Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 16 – Akpatok Island and Ungava Bay heading towards Kuujjuaq

Today marks the start of our long goodbyes and farewells, as we end our last full day on the ship. It’s a day of highs and lows as we all come to the realization that our long journey is about to come to an end.

The morning started with a refreshing zodiac cruise around Akpatok Island. Akpatok is home to the largest seabird colony in the Arctic, numbering over a million. But it was seven polar bears that highlighted the visit, lumbering along the shore, including three cubs.

The island itself has towering steep cliffs made of limestone, which reminded me of the quarries of my hometown, Stonewall. It seemed a fitting way to end our last cruise – a sight that made me look forward to returning home.

The rest of the day flew past and before long it was time for the traditional final briefing and talent show. To give you an idea of the talent of our students and staff, here are some examples of what was said and done:

Geoff Green introduced and thanked the Captain of the Orlova, along with its staff and crew. All of them received a standing ovation. Geoff then gave some more details on our expedition – it was the longest SOI trip ever done, with 14 cruises and landings. We’ve traveled 2160 nautical miles on our journey from Kuujjuaq and back. According to the kitchen, we ate 200 dozen eggs, 5 kg of dark chocolate, 140 litres of milk, 50 kg of sugar, 100 lbs of pasta, 400 loaves of bread, 100 kg of onions, 100 kg of potatoes, and an amazing 80 lbs of cheese.

The rest of the talent show was made up of students and staff reciting poems, singing songs, playing instruments (guitars, harmonicas, violins, and an accordion). There was a lot of laughter, some bad singing and some great performances. It truly was a fine way to wrap up our diverse and unique excursion.

It’s after midnight, and the talent show is winding up. As usual, our plans have changed for tomorrow. We arrive at Kuujjuaq early in the morning, but instead of getting tours of the town, we have to head straight to the airport to catch our flight, which had changed from early afternoon to late morning.

It seems surreal that things are coming to an end for another SOI expedition. Tomorrow will start the tears and hugs, as we begin to say farewell to some members of our family. If it’s anything like last year, it will be an emotional time…

See you all back in civilization!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day 15 – Day at sea along the south east coast of Baffin Island

I’ll actually start this entry with the moments just after submitted last night’s entry. As we headed out of Cumberland Sound for the Davis Strait, the swells started to pick up, along with one heck of a good wind.

Since we had a few minutes before student curfew, I grabbed my windbreaker and headed out to see what a true sea wind felt like. I could come up with all sorts of clich├ęs to describe it (takes your breath away, sweeps you off your feet), but it still wouldn’t do it justice.

Just another experience on my second Arctic expedition that I can’t put into words.

It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot to the Arctic that can’t be put into words. That’s why a big component of our voyages is documented on video. We have two videographers on board – Alex Taylor and Pascale Otis. Both are Arctic explorers in their own sense, but have temporarily given up those titles to record our exploits for posterity.

The journey of how one of our videos is made is quite extraordinary. Both Alex and Pascale head out with the students on landings and zodiac cruises. One usually captures the candid moments and reactions of the students, while the other makes sure to film all the sights that we get to see. Together, with a bunch of interviews with staff and students, they gather all the raw footage they need.

If our landings or cruises took place in the morning, Pascale would then hibernate into her cabin-turned-editing-suite for the afternoon, barely coming out for air and food. It would seemingly be a daunting task to edit the enormous amount of footage taken during our always-eventful excursions.

Yet somehow, in time for our daily briefing in mid-evening, in would walk Pascale with a thumb drive in hand and a tired smile on her face. And then we would sit in awe as she paraded her five-minute masterpieces on the large screen in front of us.

As always, thunderous applause resounded through the ship as the credits flashed on the screen. But Pascale’s (and often, Alex’s) job was far from done. Next up is the arduous task of getting the video out to the world via satellite transmission.

This involves climbing up to the top deck of the ship, no matter what the weather or sea conditions. Often it takes multiple attempts to successfully send the videos, photos and our journal entries (including the one you are reading), before it’s received by the Students On Ice head office in Ottawa and uploaded to their website.

If you haven’t already checked out these great videos, please do so. Because if pictures really do say a thousand words, then you are in for a one heck of a long novel…

Tomorrow, we race towards Ungava Bay to start our journey home. In the morning, we’ll stop for a cruise around Akapatok Island, home to a large collection of seabirds. Then it’s back to the ship to begin a long period of celebration as we wrap up our time on the ship.

LAST MINUTE UPDATE! Northern Lights! As we ended our evening briefing, word got out that there were some aurora to be seen. I quickly grabbed my warm weather clothes and headed out to the bow of the ship. There, I saw one of the most spectacular displays of northern lights that I have ever seen!

Curtains of green and white, tinged with purple, danced across the sky above our heads. As people gazed with awe, the astronomer in me came out, and before long, all sorts of constellations, planets (well, one anyways) and other nighttime sights were getting pointed out.

Alas, curfew hit and the impromptu astronomy workshop was put on hold for a while. Who knows, maybe I’ll get another chance before this expedition is over.

Day 14 – Kingnait Fjord

So the morning started with a 6:55am announcement from our fearless expedition leader, Geoff Green, that there were bowhead whales off the port bow. Now normally, this would have me racing for the upper decks in eager anticipation of seeing these majestic creatures of the sea. But instead, I turned over and studied the inside of my eyelids.

