Sunday, August 12, 2012

For anyone who’s wondering if I’m still alive – the answer is yes… although barely. Today really tested that boundary… but more on that later. Let’s see if I can wrap up what’s been happening in the past week.

Since our amazing and somewhat-famous (I hear) escapade with the Coast Guard, we finally set sail up the east coast of Baffin Island aboard our floating classroom, the Akademik Ioffe. We spent the first day really getting acquainted with our new home – it’s a world class icebreaker but it’s no first-class cruise ship. She’s well-fitted with comfy cabins, a top-of-the-line dining room, comfy lounge and a cozy library. The only downside is the lack of a room big enough and practical enough for our big all-hands briefings – the only space that comes close is this claustrophobic and improperly seated presentation room on the first deck. But enough about the ship…

The east coast of Baffin Island provided me with a bit of a missing puzzle piece. On my 2009 expedition, thick ice prevented us from going as far north on our itinerary as planned. Naturally, we made up for it with different stops, but I always wondered what those missing places were like. This year, I found out, with stops at Monumental and Lady Franklin Islands and Sunshine Fiord. Both were beautiful sights, of course… our cruise around Lady Franklin Island provided us with a few good polar bear sightings. And Sunshine Fiord with its majestic cliffs led us to a perfect landing spot – and an infamous SOI hike.

Avid readers of my blog will know what these SOI hikes can be like. The never-forgotten “short” hike in Auyuittuq National Park, the gruelling and exhausting trek to the bird cliffs of Diana Island, just to name a few. So it’s with a bit of experience that I headed out on this one at the tip of Sunshine Fiord. Aaaannnd… it wasn’t so bad. Did I make it to the top? Nope. Did I kill myself trying? Nope. Was I disappointed? Nope. In the end, I saw some amazing sights, talked to some fellow expeditioners and ended things off without having to drag myself into a zodiac. Now THAT’s how you do a hike.

Our final stop in Canada was a community visit to Qiqitarjuak, a small hamlet of about 500 people. Again, regular readers will know that community visits are usually the highlight of our expedition – they provide the human side of the scale, as compared to the natural side. And Qid did not let us down. Almost the entire town came out to greet us with warm and friendly welcomes at the dock, and a lively and vibrant celebration in town. There was throat singing, square dancing, taste-testing (whale, clams and char), and lots and lots of happy children, students and adults. It was chaotic and fun-filled and no one wanted to leave.

But Greenland awaited us, and we set sail across the Davis Strait with our eyes on this exotic land.

And then came the seasickness.

Now I’d patched myself up from the moment I stepped foot on the ship, not wanting to have any sort of heavy swells sneak up and catch me unawares. And for the first few days, calm seas prevailed and many of the students (and some staff) began to think themselves immune to the ocean’s effects. And admittedly, the open seas were pretty tame compared to what I’ve experienced on previous voyages. But nevertheless, the rocking and rolling of our vessel caused some upset stomachs and for most of the day, students could be seen lolling about with green gills. I’m happy to say that most of the effects slipped past me, and I once again praised the almighty Patch. I even managed to present one of my activities to a great group of about 13 students.

Our arrival in Greenland was to a small inlet called Disko Bay. For some reason, the name titillated me the entire time, and I walked around the ship singing and dancing to Staying Alive. Hmmm… perhaps the Patch was having some adverse affects…

Anyhoo, our first stop was a small village called Qeqetarsuaq. Sound familiar? It should… it sounds very similar to the town we had just left before crossing the Davis Strait, and was a nice link between the two countries. But where the Canadian Qiq overwhelmed us with a sea of welcoming humanity, Greenland Qeq was quiet and sleepy. That’s not to say we weren’t welcome. But arriving early on a Thursday morning probably meant not a lot of townsfolk were rushing out to greet us.

