Sunday, August 7, 2011

Days 9-12 Tuesday August 2nd to Saturday August 6th

Well, my faithful blog readers, I’ll start this entry off with an apology. My intention to write a blog entry for every day has fallen to the wayside. It certainly isn’t for a lack of anything to write about – if you’ve looked on the Students On Ice website, you’ll see that we have been visiting some incredible places, meeting fascinating people and doing amazing things.

And at the end of the day, it’s all I can do to stay awake until my head hits the pillow.

So for those who promised to read my blog every day, I’m sorry I haven’t kept up my end of the deal.

Today, we are entering our last full day aboard the Clipper Adventurer. Right now, we are anchored somewhere along the western Labrador coast, with thick pea soup like fog surrounding us. The schedule says we might have a possible zodiac cruise and/or landing, but I’m not sure if that will happen. With the fog, there’s not much to see on a cruise, and if we land, it will be difficult for the gun handlers to watch for bears approaching our group.

Since it’s the last day aboard ship, the rest of today will be spent packing, last-minute journaling, and a series of presentations and activities designed to give the students some perspective on this expedition. Basically, we’ve given the tools to continue with their passions and dreams, but now we need to give them ideas on what to DO with those tools.

Tonight will be the traditional talent night showcase, and a real sense that this expedition is coming to a close. As in my previous two years, I’ve watched this unique and talented group of young adults bond closely together over the past two weeks as they share common experiences. And now, the process of separating begins.

The last few days, as I said, have been amazing. After a relatively calm, but busy, sea day from Greenland to Iceland, we arrived at the Labrador coast with little difficulty last Wednesday morning. We pulled into Sagluk Bay in Torngat National Park – the newest national park in Canada.

There, we were welcomed by a group of scientists, Parks Canada workers and Inuit students and elders. Together they had formed a base camp along the shore of the bay to conduct various activities of a scientific, cultural and environmental nature.

It was a great honour that they took the time out of their busy days to make us feel at home for a few hours. They gave us tours, showed us some of the activities and talked to us about what projects they were working on.

At the end of the day, we were treated to a BBQ on the beach, and a bonfire with lots of singing and, yes, even dancing. The base camp has about 75 people working and living there, and with our lively group, the numbers jumped to over 200. It truly was a surreal experience.

The following day was a trip up further in Sagluk Bay to a branch called the North Arm. Once again, we were joined by members from base camp, who came up to join us with some gun handlers, Inuit elders and other park staff and students. The elders told stories, park staff led groups on a hike to a waterfall, and some of the students cooked up some caribou, whale, arctic char and seal on traditional flat rocks heated by campfires underneath.

But the highlight for me was the chance to do some fishing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been fishing in my lifetime, so the idea of fishing in a fjord in a remote part of Labrador seemed pretty far-off to me. But there I was, in a zodiac, wetting a line with some SOI staff and students.

I didn’t catch anything. But that’s not the point. Remember back in elementary school on the first day of school when you were asked what you did on your summer vacation? Well, I was in a fjord in the Torngat Mountains of Labrador, fishing for arctic char in a zodiac with people from New Zealand and Iceland. Can you beat that?

Later that day, the Inuit elders gave us special permission to visit Rose Island, an Inuit burial site for many centuries. Sadly, a few decades ago, an archaeologist removed over 100 bodies from the site, all under the claim of science. The remains have since been repatriated, and the site protected by Parks Canada and the Nunatsiavut government.

It was a haunting visit, and a somber, but meaningful dichotomy to what we had done earlier in the day.

Friday’s activities were a blur of zodiac cruises, landings and workshops. I finally got to cross off “close encounter with whale” when the zodiac I was in while coming in for a landing found itself next to a minke whale. After years of mostly only seeing black dots on horizon, it was a special treat to see one of these magnificent creatures up close.

Oh, and I got to drive a zodiac. Twice. Don’t tell Geoff Green. Or anyone else of authority who wouldn’t be happy that I was piloting a zodiac. It’s all good. Everyone made it safely.

And so now, blog readers, it’s 1:30am. The talent show has ended and the staff are full on into their last post-curfew wind-down. Tomorrow, we leave our home on the Clipper Adventurer and head off on our last zodiac ride to Kuujjuaq, and a flight down to Ottawa.

Tears will be shed. Emails exchanged. Hugs given. But the expedition will come to an end.

Is anyone curious about the question I asked in my first blog for this expedition? I’m not sure if I know the answer yet. I’ll try and figure it out later and post it in my last blog.

Good night all, and clear skies.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Day 8 - Monday, August 1st

What do you like to do when you get a bit of cabin fever? Obviously, you want to get outside. If it’s summer, there’s lots to do – gardening, go for a walk, take in a garage sale. Winter is especially tough to combat cabin fever, but with co-operative weather, you could still get out for a walk, some snowshoeing, or even a trip to the mall for some shopping.