Now this might seem to be to antithesis of what I should be doing, and in fact, if Geoff read this, he’d probably kick me off the ship. And don’t get me wrong, the opportunity of seeing bowheads is one that no one should miss. They are truly one of the highlights of any Arctic trip.

But as Geoff continued to crow about the dozens of bowheads that were appearing on all sides of the ship, I kept turning over and tuning him out. Here’s the thing. Bowheads whales, among other creatures, have been hunted by ships for decades. They have an instinctive fear of these vessels and always seem to give us a very wide berth.

So I knew fairly confidently that the best view of the bowheads that we would have, would be of a distant dark spot on the horizon,
the occasional spray of a blowhole, or if we were lucky, a distinctive fluke arching above the waves.

They’re the same pictures I got LAST year. And I was tired.
So, forgive me if I didn’t race out of my room to do some early morning whale watching.

Next up, was a trip to Kingnait Fjord, another encore SOI stop for me. Last year, we hiked to a beautiful waterfall, and this year we did the same thing. But in addition to that, we also had a BBQ on shore, our 2010 group picture AND the Arctic swim. All of those went fairly successfully, especially the swim – which I managed to again join.
But once again, the best part of the day was the UNPLANNED part. For the second day in a row, we experienced an unusually quick receding tide (at our daily briefing, we were told it was a 9-meter tide, instead of the expected 4 meters). As a result, the zodiacs were once again hard put to make it out of the rendezvous spot to deep waters.

So, off we trotted to a location farther down the shore (thankful
ly, the BBQs that had been brought to shore for lunch had left on an early zodiac). It was a wet, muddy and tiring trek to catch up to the tide with 80 or so people, but in the end, all returned safely to the ship.

It sure punctuated one of our mottos on expedition – flexibility is the key.

Tomorrow, because of our delayed departure this afternoon, we will be hard-pressed to make it to our planned destination – the Lower Savage Islands. At the very least, we’ll have a full day at sea, with lots of workshops and activities to fill the time.
P.S. As I type this, two of our staff, Matty McNair and Remy Rodden, along with one of our many talented students, Khloe Heard are jamming in our presentation room with two violins and a guitar. I don’t know what they are playing, but it’s just one of many moments I will never forget about this expedition.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day 13 – Pangnirtung Fjord and Auyuittuq National Park

Waterfalls fascinate me. I can sit and watch them for hours. The constant roar of the rushing water. The cool breeze blowing down from the mountaintop. The pungent smell of moisture from the rocks, slick from the frothy spray. But most of all, I’m fascinated by how waterfalls are constantly changing. They carve different paths as they flow eternally through the landscape. It’s kind of a little bit like life, if you’ll permit me a metaphor. But I digress… Today was the day of the big hikes in Auyuittuq National Park. Most of the students and staff departed the ship early in the AM to start a 25-km hike to the Arctic Circle. The remaining students and staff, including myself, were to participate in a shorter hike, followed by a series of workshops in the afternoon. I’d come to grip a few days ago with the fact that I wouldn’t be going on the long hike. My substandard performance on Digges Island had illustrated to me that I had a long way to go before I was ready for such a physical ordeal. So I had resigned myself to the shorter and less “memorable” hike to a really nice waterfall a few kilometres into the park. I can’t deny my disappointment that I would once again not participate in what is a deep bonding experience for all involved. But as my fellow chaperone, Wayne Lovstrom pointed out, there’s no room for disappointment with Students On Ice. It brings bad karma. So, I set out on my hike with hope and optimism coursing through me. It was a good hike. And I’m happy to say that I completed it without being nearly as exhausted as I was last year, or on Digges Island. But here’s the thing. The waterfall I was expecting… didn’t happen. Or at least not at first. We had walked for a good ninety minutes before I realized that we had passed it. Why did I miss it? Because it looked different. Even though it had only been a year, the waterfall had changed its appearance quite dramatically, to the point that I almost didn’t recognize it. And it got me thinking about waterfalls and life. There was a point a while ago where I had my life all plotted out, right down to the date. But like a waterfall, life likes to carve different paths. And various events have changed those plans drastically. Nowadays, I try not to plan things out so rigidly. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I want to do in the next few years. Most importantly, I know who I want to do those things with. But like a waterfall, I’m letting life carve the paths for me, instead of trying to divert the flow myself. OK, enough metaphor stuff for now. Let me tell you about the coolest thing I did today, if not on the entire expedition. So, Pangnirtung Fjord has the fastest tides in the Arctic. And as we prepared to head back to the ship, the tide was moving out quickly. The first zodiacs barely made it out, and we had to walk a few hundred metres further so the second round of zodiacs could pick us up. Even then, we had to watch very carefully to make sure we didn’t hit any submerged rocks as we made our way slowly away from the shore. Alas, the water was muddy from the glacial run-off, and before we knew it, our zodiac of 12 passengers was firmly hung up on a rock, with the tide receding by the second. Now, I am well aware of my pecking order amongst the more-experienced staff members with waaaay more wilderness training than me. So I stayed in the boat while Jenna, our zodiac driver, and Eric Mattson, our glaciologist, jumped out to try and budge our hung-up craft. But it became quickly obvious that there was nothing moving. So without hesitation, I took off my backpack and swivelled into the cold Arctic water. At the same time, Scobie Pye was manoeuvring in with a second zodiac to help. Coming in bow to bow, we got him close enough to transfer some students over to his boat and push him out to deeper waters. That gave us enough weight loss for all of us to pull the zodiac off the rock. But we were far from out of danger. The tide had receded to the point that numerous other rocks blocked out escape route. In such shallow waters, the outboard motor isn’t very manoeuvrable, so we ended up having to drag the zodiac through the rocks. As the water deepened, we all flung ourselves in the boat and sped away to the safety and dryness of the ship. It was the single-most exhilarating moment of the trip, if not both SOI excursions. For the rest of the day, I had a huge grin on my face as I basked in the adrenaline high from the experience. As the afternoon wore on, I couldn’t help but shake my head at how quickly the water can shift (literally) and life can carve a new path for you. One minute I was a little melancholy about missing out on a memorable experience, and the next minute I was chest deep in Arctic waters pulling a zodiac to safety. Tomorrow, we are off to Kingnait Fjord, just a little bit down Cumberland Sound from Pangnirtung. Last year when we visited it, there was an absolutely stunning waterfall that left all of us in awe. I’m sure it’s still there, but I can’t wait to see how it has carved new paths. And I can’t wait to see how life will carve new paths for me…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Day 12 – Kekerten Island and Pangnirtung

