedition website:

And here's a video I did to introduce myself to students:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Monday July 25th, 2013 – in Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island

In my “normal” life, I’m not much for the idea for coincidences or other “higher power”-type beliefs that leave your fate (or mine) to someone other than yourself.

But with Students on Ice, there is something that seems to happen that, well, doesn’t change my thoughts on that… but it does make me shake my head in amazement. We refer to it as SOI Karma.
Simply put, it’s the concept that a series of certain events that fall into place in a certain order that allows certain amazing results to happen. Over my five expeditions with SOI, I’ve experienced many of these events. One of the more recent was last year’s “rescue” of our 2012 expedition by the Canadian Coast Guard, who did a fantastic job of transferring us from our ice-locked position in Iqaluit, to our ship in Frobisher Bay.

This year, it’s happened again, with similar fantastic results.

Back in late June, I met up with two SOI alumni from my 2009 and 2011 expeditions – Jenna and Bridget, respectively. Both of these exceptional and passionate young women were in Winnipeg to participate in a program through the University of Manitoba. They would spend a few weeks in July living in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, learning Inuktitut, and experiencing Inuit culture and ways of life. It was great to catch up with both of them, who had become fast friends even though they had done separate expeditions.

Although Jenna and Bridget would be in the Arctic at the same time that SOI 2013 was happening, our planned itinerary would have taken us nowhere near where they were staying – Pang is along the south eastern coast of Baffin Island, and our course would take us much farther north along the northern coast and towards Resolute along the Northwest Passage.

But, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, thick ice has prevented us from keeping that itinerary to Resolute, and has instead changed our direction towards Iqaluit. As we headed south along the east coast of Baffin Island, our first destination was the town of Pangnirtung. Naturally, I thought of our two SOI friends, and wondered if we would have the chance to meet.

Arriving in Pang was like visiting an old friend. It had been three years since my last visit and it was nice to just wander around town and take in the changes, and the things that were still the same. I stopped by the art studio, where an old SOI friend, Jolly, works. Jolly is an Inuit artist who makes stencil prints, some of which I’ve purchased on previous expeditions. It was great to reconnect with him, and I managed to pick up a beautiful stencil of narwhals that I’m very proud of.

As we gathered in at the community centre for some demonstrations on Inuit games, dancing and celebrations, I was beginning to think we wouldn’t have a chance to connect with Jenna and Bridget. But just as it began, up the road came Bridget, all smiles. She had managed to get into town, but Jenna was still out on the land. We had a great time introducing her to this year’s expeditioners, reuniting with SOI staff and having a great time.

And when we said goodbye, tears and all, we thought that SOI karma was at work again.

Little did we know.

After bed check that night on the ship, as we prepared for hikes the next morning, who should walk in but BOTH Bridget AND Jenna. Without getting too detailed, they had begged a ride from a local fisherman and somehow managed to get on board the ship! After having lived off the land for a few weeks, they were happy to camp out for the night on our ship as official SOI stowaways.

The next day, stowaways and all, we travelled further up Cumberland Sound to the southern tip of Auyittuq National Park to conduct a couple of hikes through this beautiful part of Canada. Half of our group signed up to do the “long hike” to the Arctic Circle, a 25km+ journey. The rest, including myself, Jenna and Bridget, were on the “short hike” to a scenic waterfall a few kilometres away.

The day flew past. Hike in the morning, lunch on the ship, back to the shore for educational workshops, dinner on the ship, and evening briefing. Before long it was time to say goodbye to Auyittuq, and to Bridget and Jenna, who in their short time with us, became a part of our expedition.
Tears were once again shed, emails exchanged, and off they went, back to their adventure, and we to ours.

Today, we visited Kingnait Fjord – again an encore visit for me. Another hike, another waterfall, and another Arctic swim (cold!!!!).