None of which you can do on a moving ship.
It’s safe to say that cabin fever is in full force aboard the Clipper Adventurer, after two full days at sea – one, travelling across the Denmark Strait from Iceland to Greenland, and the second trying to poke our way through thick ice and fog to actually SEE Greenland.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been kept busy with Students On Ice’s educational program, filling our time with presentations, workshops and activities. But there’s been a certain amount of eagerness to stretch our wings and do some explorin’!
Well, the wait was over this morning. As we awoke, we were greeted to some clearing fog and the beautiful landscape of Greenland ahead of us. Despite a similar environment to Iceland and areas I had already visited around Baffin Island, I was surprised to see a landscape that was noticeably different.

Large, jagged peaks loomed over us, with a sprinkling of snow and ice near the top and blending into a palette of green and brown near sea level. It was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings, one student said, but there was no amount of CGI that could imitate what nature had done so well.

With breakfast done, we began our foray into Prins Christians Sund (by the way, I spelled this wrong in my previous blog entry! Sorry!). This body of water slices into the southern tip of Greenland, with countless tendrils of mini-fjords branching away from the main artery. As we slowly navigated our way along the sound, every corner was like an unwrapped present waiting to be opened.

As we traveled along, all eyes were peeled for wildlife – seals, whales, polar bears. Sadly, nothing appeared to us except stark natural beauty. So it was with a bit of surprise that we came across a small village of colourful buildings nestled comfortably at the summit of one particularly tall set of cliffs.

It was a stark reminder that the Arctic is not just home to a large number of animals, plants and insects, but to people as well. Finally, as we turned yet another corner, we came upon the sight we had been waiting for – the Greenland ice cap.

If you’ve ever looked at a map or atlas with Greenland on it, you probably have noticed that most of the island is covered in white, as a good portion of it is one giant glacier. On previous excursions, I’d only seen hints of glaciers from afar.

But here was one, right in front of us. And what a sight it was. Shining bright white in the mid-morning sun, it stood proudly in our path, daring us to come closer. Littered in the water in front of it was the evidence that this was a force of nature to be reckoned with – an active, calving glacier.

Healthy glaciers are in constant motion, gravity pulling them inexorably downwards. As they near sea level, the water eats away underneath the glacier, weakening it until the point that “CRACK!” a portion of the cliff face gives way, or calves, and shards of glacier tumble into the ocean as newborn icebergs.

It truly is an amazing scene. We clambered aboard zodiacs to get a front row seat… from a safe distance, naturally. As we slowly made our way through the detritus of ice cubes, you could hear the snapping and popping of the ice that had already broken away, punctuated by sharper cracks from the glacier itself. We crept closer, waiting and watching.

But nature has patience. And we didn’t. Despite the constant crackling, the glacier remained solid and static. Not willing to be thwarted, we made our way to a second glacier in another mini-fjord. This glacier was not as healthy, and had receded away from sea level. But not far enough that we couldn’t reach it easily.

Within a few steps of jumping out of the zodiacs, we became Students ON Ice for the first time. As we stood upon the glacier, one of our resident glaciologists, Eric Mattson regaled us with loads of info on these mighty works of nature.

Eager for more glacial fun, we zipped back to the ship for some lunch and a quick hop over to a THIRD glacier. This too, had receded, but still showed evidence of active calving. In fact, as we went our separate ways to conduct some shore workshops, a firework-like crack echoed through the valley as a portion of glacier avalanched down the slope.

Up to this point, I hadn’t actually witnessed a calving. So with a bit of determination, I climbed to the highest safe vantage point, and plunked myself down in the soft tundra with cameras in hand to see if I could out-wait this glacier and capture it in action.

Glacier 1, Mike 0.

After 90 minutes of glacial contemplation, nary a flake had calved away from the glacier. With a sigh of disappointment, I packed up my gear and trudged down the hill to the zodiacs. As I did, I realized just how much nature imitates life.

Bear with me. So a glacier is in constant motion, gravity pulling it downwards until it begins to shed its layers, just as new snow accumulates and becomes a part of the glacier. For a healthy glacier, it’s a recurring cycle. Break the cycle, and the glacier becomes unhealthy.

Life’s a little like that. Instead of gravity, time pulls you forward, slowly but surely. And like a glacier, you accumulate new experiences and people that become part of you. But at the same time, you need to shed the old baggage and weight so that it doesn’t drag you down and make you unhappy.