As I believe I mentioned before, other than the town of Kuujjuaq, all of this year’s excursions are at places I’ve never been to before – until today. This morning we returned to Kekerten Island (which I learned today is redundant because Kekerten is Inuktitut for island). Kekerten is an old whaling station that was one of my first stops on last year’s expedition and I recall being stuck by the haunting stillness of the place. If you stood still, you can literally imagine the whalers hauling these majestic creatures up the shoreline, slicing them open for their blubber oil and other body parts, the entire beach running red with blood.

It’s graphic but it’s reality. Kekerten has since been transform
ed into a park, with interpretive trails and displays. It was nice to be able to revisit this place and recall my memories from having experienced it a year earlier.
But there was little time for reminiscing, as my cabin-mate and fellow educator, Jeff Baxter, a teacher from Paulatuk NWT, had planned an activity to demonstrate how blubber insulates against the cold. To make a long story short, it involved Ziploc bags, duct tape and LOTS of shortening. The students really seemed into it, and raised it as a highlight in tonight’s briefing.
Pangnirtung was also a blast to revisit. Students On Ice visits this community every year, as it is at the head of a fjord where we always hike. They always give us a warm welcome, with demonstrations, food and tours. For many of the northern kids, it was a chance to revisit with some family and friends who live there. And for almost all of the students, it was a chance to taste civilization again. The Co-op and Northern Store were heavily hit, with junk food, pay phones and energy drinks the most common commodity.
The elders of Pangnirtung also generously take some time to talk to the students about the changes they have seen in their community during their lifetime that have resulted from global warming. It’s valuable first-hand evidence of this crisis, and I challenge any climate change nay-sayer to contradict their reports as the oral history of the Inuit peoples far predates any written meteorological records.

Tomorrow we're headed up Pangnirtung Fjord to Auytittuq National Park. This is where all the staff and students get separated into two groups – one for a longer 25-km hike to the Arctic Circle, while the rest do a 10-km hike to a beautiful waterfall. There was some minor disappointment as students who expected to go on the longer one were put on the shorter one as some staff felt they were physically better off there. But in the end, it will be a rewarding and challenging experience for everyone.

I hope my endurance has a better showing than it did a few days ago on Digges Island…

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day 11 – Cruising the southeastern coast of Baffin Island

While on expedition, one tends to lose track of time. Not hours and minutes, since activities are planned out to the minute throughout the day. But dates and days of the week tend to get forgotten as the days and nights flash by on the voyage. The only indications of recognizing dates are when someone has a birthday (celebrated with cake and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday during dinner).

But today, we couldn’t help but notice it was Friday the 13th. Despite the negative connotations of the day, none of us felt unlucky today. First of all, we are lucky enough to get to participate in this amazing expedition. Second, we are lucky to have such an exceptional and diverse group of staff and students to share the experience with.

Thirdly, we are lucky to have all these incredible sights to see along the way – including today’s stop at Monumental Island, right on the corner of Baffin Island. As we prepared to board the zodiacs, our resident mammal expert, Dr. David Gray, just happened to mention that every time he’s visited this island, he’s seen polar bears. Everyone was tingling with excitement at the possibility – to see a polar bear would be a fine notch in the SOI Arctic 10 expedition.

What David neglected to tell us, is that he’s only visited the island twice.

Nevertheless, despite jinxing it by predicting polar bears, we were treated to a sight that we couldn’t have imagined. Not one, not two, but SEVEN polar bears, including three cubs, graced our camera lenses, binoculars and wide eyes as we circled the island in zodiacs.

Last year, I don’t even think we saw seven polar bears on the entire expedition. Admittedly, one of those rare bears last year was chowing down on a seal, so that made up for their lack of numbers. This year, we may not have caught the bears at mealtime, but they still put on a visual feast for us.