Through it all comes the realization that this is our last couple of days together as a group. Saturday will mark our arrival in Iqaluit where we will begin to say goodbye to our new SOI family. As usual, emotions will be high. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to update on these last couple of days and reflect on the expedition as a whole.

In the meantime, it’s time to say goodnight.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Monday July 22nd, 2013 – crossing the Davis Strait from Greenland to Canada

Well, that didn’t go so well.

All my fears about seasickness as we crossed the large body of water known as the Davis Strait from Greenland to Baffin Island came true. We hit probably the roughest seas that I’ve ever experienced in my five expeditions with Students On Ice. It started out fine yesterday, calm waves that barely caused a hiccup amongst most of the group.

And so we carried on with the day. Sunday was designated as Faith Day. No, it had nothing to do with religion or beliefs, it was named after one of our students, Faith (FeFe) Malton. FeFe is from Houston, Texas, has been on one SOI Antarctic expedition, and is a passionate and engaging young woman. In all respects, she’s equal to all her fellow students on this expedition. Except that FeFe was born with only one arm.

As you might expect from someone with the strength and courage of FeFe, she hasn’t let her challenges define her, or prevent her from accomplishing her goals and dreams. She truly is a remarkable person.

But back to Faith Day. Her challenge to all of us was to try and spend the entire day using only one arm. And what a challenge it was. It’s incredible to discover how many small hurdles one has to overcome. Opening a sugar packet, putting a watch on, and even writing. Not to mention the obvious difficulties like showering, eating, and holding on to things while the ship lists back and forth. It was sometimes exhausting, but really eye-opening for most of the students and staff.

A day at sea also means lots of talks, workshops and other activities happening throughout the ship. There was a lesson on Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit peoples), song-writing, sewing and crafts, making snow goggles, bird-watching (yes, even in the open water!) and much more. Students were allowed to choose what they wanted, and all in all, things were going great.

And then the swells hit.

We started to get a bit of a wind behind us. This, naturally, helps to push us along at a good rate of speed. But it also creates a lot of wave action. Last night, as we began our evening programs, you could tell that some of us were getting seasick. The symptoms are all there. The staring off into the distance, the pale glassy look in the eyes, and the mad rush to a bathroom or the open deck of the ship. As curfew came along, many of the students and staff had already collapsed into their beds.

And I wasn’t far behind. A quick bed-check and off I went to dreamland. The motion sickness patch did its job, but it certainly didn’t remove all of the symptoms for me. But the night went well, and I managed to get a full 7 hours sleep.

This morning, things hadn’t improved. If anything, they got worse. Breakfast seemed to stay down, but as the morning wore on, many of the swells got so bad that items on tables and counters were sliding off. In the lounge, glasses and plates were flying off and crashing to the floor. A water cooler toppled over. Some of the crew told us that they lost over half of their plates and glassware during a couple of the bad swells.

Despite all that, everyone rushed out on to the deck when word came that there were polar bears on the sea ice. Naturally, the sight of the Arctic’s most iconic species causes a great stir of excitement, and these bears didn’t disappoint. Many people got great pictures, despite the fact that the bears turned and walked or swam away as we approached.

This afternoon we headed into Cumberland Sound, as we continued our detour towards Iqaluit. To avoid the still-heavy swells, the captain and crew (who have been fantastic throughout our recent rough seas) swung us around some fairly-heavy ice to get out of the wind. That allowed us to get off of the ship for the first time in 48 hours to cruise in zodiacs amongst the ice looking for wildlife. Sadly, none was found, but it was still a great experience nevertheless.

Well, I’m sitting here writing this while watching a beautiful sunset and wondering who else is watching it. Our resident musician, Ian Tamblyn, is serenading us with some songs as we wrap up our day. Tomorrow, we arrive at Pangnirtung. This will be my third visit to this beautiful community, and they’ve done a lot to prepare for us on really short notice. It will nice to reacquaint myself to Pang, but it will be extra special to see a couple of students from previous expeditions who live there or are spending a few weeks there.