For me, I’ve been so grateful to have had someone come into my life and have her become a part of me for the past three years. At the time, I had thought I had managed to “calve off” all the negativity that I had dragged along with me for many years. But it turns out, I haven’t. And like a glacier, it’s unhealthy.

I’m not going to be so grandiose and say that I had an epiphany as I walked back to the zodiacs. But it did give me the resolve to work harder at calving off the old ice as time goes on. All it takes, is a little patience.

Tomorrow is our last day in Greenland. Fog and ice continue to be our enemy, but it looks like we should be able to visit a community, and that’s always a highlight of our expeditions.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Day 6 - Saturday, July 30th


How many people can actually say they’ve been to Greenland? Most people know where it is on a map (it’s the big white splotch with a green border between Canada and Europe) but I can’t think of too many who can say they been able to visit the world’s largest island.

Well, neither have I! Yet. Today was our scheduled day to arrive at Greenland after having crossed the somewhat turbulent Denmark Strait. Except for one slight problem.

Fog. Thick peasoup-y fog. So bad, at times you could barely see the bow of the ship. Now, have no fear blog readers, our fine vessel, the Clipper Adventurer, is equipped with state of the art navigation system, radar, etc. But according to the latest ice charts, the area where we were scheduled to first visit Greenland was surrounded by thick ice. So the pragmatic thing to do is slow down, even in clear weather.

After a full day at sea, and a lot of seasickness, I think it’s safe to say that were all eager to get out and touch terra firma. So there was a sense of anticipation on board as we all clamoured out onto the deck to see what we could see.

And we waited. Aaaand waited. More fog. A few birds that seemed to taunt us. The main thing of interest was a nice intense fog halo, courtesy of the low lying morning sun.

Then, in the distance, appeared something in the water. It was definitely something floating, and it was white in color. As it grew closer, it became apparent that this was… an iceberg!

Well, OK, it was not REALLY an iceberg, but what’s referred to as a bergy bit – essentially a small chunk of ice that either was a bigger iceberg, or was a chunk from a large iceberg that broke off. And in reality – it was barely the size of a kitchen stove. But that didn’t stop 100 cameras from swinging starboard and click-clicking away to capture this momentous occasion from every possible angle.

Laughter ensued as we realized how excited we got over one little ice cube. But then cheers erupted as a second BIGGER ice cube came by. And another. And another. Finally the water was pockmarked with bergy bits, growlers and good-sized bergs themselves.

At that point, Geoff came over the loudspeaker to announce that were finally nearing the coast of Greenland! But at that exact moment, the fog cleared enough for us to see what lay ahead. One giant field of ice. Now, the Adventurer is capable of plowing through some good-sized ice. But she’s not an icebreaker. Her reinforced hull DOES have limits.

So it became very obvious that we weren’t going ahead with Plan A. So in typical Students On Ice fashion, we went for Plan B. The ship turned south to hug the coastline of Greenland, looking for a break in the ice field and an attempt at another fjord.

But as minutes turned to hours, it became obvious that Plan B wasn’t going to pan out. Or Plan C. In fact, by the time the day turned to evening, Plan F was in full force. Rather than waste more time attempting to push through the ice, we would continue full steam ahead to the southern tip of Greenland in an attempt to get well clear of the ice and enter Prinz Christian Sund, a nice little series of fjords with long, tendril-like mini-fjords snaking off of them. It essentially carves a path across this tip and would hopefully provide us with an opportunity to move in and actually see Greenland.

But that wouldn’t happen until morning. A wave of disappointment ran through the students at the thought of a second day at sea without touching land. But as disappointed as I was, too, I reminded myself (and anyone who cared), that in 2010, we didn’t see ANY ice. So to have sailed past a few larger icebergs and come across a field of ice – well, that was a plus.

Luckily, SOI’s backup plans kick into full gear, and students and staff were kept busy with workshops, activities and presentations to pass the time. Journals were rapidly being written and sent home to go up on the SOI website. There were even some cutthroat games of Euchre to be had.

Tomorrow morning, we expect to be at the entrance to Prinz Christian Sund. This is mostly virgin territory for SOI – only a handful of staff (and a couple of students actually from Greenland) are familiar with it. So fingers crossed for some good karma and clear skies!

Photo by Lee Narraway

Monday, August 1, 2011

Day 5 - Thursday July 28

There’s nothing more exhausting than motion sickness. Well, actually, there probably is. But when you are hit with it, it can seem like the most exhausting thing in the world. It saps you of energy, ends all higher brain function and generally incapacitates you.

I first experienced it in 2009 on Expedition #1. Not wanting to experience it 2010, I took to some good old fashioned drugs to counteract it, in the form of seasick patches. See any picture of me from that year to observe said patches. But they worked!!