Our first sightings were of two solitary bears, which we later determined to be males. They were in good shape and seemed unalarmed as long as we kept our distance. Then we spotted a mama bear and cub make a beeline for the crest of the island. It’s obvious that their main concern was to avoid us.

Then, as we rounded the last corner to head back towards the ship, we spotted another female bears with two cubs swimming near the shore. Without getting too close, we manoeuvred in for a better look. Before long, all three were clamboring up the rocks onto dry land. We continued to watch them for a few more minutes before leaving them in peace.

With that bit of good luck behind us, we continue to make our way to our next destination – the community of Pangnirtung. This is our third northern community visit, and my second visit to Pang, having gone there during last year’s expedition. I’m looking forward to seeing how it has changed and how much is has stayed the same.

Here’s hoping that our good luck continues with some bowhead whale sightings and maybe even a bit more ice to play on…

Day at Sea along the southern coast of Baffin Island

Happy International Year of Youth!! Today marks the official kick-off for this celebration recognizing the importance of youth around the world. And we are celebrating it in fine style aboard the Orlova. Of course, the whole intent behind Students On Ice is to promote knowledge and action about climate change to today's youth. I believe I mentioned this before, but we have 78 students on board this year all united with the same purpose - Protect the Poles, Protect the Planet.

But some students aren't just content to stop at participating in this expedition. Today, a number of them gathered together to plan out a video promoting the IYY celebrations and how they feel about their role in protecting the environment. It's a really uplifting moment to sit there and watch these young people in action. Even though myself and three other staff were there to guide them along and keep them on track, this video is ALL youth-driven, from the storyboarding to filming and editing. Can't wait to see the final product.

This afternoon was our second Pod Team meeting. Pod Teams are a part of SOI's educational component. Students are divided up into teams of 7 or 8, with two staff. In those smaller groups, it is easier for some of the less out-spoken students to get some dialogue going about the various issues we've been looking at, the sights we have seen, and to get to know each other a bit better.
I'm teamed up with Jacqueline Phillips, a teacher and fellow educator on board. We've got a great Pod Team consisting of some bright and talented students - Hannah, Bradley, Joseph, Julie B., Estelle, Kamil and Lavinia. You can read their bios on the Students On Ice Arctic 2010 website. Tomorrow, we are continuing around the south eastern coast of Baffin Island. Geoff Green calls tomorrow an Expedition Day, which means he has no clue what we are going to do, where we are going to go. There's still no sign of large amounts of ice, but we are hoping there's some hiding in some fjord or cove somewhere that we can go explore. Perhaps some polar bears or whales will be spotted tomorrow.

Of course, it is the Perseid Meteor Shower tonight - although there's few chances of actually seeing some shooting stars, we're all wishing that tomorrow will bring some more exciting activity here in the Arctic!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cape Dorset, Nunavut

We check out a lot of natural locations along our journey through the Arctic – seabird habitats, prime walrus viewing spots, caribou hunting grounds. But as great and important as all of these locations are, some of the best places to learn about the effects of global warming are in the communities that we visit along the way.

We’d already been to one community, when we landed in Kuujjuaq to board our ship. But today we visited Cape Dorset on the southern coast of Baffin Island. Cape Dorset is well-known for its Inuit art carvings and prints and the ship was a-buzz with excitement.
Our first stop today was an archaeological site across the bay from Cape Dorset. Thousands of years ago, a series of huts were built along the edge of a freshwater lake a few hundred meters from the Arctic Ocean. Today, all that remains are the dugouts with collapsed rocks strewn within them. After hearing about the history of the people that built the huts, courtesy of our resident mammal expert turned Arctic historian David Gray, we set off on a choice of hikes.
Still recovering from the trip to Digges Island a couple of days ago, I chose to head down a short, gentle slope to an inukshuk on the shore and sit with my feet dangling in the water, skipping stones. It was a nice relaxing time and I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when we were called back to the zodiacs. After lunch, it was off to Cape Dorset. The plan was to meet for a community welcome complete with some traditional country food (including caribou stew), throat singing and Inuit games demonstrations followed by a talk with some elders to discuss their perspectives on the effects of global warming.

Well, at least, that’s how it was supposed to go. Yes, we got the throat singing and Inuit games, but in addition to the country food, we were also treated to a fresh seal that had been caught and killed earlier today. I’d experienced raw seal liver on last year’s expedition, and this year, I managed to get my teeth around a seal rib. But my best amusement was saved for watching the students sample the various parts of the seal for the first time. Most kept it down… some didn’t.After the demonstrations, we were given free time to explore the community, instead of talking to the elders. Our group quickly dispersed, much to my dismay, as it felt like my herd of sheep was scattering into the wild. Some went and hopped up on junk food at the Co-op, while others went searching for souvenirs. Many were “kidnapped” by some of the local children, who held the hands of various students as they went exploring the town. One of our male students, Connor, was even offered three marriage proposals.He turned them down.This was a great community visit. But as amazing as it was, it illustrated to me just how much we have become a little floating community of our own. It’s been a week since we’ve all come together and the bonds between everyone has grown strong.It was especially evident when we said goodbye to our first friends – Peter Mansbridge and his son Will. It was a teary good-bye for some, as they had become attached to Will, who despite his younger age, made some close friends during his short time. However, based on my experience from last year, it is a mere fraction of the emotions that will be experienced on our last days.

