Meet SOI’s James Raffan: author, geographer and polar historian

James Raffan, also known as JR or Jim depending on which expedition you were on, has been an instrumental part of the Students on Ice (SOI) education program since its beginning in 2000. He is an author, geographer and polar historian with a long history in experiential learning and connecting youth to nature that has benefitted SOI students and educators alike for years. He’s a huge advocate of journaling, and if you ask to peek into his own journal, you’ll see more than just writing, but pressed leaves, doodles, or occasionally squished bugs. We asked him to share some of his perspectives.

How many expeditions have you been apart of, and how did you get involved with SOI in the first place? I first met Geoff through Lisa Glithero—aka “Diz”—his then-girlfriend and now spouse, who was a student of mine at Queen’s University, back when Students on Ice was just a glint in his eye. The idea of teaching in the “greatest classroom on earth” was just taking shape, I had conversations with Diz and Geoff about what they were planning and certainly followed with great interest as the first SOI expeditions took shape. Because of my own research and activities in the North, I wasn’t able to join them in the field until about 2006 and, since then, have been with SOI in the Arctic and Antarctic many times since and have been part of the advistory team shaping SOI educational offerings between expeditions.

What is your favourite SOI memory?

James Raffan and student in Auyuittuq National Park during the Arctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Martin Lipman

James Raffan and student in Auyuittuq National Park during the Arctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Martin Lipman

There are many but the most lustrous ones have to do with students finding within themselves, in the context of boreal and austral expeditions, the wherewithal to use success with the social and physical challenges of SOI to muster the emotional courage to do great things. Among those, my favourite memory is of Danielle Meyok, a young woman from Kugluktuk in western Nunavut, sitting all snuggled up to Mary Simon during a quiet time on a couch in the salon. Danielle, like so many SOI alumni, went on to do (and is continuing to do) amazing things in her home community, and beyond, but I have a very strong sense that the varied socio-cultural and demgraphic-vocational mix within SOI, where everyone can be a learner and a teacher, was a context in which within Danielle crystallized an impulse to act that was nothing short of heroic. The image of a young Inuk curled in the arms of one of the most influential Inuit leaders in the country, talking quietly about turning the world on its head, makes me smile.

“take some time alone on deck, or on the land, to be alone to sift, sort, revisit and reflect on the sensations of the expedition that will be passing you at the speed of light.”

James Raffan

What is your background and what are some of the non-SOI expeditions you’ve been involved with?

I began adult life as a biologist, working with seals and polar bears, and secondary school teacher of science, geography, math, and music but over the years with formal study in ethnology and cultural anthropology and a twenty-year hitch as professor of experiential education I have fumbled into a career as a writer. But what runs through all of that formal learning and work, is an informal or alternate lifetime curriculum of expeditioning, starting on the Mighty Speed River in southwestern Ontario and continuing up to and including a four-year journey around the world at the Arctic Circle that I concluded last year for an upcoming book called Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic.

Map of journeys provided by James Raffan

Map of journeys provided by James Raffan

My career as a guide and expedition leader began in the 1960s at Camp Kandalore on rivers in Northern Ontario and has continued with dozens of winter and summer expeditions across Canada and elsewhere in the world with a variety of organizations (details at It is the profound influence these adventures has had on my own knowledge and convictions that drives my unabashed support of what Geoff and the team are trying to do with SOI, particularly in the cross-cultural realm.

Why do you think the Arctic is special and have you witnessed any changes since you’ve been visiting?

Cover of James Raffan's latest book, Circling the Midnight Sun

Cover of James Raffan’s latest book, Circling the Midnight Sun

I believe the Arctic is special because of the way this context focuses the mind. The scope and majesty of the place and the people can create an aura of respect and regard that by sheer force of nature can compel visitors to attend and to appreciate deeply. Research tells us that one of the most predictable drivers of environmentally responsible behaviour is time spent in pristine environments. And while I used to think that the essential power of SOI Arctic expeditions was the place, the physical environment—there is no better place to experience the evidence and effects of climate change—increasingly, I’m seeing that there is also great benefit to SOI in first hand experience with the knowings, patience, and essential wisdom of northern people, particularly on the subject of change. But in both those features of travelling through the Arctic, visitors come face-to-face with their own mortality but also with the effects of our own lifestyles and patterns of consumption. The North is a place to experience, discuss and ponder all that is in one’s heart.

Do you have any advice to students about to join the expedition on how to make the most of their experience?

The single most important and most difficult thing every SOI expeditionary must do is to look without—to really see and not just capture the view on a camera—but also within, to look through the experience of the expedition, wherever it happens to go, into one’s own motivations and contradictions because it is here that authenticity and effect future actions are founded. This kind of essential soul-searching and introspection rarely happens by accident. Personal knowledge—knowledge on which what we DO is based—can only be built through intentional reflection on experience. The SOI education program has a variety of opportunities within the schedule to encourage this kind of deep personal reflection and knowledge building but it happens very much more effectively and with better results—even if they can only be seen or felt months or even years after the SOI experience—if individual participants take the time and make the commitment to participate fully in the outer journey but also in the inner journey, which is the one that lingers long after the immediate sensations—the bear bites and bug smears—have long since healed or faded (editors note: You will not actually get bitten by a bear). This means taking time to engage people with ideas, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling but, even more important, is stealing time when you can and taking advantage of every opportunity to take some time alone on deck, or on the land, to be alone to sift, sort, revisit and reflect on the sensations of the expedition that will be passing you at the speed of light.


James Raffan

JAMES RAFFAN Geographer, Author & Polar Historian Over the years, Jim has written for media outlets including Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Explore, The Globe and Mail, as well as for CBC Radio and The Discovery Channel. He is the best-selling author and editor of 14 books including Summer North of Sixty, Fire in the Bones, Bark, Skin & Cedar, Deep Waters and, most recently, Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He is Past Chair of the Arctic Institute of North America as well as a Fellow and Past Governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, service for which he was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002. Between expeditions and northern projects, Jim has had a number of real jobs. For 19 years, he was a professor of Outdoor & Experiential Education at Queen’s University Faculty of Education, where his teaching was recognized with a number of provincial and national awards. Since leaving Queen’s in 1999, he has been based at his home in the Rideau Lakes north of Kingston, Ontario, balancing dog walking and canoeing on Cranberry Lake with practise as a freelance writer and broadcaster with part-time work as the first Curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario.



Follow the 2014 Arctic Expedition!


The 14th Annual Students on Ice Arctic Expedition will take place July 9-24, 2014. To learn more and follow the expedition through photos, videos and student journals visit the expedition website and follow journey updates on Facebook and Twitter.


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