So for 2011, I knew to be prepared, and stocked up on a good number of those little wonders. As soon as I arrived on ship, one of them came out and immediately made its home behind my right ear. Night one passed uneventfully for me, although sadly not for some of the students. Right on cue, as the waves hit the Clipper Adventurer, teenagers started a-swooning.

Before long, seasick bags were being whipped out and many yaks were spotted throughout the ship. Luckily, the effect wasn’t to last very long, as we pulled into a fjord called Isafjörður, our final official stop in Iceland, on the very northern tip.

It was here that we made our very first landing and cruise with zodiacs. Our resident bird expert, Garry Donaldson, led groups up to the top of some cliffs where hundreds of thousands of birds made their homes at this time of the year. The highlight of the trek was the viewing of an Arctic fox as it snuck down one of the cliffs to grab one of the unsuspecting birds for a meal.

Of course, I saw none of this. As usual, the trek was through some very treacherous and uphill terrain. Most of the group had no trouble scrambling up through the spongy tundra and jumbled rocks to make it to the top. I got about 1/3 of the way, and decided that I shouldn’t push myself. After all, there will be LOTS of other hikes.

It was at that point, I came across two students, Beatrice Yueng from Hong Kong and Yashvi Shah from Niagara Falls. Both were honest in admitting to me that they were out of their element and were having trouble keeping up with the main group. I encouraged them to do as I planned – go as far as we can, as fast as we can, and hold our heads high that we accomplished what we did. With mutual encouragement, we kept going to the point where a fog started to roll in, and we got a surreal view of our vantage point along the side of this fjord.

It wasn’t the top of the cliffs, and there was no Arctic fox in sight. But for the three of us, we felt on top of the world that we had made it to this point, and happily took pictures of ourselves from our lofty perch. It’s one of the few times that I realized that “good enough” really was good enough.

And then we realized we were only halfway on the hike. For you see, as far up as we had gone, we still had to return the same distance BACK to the zodiacs. The only advantage was that it was mostly downhill. Although that just means burning different muscles. So with a sigh, we set off for the coastline and the zodiacs. Of course, it started raining. And despite our best efforts to stick to the original path, we ended up going through the thickest, soggiest tundra we could stumble across. It’s quite unnerving to step onto what appears to be a normal patch of ground, only to sink three feet into the spongy terrain. It was exhausting and by the time we reached the zodiacs, we were ready for a nap.

But a cruise around the fjord was in the works first, and we were treated to beautiful views of the bird cliffs, some seals and lots and lots of puffins. Despite our exhaustion, it was a great sight and we excitedly snapped photos and pointed every direction at the sights to see. In the distance however, was something I didn’t want to see – white caps on waves being whipped up by some strong winds. It meant more seasickness, and I wondered if my patch would hold.

It did, sort of.

After lunch, we said goodbye to Iceland for the last time and turned out to the Denmark Strait for our next destination, Greenland. But right on schedule, the ship began rocking back and forth and before long, staff and students were flat on their backs. The Horizontal Club had been called to order, and I as its charter member was there to greet it.

Did I feel as bad as 2009? No. Did I feel great? No. I think a lot of it had to do with tiredness, and so at about 2:30 in the afternoon I collapsed in my bunk for some shut-eye. And that’s about all I remember. I do recall getting up to see if I needed to do bed checks, only to discover that all but a handful of students were still up. I also discovered I missed prime rib for dinner that night. Sigh. Stupid seasickness.

Not sure what tomorrow will bring as it’s going to be a full day at sea. Geoff says the weather conditions will improve, but I’ve learned better than to rely just on that. Hopefully it will get better.

Photo by Lee Narraway

Day 4 - Wednesday July 27

You can really sense an aura of excitement today. After four days of touring beautiful Iceland by bus and foot, the morning broke over Sauõárkrókur with the anticipation of reaching our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, today. Our expedition leader, Geoff Green had some news that due to some change in the schedule for the Adventurer, we would have to meet her at a different port later this afternoon. Change in the schedule is not unusual for Students On Ice – “flexibility is the key” is Geoff’s mantra, and after three expeditions, I’ve gotten pretty used to it.

So we started the day with a bit of mystery in our future plans. But once again, we resolutely loaded the buses with all the luggage and said goodbye to our brief home in Sauõárkrókur. It took a brief 90 minutes before we were in the scenic town of Akureyri. Considered to be a vacation destination for many Icelanders, Akereyri is a bustling town with lots of tourist-y things to do and see.

We settled into our base location at the town’s Cultural Centre (with fascinating architecture) and were given some free time to explore the town on our own. With no definite schedule, the students scattered throughout the tourist district like ants on a kicked-in anthill. The only two students with a plan were our two Tennessee youth, Shaquille and Derrick. Both had quite the journey to get to us here in

Iceland, and although they arrived safely, their luggage did not.