But that’s in the future. For now, our community will have a day at sea tomorrow, with lots of activities and workshops planned. In the meantime, hopes of a full night’s sleep tantalize me... good night!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Walrus Island

Since I found out there was a chance I would be able to go on this expedition, I’ve been telling anyone who I could find about the special guest that would also be coming along. Don’t get me wrong, we have an amazing collection of staff scientists, educators and experts along with us on this incredible experience.

But this one is, as one of my fellow staff chaperones put it, “world class”. For the past few days, we’ve been privileged to have Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent for the CBC and host of The National, sail with us along with his son Will. A couple of updates ago, I mentioned that I participated in a workshop that Peter held at Douglas Harbour on Journalism and Interviewing. It was a surreal moment that I invite you to read over, if you haven’t already.

Tonight, as we prepare to arrive at Cape Dorset tomorrow, we also prepared to say goodbye to the Mansbridges. Sadly, they have commitments back home that prevent them from coming along on the entire voyage with us, and so they will be disembarking while we are visiting this community famous for its Inuit artwork.

As a last hurrah before bidding farewell, Peter conducted one last presentation for the entire group tonight. Although billed as another talk about Journalism and the Media, Peter told the students to put their pens down and close their books. And for the next 90 minutes, we were treated to a personal and insightful look at one of the most famous faces on Canadian television.

Through a series of anecdotes, Peter took us on a journey of some of his more memorable experiences, from Sri Lanka after the tsunami, to the Netherlands on the 60th anniversary of the Dutch liberation in WWII, to the Canadian forces bases in Afghanistan. It was one of those unique Students on Ice moments that will remain with the students (and the staff) for the rest of their lives.

Peter is truly a spokesperson for the Arctic. Since his start in Churchill, Manitoba, his passion and love for this region shows. And he was given quite a show today, as we visited Walrus Island, aptly named because it has, surprisingly, lots of walruses… or walrii… well, you know what I mean.

This hunk of a rock at the “top” of Hudson Bay is well-known for these chubby, awkward looking creatures that are so difficult to get close to that even our own Inuit elder, David Serkoak, had never seen them before. At least one thousand walrus lazed around in the mid-morning sunshine, or frolicked in the clear icy waters as we cruised silently by in zodiacs, the only sound coming from the dozens of cameras.

After that incredible sight, we returned to the ship for an atypically lax day for Students On Ice. There was a series of workshops, a couple of presentations, but much of the day was spent journaling, reading, soaking in the sun on deck, or resting.

Tomorrow, as mentioned, will take us to Cape Dorset on the south coast of Baffin Island. Because we are making good time, we might be able to stop at an archaeological site – guess what?... another first for SOI.

We might be saying goodbye to Peter Mansbridge, but the adventure for us, is just beginning.

Digges Island

During last year’s expedition, there was a low point. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute of it, as I am with this one. But along the way, one’s energy reserves drop down, the brain turns off and you just want to crawl into your bunk and shut out the world.

In 2009, that point was about 10 or 11 days into the expedition. This year, it was today.

Again, let me assure you, today was overall another good SOI day. We landed on Digges Island, an island that very few people, let alone an SOI expedition, had ever set foot on before. We saw almost a quarter of a million thick-billed murres nesting along majestic cliffs that towered above the Hudson Strait.

Back on the ship, we had an educational and fun series of presentations and workshops ranging from Birds of the Arctic to Working with GPS. The night rounded off in musical fashion with our resident Inuit elder, David Serkoak, leading everyone in traditional drum dancing and our musical “experts” James Raffan and Remy Rodden playing guitar on the bow of our ship with about 50 students swaying back and forth in tune to the music.

So why would today be a low point on the expedition so far?

While on Digges Island, we participated in a hike. This is not unusual at the Geoff Green Center for Weight Loss. I’d participated in many an SOI hike last year, some I couldn’t complete, and most of them ended up so out of breath and weak in the knees that I could barely make it to my bunk. After the expedition was over, I swore I would start living life a bit healthier – more exercise, better eating, etc. with the intention of coming back and conquering the hikes with ease.

Well, the past year hasn’t been as healthy as I would like. Many times I relapsed into an unhealthy meal, or a lazy night in front of the TV. But I’d like to think that I’ve cut back on the unhealthy food, taken a few more walks than before and was, in general, in better shape than before.

So when heading out on today’s hike, I thought for sure it would be no problem. Admittedly, it WAS up a very steep hillside over rocky terrain, trickling streams and spongy tundra to a point overlooking the cliffs of thick-billed murres. But within minutes I realized this wouldn’t be easy. In fact, I knew it would be darn right difficult.

Within half an hour, I came to the conclusion that any gains I had made in the last year were far from enough. My breath was ragged, my muscles aching; sweat pouring out of every inch of my body, mosquitoes by the dozens were swarming around me like vultures circling a soon-to-be corpse.

As I was passed by more and more people coming BACK from the destination point, my stamina (and my spirits) reached a low point. I was far from in shape to conquer the hikes with ease. The Arctic, with its stark beauty and harsh climate, had still conquered me.

By the time I had made it to the zodiacs for the trip back to the ship, I was one of the last few people. And those that were with me were there because they didn’t want to leave me behind. It was not a good feeling, being the reason why everyone was waiting. It’s called Students On Ice, not Mike On Ice.