I could have stayed in Qeq for days, exploring the different nooks and crannies of this beautiful little village. I snoozed for a bit on a rock down by the coastline, with majestic icebergs slowly lumbering past me. We checked out the local museum, spent some time figuring out the exchange rate between Danish krone and the Canadian loonie, and all in all had a truly enjoyable time.

Which brings me to today’s adventures, but I’m afraid that will have to wait for hopefully another blog entry. The eyelids are heavy and the bunk is calling me. Good night everyone!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Greetings from Iqaluit, Nunavut! It’s been a hectic, but rewarding couple of days here in the nation’s newest territorial capital. Since my last check-in, we hopped aboard our chartered flight (thanks to the generous support of major SOI sponsor, First Air… we love First Air!) that flew us direct from sweatily-oppressive Ottawa to the cool and drizzly Iqaluit. It was quite amusing to see many of the much-underdressed students, including our two Tennessee boys – Derrick and Kevin, make a quick bee-line for the terminal. We were immediately bussed to our home for the next two days – the dormitories of Arctic College. The accommodations were definitely a bit sparser than what many were used to, but it was warm and the people welcoming. For the rest of the day, we were treated to some presentations and introductory games. The highlight for me was seeing a former SOI alumnus from 2010 – a great guy named Jonathan Alexander. Big Jon was a memorable student for me – quiet and introverted at the start of the expedition, yet Mr. ChattyPants by the end. And now, at only 18, he’s a Conservation Officer at some local parks and has serious plans to take studies in Environmental Technologies. He remembered me right away and it was obvious that SOI had a positive and continued influence on his young life, and it’s a great source of pride that I played a small role in it. After a good night’s sleep, it was a mad morning of student-staff Speed Dating (nothing creepy, just a way for all the students to get to know all the staff), followed by a great presentation on the Arctic by our resident polar explorer and expert, David Fletcher and the former president of ITK, an Inuit socio-political organization, Mary Simon. But being in the dorms for 24 hours was getting a little claustrophobic, so it was time to hit the town.

First up was one of the most surreal experiences of my four expeditions. As mentioned last entry, we have a bit of an ice problem in Frobisher Bay. It’s decided to stick around longer than usual, and the entire bay is packed with a dense collection of “bergy bits” – relatively small chunks of ice ranging from large trucks to small houses. Normally floating in the water, we arrived to find that hundreds of them had been temporarily stranded on the ground by Iqaluit’s famous tide. By walking through the muck for about half a kilometre, we were able to walk amongst these bits of ice, take amazing photos and videos and carefully climb aboard the smaller flat ones to truly become Students ON Ice. It was like walking through an alien forest of icy-blue “vegetation”, and will definitely rank high on the list of unique opportunities that only SOI karma can create. As I said to fellow staffer, Eric Mattson – “I’d cross that off my bucket list… if there was any remote way that my imagination could come up with adding that to my bucket list in the first place!” We then toured the Museum and Visitor Centre, and the Nunavut Legislative Assembly – both of these places I had been to before when visiting here at the end of 2009 Arctic. Then it was off to visit Matty McNair’s dog yard. Matty is a well-known explorer in her own right, having travelled by dog sled to both poles of the Earth. Her beautiful dogs were a highlight for me, but a slight tinge of homesickness coursed through me as I thought of my own dogs and cats I left back home. Although well looked after, some of them are elderly, and I can’t help but worry about them and miss them. So now, after an evening of some music, presentations and planning, we are preparing for tomorrow. I can tell you that one huge hurdle has been overcome – our ship, the Akademik Ioffe, has made it to port, thanks to the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox. Major hurdle #2: how to get 120 people and thousands of pounds of luggage through the dense sea ice to safely get aboard our floating classroom. Stay tuned!! UPDATE: August 1st – We had a great launch event today at Sylvia Grennell Park, with well wishes by Inuit elders and the premier of Nunavut. But despite all the good SOI karma we could muster, the ice just didn’t co-operate. Instead of Students On Ice, we’ve become Students Stuck In Ice. Spending another night in Iqaluit!