Thanks to generosity of their fellow expeditioners, they already had some replacement clothes, but the search was on for some cold-weather gear. Luckily, it’s Iceland, and before long, the two of them were ambling back, arms loaded with bags.

After a couple of presentations and lunch at the Cultural Centre, it was back on the buses for our final journey to the town of Siglifjordur. This was the unplanned destination of today’s itinerary, as our ship couldn’t meet us in our original embarkation point. As we drove through the Icelandic countryside, excitement built as the miles slid past.

I couldn’t help notice how beautiful each town was. Our guide did a great job of giving us some background on each place we drove through, and I couldn't help but wish I could return here and rent a car to travel to some of the places again. There were countless museums, heritage sites, quaint cafes and craft houses, but most of all there were friendly people. Almost everyone speaks English, and although they had the usual European quirks that comes with being from a foreign country, I felt totally comfortable here. Well, except for the one tunnel…

Yes, a tunnel. In a country with towering mountains, and long fjords, it makes sense to build tunnels. And it doesn’t make sense to spend more money than you have to on them. But when we drove through our first one-lane tunnel, you couldn’t help wondering if they couldn’t have spent a liiiiiittle more on another lane. Instead, there are little “lanes” that one can pull into to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. A bit unusual, but we navigated it superbly.

And then we arrived at Siglifjordur. This week is their annual Herring Festival, although that’s a bit ironic since there wasn’t a herring to be found. Nevertheless, we were treated to a great tour of their museum, their town centre and an informal game of volleyball with some of the locals.

But all eyes became glues to the port, when our ship arrived. With a majestic swoop into the fjord, our vessel pulled up to the dock and all of our expedition giddily clamoured to line up and get on board.

The Clipper Adventurer is a much nicer vessel than the one I’d gone on twice before. Similar layout, but having been refurbished a few years ago, it was much more elegant. The main lounge was roomier with a panoramic view of the path ahead. Dining was a 5-course meal, with servers catering to our every need. And the cabins were also outfitted nicely with TVs/DVD players (disconnected for this voyage) and chocolates on the pillows!

With everyone and everything settled in, we raised the SOI flag and set sail for our first destination – the Arctic Circle. Again, regular readers may recall that this was a feat I couldn’t accomplish on my previous two expeditions. In ’09, ice prevented us from traveling far enough north to cross it. And in 2010, the only people crossing the Circle were those who hiked 25 km. to reach it by foot – a journey my body was not up to completing.

So imagine my pleasure when we actually sailed up to latitude 67.33 degrees and official became visitors to the geographical Arctic. Pictures were taken, cheers were done and we all basked in the glory of reaching this destination.

To make matters even more exciting, numerous whales decided to make themselves known to us. In previous year, I haven’t been too impressed with our whale sightings, as most of them looked quite literally like black dots on the ocean. But tonight as we sailed across the seas, they came out in droves, some coming up for air a few metres off our bow. For creatures that are normally afraid of sea-faring vessels, we were getting a rare show for our first few hours at sea. As you can imagine, everyone was quite excited about the welcome, and what the future holds for us.

And then the waves hit…

Photos by Lee Narraway

Day 3 - Tuesday July 26

Our 3rd full day in Iceland broke with an early breakfast and loading of the buses to head to our second hotel on the north coast of Iceland. This process it immensely time consuming as each student and staff have one piece of personal luggage, and there is easily a second bag filled with SOI supplies. We take 2 full touring buses – one with 70-some passengers and the other with 50-some passengers.

As you might imagine, this is not an easy process. In the end, some of the luggage compartments are being closed by at least two strong burly men throwing their bodies up against the luggage door trying to get it to latch. Somehow, it gets done.

So by now, we’re all getting sick of buses. More importantly, I’m getting sick of buses – they are crowded, hot and generally unpleasant. Every time we get off the bus, we do a checklist to get back on. And because of the way the hotels worked, I was on the “boys” bus. This year, we have an inordinately small number of male students – only 19 out of 73 students are male. They are all getting along famously, but there is a sense of relief when we get off the bus and get some fresh air.

Today, we head off through the picturesque scenery of rural Iceland. As mentioned previously, Iceland is a highly active region, tectonically. And for the first time on our trip, we get the chance to visit a volcano. Not an active one, mind you. But Grabrók crater is no less impressive.

This was the first REALLY strenuous hike of the expedition so far, as you can probably guess, climbing to the top of an inactive volcanic crater means a lot of going up. Faithful followers of my previous expeditions will know that I’ve had trouble with these hikes. They illustrate just how much I’m out of shape and lack endurance to do anything like this, and this year is no different.