It was embarrassing, it was exhausting, and it was depressing. As the zodiacs sped back towards the ship, it took everything I could not to break down in tears. I was tapped out, not only physically, but emotionally.

So how do I recover from this low point? In the end, it was the realization that despite the aching muscles, being the last person to make it back, the pure exhaustion I felt… I had made it. There were plenty of opportunities for me to turn back. But I didn’t. I kept pressing on, with each step, until I finally stood on the edge of an 800-metre cliff looking out at the pure elegance of the Arctic at its best.

I may still have a long way to go in my personal journey to live better. But today was a pretty good first step.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 6 – Diana Island to Douglas Harbour

Today was a very busy day. Probably one of the busiest I’ve ever participated in on and SOI expedition. Despite the exhausting schedule, I’m feeling very rewarded about my contributions to this experience. The only question is will I get enough sleep to do them. But I digress…

As morning broke over our fine ship, we arrived in Douglas Harbour along the northern coast of Quebec. The plan for after breakfast was to head to shore and participate in one of seven workshops held by our very diverse expedition staff – anything from art to caribou hunting to water labs.

This was SOI’s first visit to Douglas Harbour, and that means you never know what to expect. That unknown is exciting but, at the same time, a bit dangerous. However, this landing spot was as safe as could be as we dribbled out of the zodiacs onto shore. From there, we split off into the workshops of our choice.

My choice, naturally, was the Journalism, Interviews and Responsible Citizenship seminar being held by none other than Peter Mansbridge. It was a privilege to sit in on his workshop and absorb a bit of the knowledge and experience that he has gained over the past four decades. I was able to let the “pure” journalist in me come out and have some frank media discussions with one of the most respected professionals in North America.

Couple that with some very intelligent and well-thought out questions from the students who also attended, and it was one of the most engaging dialogues I’ve been involved with since Journalism school.

It was a bit surreal, as Peter had picked a babbling brook to have this workshop. There were also some great

caribou sightings (a first for me on either expedition), lemmings and voles darting in and out of the underbrush, and even the appearance of a ringed seal right off shore from our landing spot.

After returning to the ship, we had a whirlwind afternoon with seminars, pod teams meetings (groups of 8 or 9 students with two staff), and other presentations. I’m one of the pod team leaders and my group is called the Arctic Ninjas (hooooooo-waaaaa!!!) and looks to be a very dynamic group.

Right afterwards, myself and a few other staff had a discussion about a Critical Thinking seminar to get the students thinking about the news and opinions they read and hear and to think about what they mean. I’m really looking forward to that.

But the highlight of the day occurred just a few moments ago before curfew. The sky had cleared for the first time of our expedition, so many students quickly rushed outside to see what was left of the sunset. As we did, we looked up and got a show of Northern Lights!! Despite the fairly bright twilight, they were quite visible and elicited a few oohs and aahs. Meanwhile, some of the students inundated me with questions about this phenomenon and I got to do some actual astronomy for a few minutes!

All in all, as I said, a busy but rewarding day. Tomorrow we are off to Digges Island, a well-known bird sanctuary just at the southwestern corner of Hudson Strait. Geoff Green mentioned something about a 250 metre hike up a cliff – something that I’m leery about. But I’m always up to the challenge…

Wrapping this up so all the journals, photos and videos of the day can be sent out via satellite! Good night!

Day 5 – Ottawa – Kuujjuaq

Greetings from the Lyubov Orlova heading north through Ungava Bay! We set sail just a few short hours ago after a flurry of activities throughout the day brought us from our meeting place in Ottawa to the friendly town of Kuujjuaq on the northern coast of Quebec to zodiacs that carried us to our new home for the next two weeks.
Where to begin… well, first, I hope this is getting through to everyone. So far, I have either been updating this blog personally, or emailing it to someone personally. But now, I have to rely on satellite technology to beam this update to you. Hopefully some pictures came through as well.

Ottawa this morning was rushed. We were up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to pack our bags for the airport. Our flight to Kuujjuaq was uneventful, but our arrival was not. For starters, there was a driving rain through most of the day. Having packed most of my wet weather gear safely in the backpack that was on its way to the ship, it didn’t take long for the rain to soak me to the skin.

But despite the cold weather, the reception was far from cold. After some speeches, we were treated to a BBQ of hamburgers, caribou skewers and potato salad. Then it was off to explore this fine town. One of our stops was to the Nunavik Research Centre, where they are conducting cutting-edge research on many northern issues.

Finally, it was off to the beach for our zodiac rides to the Orlova. It was funny – as we approached alongside, I was struck by a thought I had the day we DISembarked from the ship last year. After the two incredible weeks aboard her, saying goodbye was tough. So I just thought to myself “see you later”. And as I climbed aboard her for the first time this year, a wave a familiarity ran over me.

Last update, I talked a bit about home, especially its impact on the northern students. Being aboard the Orlova does feel a little bit like home and it hasn’t take long for the routine to settle in for myself, or the new students. Before long, we weighed anchor and headed off towards Ungava Bay.

Speaking of the students, they continue to mesh very well in this short time. Obvious cliques are forming, which are discouraged in the long run, but are fine for now. Sadly, the friendship and camaraderie hasn’t extended to one of the Northern students, who I mentioned last update has come down with a severe bout of homesickness. He has made the decision to stay in Kuujjuaq until he can safely fly home.