All in all, it should be a great day.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Saturday July 20th, 2013 – Uummannaq, Greenland

I’m fairly certain that in one of my previous blogs from another expedition, I said something along the lines of “I’d cross off of my bucket list… if I even remotely thought of it to be ON my bucket list.”

Well, today was one of those days. But I digress…

The morning broke with our expedition leader Geoff Green announcing the sighting of whales near the ship’s path. OK, I've heard this one before… and it’s usually black dots on the horizon. But there was the ONE time that the whales actually came within a short distance… so I guess I’d better get up and go see.

Well, it was worth it. Many of them were indeed black dots on the horizon. But some did get close enough to see some details – dorsal fins and blow holes. Turns out, they were fin or finback whales – a rare sight for an SOI expedition. Our captain did a fantastic job of gently navigating around to give us our best views of these majestic creatures.

But then, we were back on course for Uummannaq. As I mentioned yesterday, this community on the west coast of Greenland is celebrating its 250th anniversary today, and in typical SOI karma, we would arrive in the midst of their celebrations.

So after breakfast, we hopped onto zodiacs and headed toward Uummannaq. The town is named for a heart-shaped mountain that towers over the community. The houses and buildings are all built along the lower cliffs of the mountain and tower over the coastline. It reminded me a little of some of the small towns in Greece I visited a few years back, where the houses spiraled endlessly up the slopes.

After stepping onto the dock, we were immediately greeted by numerous people welcoming us to the town and celebrations. After settling in for a lunch, we then set off to explore the surrounding community. First up were some kayak races. Uummannaq is actually on an island, so the goal was for the racers to circle the entire island. Kayaks have always interested me, but I've been afraid to try them due to my size and physical ability. Watching these kayakers deftly paddling along at breakneck speeds was a real treat to watch.

After the race ended, off we went for the official celebration. There was lots of speeches (in Greenlandic), singing (in Greenlandic) and awarding of medals (yes, in Greenlandic). Despite the language barrier, it was a nice ceremony and ended with all of us SOIers clamboring on stage and singing an original song written by our resident musician, Ian Tamblyn, and a few students.

After the main celebration, we divided ourselves in two. One group headed off for a “30-40 minute hike” to see the “official” home of Santa Claus, while the other group went to watch a movie filmed in Uummannaq. The latter was being shown in a transformed blubber hut, built around 1860. The movie (called “Inuk”) was a beautifully-done production, and the blubber hut/theatre was a unique experience. It was surprisingly cold in there, colder than even the Arctic air. Many students dressed in seal-skin outfits to keep warm.

By the time it was over, the hikers were back with tired legs and tales of a slightly under-whelming visit to “Santa’s home”. So I decided to not join the second group on their hike to the same spot. Good choice, wouldn't you agree?

Instead, I went and visited the local museum (containing images of the well-known Greenlandic mummies). Then I checked out a children’s concert at the elementary school. And finally, I ate some Greenlandic soft-serve ice cream. Dipped in cocoa powder.

So let’s check the ol’ bucket list. Watch movie in a 150 year-old blubber hut… check. Eat ice cream in Greenland… check. Ride a zodiac with a clown dressed in a cow suit and horn on her nose… check. I won’t even bother explaining that one… I’ll just leave it for you to imagine.

To wrap up, we've received an update to our itinerary. Resolute (our final destination) is completely socked in with ice. There is no imminent way to get in to that harbour, and even the Coast Guard won’t be able to save us.

So that leaves us with one option – the only other place in the Eastern Canadian Arctic that a 737 can land in – Iqaluit. And the only way to get to Iqaluit in time to meet our itinerary is to head south along the eastern edge of Baffin Island immediately. So that means our visit to Pond Inlet is out, along with Resolute – and no trip along the Northwest Passage.