Despite all my best intentions to get healthier, each year I’m reminded of how far I have to go. And especially as I start to stretch towards the 40-year-old mark, getting in better shape becomes even more of a priority to me.

But enough about me – on to Grabrók crater. Well, it was impressive. And I can now say, I’ve climbed a volcano, albeit an inactive one. But by the time I reached the lower edge of the crater rim, I was tired. I took a few camera shots, including a video of the surroundings, as I don’t think still shots could do this sight justice. And then, somewhat dejectedly, I headed back down.

From there, we headed to the what seemed like the middle of nowhere, where we came upon a farmhouse nestled quietly in the Icelandic countryside. Obviously refurbished as a family restaurant, it made quite the impact on me with its deeee-licious lamb soup, considered a highlight of Icelandic cuisine. It was being like home a little bit, as I wandered the farm yard, checking out chicken coops and Icelandic pony stables. OK, I know, I don’t have either of those in my yard at home, but it still felt like the Prairies.

Next up was a quick stop at a place called Hvammstangi to visit the Icelandic Seal Centre and a trip to the coast to see if we could spot some seals. It was successful – seals were spotted in the distance, but as excited as the students were at seeing these beautiful creatures, I knew that we would have better views in the days to come.

Finally, we arrived at Mikligarour Hotel for our stop for the night in Sauõárkrókur. It was much nicer accommodations that our previous hotel, with showers and toilets in individual rooms and a larger meal space. But perhaps the most excitement came from the realization that it was the first time outside of meals and the sightseeing stops that the entire group stayed in the same location. It was a loud and rambunctious group that met for the traditional Speed Dating activity, where groups of students moved from table to table to learn about the background of each of the staff.

As you might guess, our entire group being together means that it was the first time that both genders stayed in the same hotel. Naturally, SOI has many procedures in place to ensure that nothing happens, and that’s part of my job on expedition – nightly bed checks and curfews. My senses were on high alert tonight as we checked all the rooms. And except for a couple of somewhat high-pitched giggles coming from a couple of the rooms, all was quiet. Sleep is a commodity that one doesn’t take for granted on an SOI expedition.

Looking ahead, Geoff announced we were off to the town of Akureyri tomorrow (which set off a rousing rendition of “It’s A Long Way To Akureyri” from some staff) followed by boarding of our ship, the Clipper Adventurer and setting sail for the Arctic!

Photos by Lee Narraway

Day 2 - Monday July 25

So, blog readers, I can already tell you a big difference between this year’s expedition and ones from previous years – my sheer lack of time to sit down and dedicate myself to writing daily blog entries. I’m not sure whether it’s that the schedule is

so different, or longer, or if I’m just not as dedicated as I was to writing blog entries. Perhaps it’s a combination of a lot of factors. But to make a long story short, I apologize for getting these out so late.

Where to pick up? Ah yes, Reykjavik. Day 2 of our ti

me in Iceland saw us heading out by bus to explore Iceland. Our first stop was to Thingvellir National Park which includes Iceland’s largest natural lake – Lake Þingvallavtn. The scenery was, naturally, beautiful and the lake was

a sight to be seen. But the highlight was Almannagjá


At first glance, the canyon appears to be two large cliffs looming over a valley. But it’s much more than that. Essentially, this canyon represents the fault point between Earth’s two largest continental plates, the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. The two plates meet in the Atlantic Ocean – and peek out above sea level across Iceleand. And it’s literally ripping this country apart.

Not quickly, mind you. The process will take million of years. But it does make Iceland one of the most tectonically active regions in the world, as evidenced by recent volcanic activity.

Next stop, a “coin fissure” near the canyon. No, not an area where coins spit out

at unsuspecting visitors. Instead, it was a deep crevice filled with clear glacial water. The idea is to take a coin in your left hand, turn your back to the fissure, throw the coin over your right shoulder, ask a question, and then turn around. If you can spot your coin before it hits the bottom, any question you asked will be yes. Anyone who knows me, knows I am NOT superstitious in the least little bit.

But I did give it a try. I followed the instructio

ns exactly with a nice fat Canadian loonie in my hand. I turned around as my coin bounced nicely off the edge of a rock side of the fissure and landed with an unceremonious thunk on the ground a couple of feet from the edge of the canyon.

Well, great. This is why I don’t play basketball.

Final stop in the National Park was the Öxarárfoss Waterfall, also know as the Golden Waterfall. It was a magnificent sight and a pleasure to see, but as I trodded down the well-worn and safe path to the edge, along with dozens of other students and tour groups, I was struck by one thing. While I’m happy to have visited these places, it was all still a little bit too “touristy” for me. It may sound selfish and greedy, but I wanted to visit places that few people had been to and walked upon.