I guess in the end, if your attachment to home is greater than your desire to explore and participate in the adventure, then the choice is pretty clear.

Tomorrow we are off to Diana Island, home to a LOT of musk oxen apparently. Hopefully my seasickness will stay abated as it is right now, and I will be able to carry on with whatever happens to come along.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 4 – Ottawa

Today was the official launch day for the SOI Arctic 2010 expedition and everyone was kept hopping from activity to activity. First off was a trip to the newly-refurbished Canadian Museum of Nature, which for a museum geek like me was almost like a form of Valhalla. Sadly, in depth touring of the new galleries was not to be, as we were hustled up 4 (FOUR!) flights of stairs to a large conference room.

There we conducted Staff Speed Dating, which (creepiness aside) consisted of all the students rotating amongst the staff, who introduced themselves each time. In theory, this is a great way for the students to get to know the expedition staff. However, after the 9th or 10th time of hearing each other’s life stories, the staff started to get a little punchy. Myself and two other educators, Jeff Baxter (who teaches up in Paulatuk, NWT) and Jacqui Phillips (Grade 5 teacher in Ontario) were able to recite what we say almost word for word, and by the end, we were starting to make up stories about each other (Jeff, for example, worked in a cheese factory before throwing knives in a circus).

All that aside, the media launch event was a huge success with drum dancing, speeches and an appearance by the “star” himself, Peter Mansbridge. And yes, he sounds EXACTLY like he does on TV. When you talk to him, it’s like you are being interviewed.

Then it was a VERY hot walk to the Parliament Buildings where we had just enough time to walk around the buildings before having to get back on board the busses. This was second year in a row where we had little time to tour Parliament, so it was a bit disappointing. But it was still a good visit.

Back at Encounters With Canada, the students were treated to some seminars on journal writing and provided with their “polar fundamentals” – including the basics of The Arctic region and a bit of the history and politics behind it.

While all that was going on, we spent some time with a student who had a touch of homesickness. Well, it actually turned out to be a full-blown case of it. For many of the Northern students, coming to Ottawa and getting thrown into the Students On Ice experience can be overwhelming – lots of strange, loud people in a different, uncomfortable climate with unfamiliar foods and customs. It’s surprising more students don’t feel it like this student did.

When this happened last year with another student, we convinced him just to keep going hour by hour, day by day, until we got up to the Arctic and on the ship. Once there, he felt more at home and weathered the rest of the expedition with ease. This time around, it’s been a bit tougher, but fingers crossed, he’ll get on the plane tomorrow and get back to a more familiar environment.

But, it was a sobering reminder of the emotions that can get stirred up when one leaves home and the effects it can have not only on the person who’s traveling, but the ones he leaves behind. Even though he’ll make new friends and eventually consider this to be a fantastic experience, home will always be home and when he gets back to the people he loves, he’ll be a better person for having experienced it.

I’ve attached a couple of pictures of my travels so far, including me in front of the Canadian Museum of Nature, and one of some of the students I’m going with. In this picture, there are four countries represented – Canada, U.S., Norway and Monaco. Would you believe that none of these young people knew each other 24 hours ago?!

OK, that’s it for me tonight. It’s late, and there’s an early wake-up tomorrow as we prepare to leave for Kuujuaq at 8am! Back to the Arctic I go! My next report will be from the aboard the Orlova as we set sail into Ungava Bay.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day 3 - Ottawa

The students have arrived!!! Well, most of them. We’re still missing two… er, not really MISSING them – we know there they are, but they aren’t here at Encounters With Canada. But the rest are here, and what a vibrant, unique bunch they are. Just like Arctic ’09, I sensed a close bond forming between the students almost immediately. Some met on the plane trip here, others while waiting in the airport (a story I will tell later), but no matter how they first came across one another, already the connections were immediate.

There’s still a gap between the northern students and the ones from “the south”. It will take a day or two or maybe even more before that gap closes entirely. I felt it while doing bed checks tonight – the Inuit students who arrived last night were very overwhelmed by the noise and rambunctiousness of the new arrivals. But since many had been traveling for hours, it didn’t take long before the sawing of logs prevailed in the boys’ dorm.

As mentioned, there was a lot of waiting in the airport. I arrived there shortly after noon to greet arriving students. The first couple of hours went smoothly, with all flights arriving nearly on time. Then, the storms hit. This happened last year, causing delays all across the board. And this year was even worse. Flight were diverted and canceled. Luggage was lost. Chaos reigned.

OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad. It just seemed that way. I was supposed to be shuttled back with the last students at 5:30pm, but instead it was 9:30pm before I slothed my way back to EWC. As a result, I missed dinner (lasagna, which anyone who knows me, knows I loathe anyways) AND the all-important meet and greet of all the students. Oh well, I’ll get to know them better in the coming days.

So, my loyal blog followers, if there are any, this is a very boring daily report, and I apologize. In the coming days, I hope to have more substantive stuff to say about this grand adventure. Tomorrow is a trip to the Canadian Museum of Nature for our official launch and media event. If it rains, we get to tour this newly-refurbished facility (which I dearly want to do!) but if not, we’re off to the Parliament Buildings.