And while the prospects for interesting things to see along the way are still great, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that I don’t get to say that I traveled even a little bit of the Northwest Passage. But as the old SOI saying goes – flexibility is the key. And that leaves so many options open…

Tomorrow is a day at sea. Two things will probably come up – seasickness as we hit the open water, and a chance for me (and others) to do educational programs. Hopefully the ship won’t be all horizontal during those programs.

Myself included.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Friday July 19th, 2013 – Ilulissat, Greenland

I last left off heading towards the town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. My return to this community was not without a bit of trepidation. On my last visit, we were treated with an SOI hike of epic proportions – long, exhausting and well, exhausting. But I digress…

In the morning, we awoke to massive icebergs floating past, indicating that we were nearing the famous Jacobshavn Glacier and its massive iceberg field. So naturally, it meant a chance to go out and play in amongst the ice. This is another one of my favourite SOI activities – hopping into zodiacs and just cruising around with no particular destination.

The cruise was, as always, impressive. Massive (and not-so-massive) slabs of ice serenely slid past us as we cautiously weaved our way along, being careful not to get to close. At any moment, one of these icebergs could calve off and create a huge wave throughout the area, not to mention many tons of loose ice. Every so often, a loud crack would resonate across the water as the incredible stresses on these icebergs became audibly evident.

But despite all our patience, not much action was to be had, and so we headed back to the ship to continue our voyage to Ilulissat.

As I said, the highlight of any visit to Ilulissat is a hike to view the massive Jacobshavn iceberg field. Last year, we did indeed view that iceberg field in all its glory by walking a somewhat strenuous 30 minutes or so to get to it… but then finished the hike with yet another hour-long of even more strenuous walking. In the end, even the students in way better shape than me were dragging themselves in.

So this time around, I made a promise to myself I wouldn't strain the limits of my physical abilities, which was still hurting from the ropes course of a few days earlier. Yet of course, I didn't want to miss out on the chance to see the Jacobshavn ice field. I've become quite intrigued with glaciers, icebergs and the like since joining SOI, and I was definitely torn with the thought of not going.

But SOI is known for its great “karma”, and sure enough, it came into play with this year’s Ilulissat visit. As I was about to disembark the ship, our expedition leader Geoff Green, asked me to head straight to a local Museum to check in with them and ensure all our groups were OK there. Naturally, as a Museum nerd, I was alright with that. So while the rest of the group headed off on the dreaded hike, I sauntered off through a town in Greenland to see the Museum.

However, once I settled everything at the Museum, I realized I had nothing to do and more than three hours to go until we had to be back on board the ship. And while strolling the streets of this beautiful Arctic town sounded like a nice idea, the call of the ice was beckoning me. And then I realized – hey… there’s no one else with me. I can walk at my OWN pace.

And off I went, using my memories of last year to guide me through town towards the site of the United Nations designated World Heritage Site. And when I arrived, I eyed the path we took last year with great trepidation. But hark! What is this path just off to the left? It’s fairly flat! And it’s a boardwalk!!

With a spring in my step, off I went to find me some ice. It was still a long walk, and there was a bit of a climb at the end. But before long, I had joined the majority of the group at the edge of the Jacobshavn ice field. And what a sight. Kilometers and kilometers of shiny white ice. It looked so thick, you could have walked across it.

After a few pictures and videos, off I trekked again, taking my time to get back to the ship. As I did, I passed a large collection of sled dogs (I’m assuming some form of husky) relaxing in the warm Arctic sun. Off in the distance, I could hear a few of them starting howling. Within a few seconds, a few more started. And then a few more. Before I knew it, I realized that the howling was getting closer. Then the dogs laying next me started braying to the sky. As they did, the ones in the distance stopped. I have it all on video, but it doesn't compare to being there. It’s like the dogs were taking roll call and checking on each other’s health and well-being. An impressive moment.

Once we got the family back on board, off we went again. Our next destination is the town of Uummarraq, which by coincidence is celebrating its 250th anniversary on Saturday. I don’t know what we’re doing, but we are spending the whole day there, so it should a “typical” SOI day…