Essentially, I wanted back to the Arctic.

Off to the buses again, as we headed towards our lunch stop near a series of geysers or geysirs in Icelandic. These are essentially fissures in the ground where Iceland’s famous geothermically heated hot springs gush out in a spectacular display of Earth’s natural process. One of them is very active, with a regular gush of steaming water every five minutes or so.

Naturally, that’s where the students seem to congregate, as they did countdowns towards the next eruption in the hopes of getting soaked by hot, geothermal water. Eventually, I wandered over to take some video with my iPhone and planted mys

elf in a great location with a good view of eagerly-anticipating students. As I looked down, I noticed the ground was damp, but figured the students knew where the best spot to get wet was.


With a great juicy burp, the geyser spewed forth a frothy spurt of water… about four feet high. With a collective sigh, the group dropped their guard and turned away in disappointment. It was at that moment that the geyser erupted in a more massive burst, many times higher than the first, premature one… and as gravity did it’s work, the spray headed straight for me. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination but I will say – I was soaked, but the iPhone was not. And the video is quite amusing…

OK, so that was the morning. The afternoon was supposed to be a trip to an Icelandic geothermal power station, but as typical of an SOI day, that got changed. However, I think this diversion was acceptable. Because that afternoon, we were off to see the President. No, not the president of the power station. THE president. The head honcho of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímmson, the fifth President of the Republic of Iceland.

As we made our way to his estate called Bessastađir, excitement rose at the honor of getting to meet Iceland’s head of state. The President has somewhat similar power to the Governor General in Canada, essentially signs off on laws and has the power of veto. One big difference is that he or she is elected. The current President was about to end his fourth term.

It was a nice reception as we got to tour his entire estate just outside of Reykjavik. He also graciously took the time to meet everyone personally and shake their hand. The President is highly involved with the Arctic Council, a group of countries with stakes in the Arctic region. In his talk to us, he gave us some insight from his perspective on the political and societal issues of the council and the region.

Then, he took time for some questions from our group and delighted us all with some humor and informal conversation. All in all, it was a significant honour for Students On Ice, and this group, to get the chance to interact with him.

To wrap up the very busy day, we headed back to our hotels for some presentations, some music (courtesy of Ian Tamblyn) and even some early journaling from a few of the students, which I encourage you to read on the SOI website.

Next up, tomorrow, we check out of our first hotel and head out on buses to the north coast of Iceland.

Photos by Lee Narraway

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Toronto - Reykjavik, Iceland

Apologies blog readers, if you are getting this a couple of days later. It's been... hectic, to say the least. But it wouldn't be an SOI expedition if it wasn't! Saturday was travel day for almost all students and staff. My role was on the Meet and Greet team (an awesome team, if any of you read this later) at Pearson International, greeting all the students arriving by plane. All told, about 25 students flew in between 3pm Friday and 4:30pm Saturday and I'm happy to say I was one of the first SOI faces they met when they arrived... well, those that DID arrive, anyway. Despite all attempts to make everything go smoothly, delays, lost luggage, and scheduling issues make things interesting. Happily thought, all but two students (from Tennessee) arrived on time for the early evening group check-in. (UPDATE: both are now here, having arrived on later flights!)

The flight was uneventful, and most people slept, or chatted quietly with the people in their rows.

As with my previous expeditions, it was fascinating to see how quickly this diverse group of teenagers can bond together so quickly.By the time we arrived in Reykjavik, it was like some of them had known each other for years.

Sadly, I'm going to end things off here. Sorry, it wasn't an interesting update - I promise I'll do better next time! But just wanted to let everyone know I've arrived safe and sound, and expect to see more in the next day or so!

Photos by Lee Narraway / Students on Ice

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A whirlwind of activity

Hi everyone.

My apologies, blog readers. As I mentioned to a few of you, I had fully intended to send out a blog entry every day of the expedition. Well, my best intentions have quickly fallen to the wayside through the whirlwind of activity that is a typical SOI adventure.

Saturday the 23rd was the arrival day for most of the students. As a member of the meet and greet team, I was tasked with greeting all of the students arriving by plane at Pearson International Airport. As you might imagine, getting 70-some teenagers and 50-some adult staff to the airport at one scheduled departure time is not an easy task. But there we were, at 6pm all gathered at the Icelandic Air counter, checking in. Well, minus two students from Tennessee who were re-routed due to flash floods in Chicago. (UPDATE: they both caught flights and have joined us safe and sound!)

The flight to Reykjavik, Iceland was relatively quiet (except we never really seemed to fly through darkness) and we arrived early Sunday morning. Admittedly, it was my first time in a foreign country (other than the US) in a LONG time, and it didn't take long for culture shock to set in. Different style washrooms, different traffic signs, different daily habits - it all took getting used to. And if I had trouble, I can only imagine what it felt like for some of the students who were travelling out of their home town for the very first time!