With that, I bid you all a good night. If there are any questions that anyone has about the excursion, things you want to know or just general comments, please feel free to do so. I believe that option is located somewhere just below this entry. I’d love to hear from anyone who might be reading along…

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day 2 - Ottawa

Well, I’m getting to know Ottawa a bit better! Today, I was tasked with driving to various locations throughout the Capital Region to gather supplies for our expedition. I have no problems driving through an unfamiliar city… IF I have an excellent navigator with me. With directions from Google Maps. And a regular map. Luckily I had all of those.

For our pre-expedition days here in Ottawa, we are staying at Encounters With Canada’s Terry Fox Youth Centre. It’s a fine facility with dorm spaces for 150 people, a cafeteria and lots of classrooms space. Bedding is provided – but not towels. Sooooo… off I went on a towel run.

Now anyone who has ever driven with me knows I am a pretty good driver. 22 years without one accident or speeding ticket (until last Sunday, thank you Winnipeg Police! Grr…) So, I was being extra careful in Ottawa considering it was unfamiliar to me, and I was driving van. But to make matters worse, once we picked up bags and bags of towels, we were off to collect dozens of empty beer bottles. Yes, that’s right beer bottles. And not just regular kind, but the old stubby ones.

Why, you ask?

Good question. Once on the ship, we will do a bottle drop. Each student will get a chance to put a message in a bottle (complete with instructions for the finder, should that happen) and throw it into the Arctic Ocean so that we can learn more about ocean currents and movements. To do that, we need 150 stubby empty beer bottles.

Anyhoo, to make a long story short, there I was, driving through Ottawa with a bunch of empty beer bottles clinking away amidst piles of bleach-y white towels. And I’m thinking to myself, “Mike, don’t speed. You will never be able to explain this one to the police officer…”

After safely returning with the supplies, it was off to a meeting with my fellow chaperones and leaders. It’s another great group of scientists, fellow educators and other people passionate about the Arctic. Some familiar faces from last year and lots of new faces. I definitely encourage anyone reading this to head to the Students On Ice webste to look up the bios on the Expedition Team. There are some amazing people on there.

Once we all introduced ourselves and talked more about the education program, we headed off to dinner at a local pub. While we were there, some of the Northern students arrived at the EWC facility. Since weather conditions can often play havoc with travel between northern communities, we get some of the students started a day earlier. That way, should some unforeseen circumstances delay a flight, they have a whole day to catch up.

Myself and a fellow educator, Jeff Baxter, who teaches up at Paulatuk, NWT, did our first bed checks tonight. Some of the Inuit students are very shy and withdrawn – something I remembered quite well from last year. Many feel homesickness in the first couple of days. It’ll take some coaxing to get everyone to warm up and socialize.

Tomorrow, the rest of the students arrive from all over Canada and the world. I’m off to the airport to greet them and then it’s back to EWC for the big grand meet and greet with almost our whole team!

In the meantime, off to get another good night’s sleep.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 1 - Winnipeg to Ottawa

Not much to report on today – I purposefully took a flight a day earlier than last year’s so that I could ensure I would get a full night’s sleep before the two weeks of insomnia starts. I took a morning flight to Ottawa that was fairly uneventful and arrived in Ottawa to pretty much the same temperatures and humidity that I had left in the ‘Peg. Got to the hotel, checked in, and immediately met up with Scobie Pye, one of my fellow SOI staffers from last year.

Scobie is the consummate adventurer – our Tasmanian devil, as we refer to him. And if you spend an afternoon and evening with him, you get regaled with every story imaginable. On the ship last year, his stories were legendary, told during the evening wind-ups. The students (and yes, even the staff who had heard them many times before) hung on every word. And today, I had the master storyteller all to myself. I spent hours listening to him spin yarns about his home in Tasmania, trips to Antarctica, and expeditions around Norway. His stories ranged from the hilarious (Zodiac mishaps) to the alarming (few polar bears spotted around the Norwegian coast this season). It was truly a relaxing and entertaining start to my journey this year.

Tomorrow is a relatively late start (8:15am). Getting picked up by the SOI staff and put to work preparing for the arrival of the remaining expedition staff. I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and meeting some new ones. Meetings, collaborative planning time and an all-staff dinner round out the day. And even some students from a few Northern communities will arrive! Can’t wait…

For now, sleep beckons. Good night!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And the adventure... continues!

Well, what was supposed to be a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity, has turned into a "twice-in-a-lifetime" one. I'm heading back to the Arctic for a second turn as a Polar Educator with Students On Ice! It's another great opportunity to see some great Arctic landscapes, learn and witness all about the effects of climate change on this pristine land, and most of all to meet some fascinating and engaging scientists, fellow educators and students from all across the world!

I'll try and update this one more time before I head off to Ottawa to join the expedition team, but in the meantime I encourage anyone reading this to check out the SOI Arctic 2010 website at to learn more about the program, the itinerary, and most of all, the TEAM! I can tell you one person I am especially excited to meet - Peter Mansbridge, national anchor for CBC TV. He'll be on board with his son Willie - and the journalist in me couldn't be more excited.

Also, take the time to read my blog from LAST year's expedition. I expect that my impressions and experiences will have changed since then, so it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Thanks for following!
Mike Jensen
Science Educator, The Manitoba Museum