We got through Customs easily enough, and stepped outside into the cool Icelandic air (a balmy 12 degrees, although the strong wind made it feel much colder!). Strangely enough, even though it was 8:30am (3:30am Winnipeg time), we headed for the Blue Lagoon spa - a geothermally-heated outdoor mineral spa. This was a strange experience to say the least. Even though it was a chilly day, the temperature of the water was beautifully warm. But the winds were so strong, they actually created whitecaps on the water! And there was something slightly unnerving about the lifeguard wearing a full-body haz-mat suit while patrolling. You can check out a picture of me in the spa on the Daily Journey Updates on the SOI website.

After breakfast, we headed to the Keflavik Viking Museum for lunch and an overview of Viking history. They had a replica of a Viking longboat that sailed on a recreation of the Viking expeditions across the Atlantic. It reminded me (in some ways) of the Nonsuch at my Museum. The smell of the pine tar was like a soothing reminder of home. The Museum itself was fascinating, and definitely worth the visit.

With our first Museum visit behind us, we headed to the main part of Reykjavik, capital of Iceland. Our hotel was sparse, but comfortable (communal showers and toilets). Since we were given some free time, some of the students asked to walk to the center of Reykjavik. I came along as a chaperone plus the chance to check out the city.

Following our informal tour, the group got back together for some more presentations and talks before heading to bed for some much needed sleep.

And that ended Day One in Iceland. Obviously more has happened since then, but the hour is late and it's time for me to catch up on sleep. If I do some more updates, they'll be coming from our ship, the Clipper Adventurer!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Once more unto the breach, dear friends...

When does “once-in-a-lifetime” become… routine?

Two years ago in the summer of 2009, I was given a great opportunity to go along with an organization called Students On Ice, taking 60 students to remote Canadian Arctic locations aboard a refurbished Russian icebreaker to learn about the effects of climate change on that region.

It sounds so clinical to sum it up like that, yet its effects on me (and the students who went) were far from that. It truly was a life-changing experience and opened my mind to a new-found passion for the environment and environmental education.

It was… once-in-a-lifetime.

Then, in 2010, I was given a second chance to participate. Although very much different from ’09, Arctic ’10 was no less of an experience. Not many people could consider themselves similarly lucky. It furthered my passion for the environment, and sent me on a life path that has made me happier than I have been in a long time. Surely, for those reasons, I could still call it “once-in-a-lifetime”.

And now, here I am. About to embark on my THIRD expedition with the amazing staff of Students On Ice, merely 36 hours away from meeting a whole new set of 70 young people who I’d have the pleasure of getting to know over the course of 18 days. Like last year, I go into this journey with no expectations, no preconceptions of how things will go.

But how will this expedition… feel? Will I fall into familiar habits of previous years, overlook things because I’ve seen them before, or not be surprised by anything because it has become… routine? How long can “once-in-a-lifetime” last?

Well, one thing’s for sure, the itinerary will be different. Some of you may recall the ship we travelled on for the past two years, the Lyubov Orlova. Well, sadly, sometime after Arctic 2010, she was impounded for some financial reasons and her crew sent home. As far as I know, she sits empty in St. John’s harbour.

So, SOI had to find a new vessel for this year, and they found her in the Orlova’s sister ship, the Clipper Adventurer. With somewhat newer refurbishing, the Adventurer also has a different itinerary – departing from Iceland, travelling along the southern tip of Greenland and over to Labrador and the northern Quebec coast.

And of course, other than travelling outside Canada, the other difference will be the students. In both ’09 and ’10 we had a few students from the U.S. and Monaco joining us Canadians. But this year, we’ve got people joining us from 13 countries, including South Korea, Viet Nam, New Zealand and Russia. All told, over 12 languages will be spoken by our participants. And we have a burgeoning staff – over 53 scientists, educators, chaperones and explorers.

Over the next two weeks, I hope to introduce you to some of them, as well as the sights we will see. And no doubt, you’ll get a bit of insight into what I’m thinking – these expeditions tend to make me even more verbose than usual. I even get into icky things, like emotions and crap like that.

So it shouldn’t be boring. But will it be another “once-in-a-lifetime” experience? Time will tell. No expectations, right?

The adventure… continues.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stay Tuned for Arctic Adventure 2011

Hello everyone!

Thanks for choosing to follow my blog. I hope to update it everyday, starting tomorrow (July 21st) but in the meantime, you can look back at my PREVIOUS blogs for Arctic 2009 and 2010!

Blog you soon! In the expedition spirit,