Gabrielle Foss is a high school student from Toronto, Ontario who joined SOI’s 15th Anniversary Arctic Expedition thanks to the generous support of the Leacross Foundation. Gabrielle shares her post expedition reflections in the following guest blog.
Before the expedition, I did some research on Arctic flora and fauna, as well as on the people that live above the Arctic Circle. I needed to feel prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I could focus on being in the moment during our expedition rather than recording every fact. I made sketches in my journal of lemmings that looked like cute little rocks with eyes, and a caribou that more closely resembled a chupacabra than a reindeer. I made point-form notes on the history of the Inuit, Greenland’s Home Rule government, and Nunavut’s road to becoming a territory. However after two weeks of zodiac cruises, hikes, community visits, and cultural shows, I realized that nothing can ever prepare you to experience the raw beauty of the Arctic. In addition, witnessing that region firsthand changes you in a way no textbook ever could.
During the expedition, I was in shock a lot of the time. We were so saturated with pristine nature and new adventurous experiences…basically everything I dream about when I am at home in my big city of Toronto! But when it is suddenly all handed to you at once, your brain gets a little backed up trying to process it all. Luckily since the expedition I haven’t gone a single day without reflecting upon where we were, what we saw, and what we learned. Combine that with the power of photography to effectively convey emotion and atmosphere, and it is all making sense now.
I remember my jaw dropping on July 29, as we stepped off our chartered flight in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and felt that first gust of crisp Arctic air on our faces. In Itilleq, where the moss covering the hills felt like pillows underfoot, we hiked around to collect plant samples and learn about their special adaptations to protect against the cold weather. It is amazing how – like Erinn’s boot during another one of Paul’s botany workshops – information sinks in and stays there when you are learning outdoors. In Ilulissat, the Students on Ice group hiked to the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The sight of the icefjord left everyone speechless, except glaciologist Eric Mattson. He explained that the glacier ice is currently melting faster than it is being replaced by snowfall, so if global warming is not mitigated then massive amounts of fresh water will be released from Arctic ice and contribute to a dramatic rise in global sea levels. Learning about issues like this while staring out onto one of the the most significant glaciers in the world makes the message really hit home.
After crossing the Davis Strait and entering Canada, one of our first activities in Nunavut was a zodiac cruise to weave between magnificent icebergs and smaller “bergy bits” at the entrance to Milne Inlet off of northern Baffin Island. It was at this point in the expedition that we spotted our first polar bear, and the combination of tension (due to being so close to such a dangerous animal) and awe (out of respect for this powerful creature) was like nothing I have ever experienced. We were literally chasing adventure, and learning a lot along the way. More unforgettable experiences in Nunavut included hikes to glaciers on Bylot Island and Devon Island. I was even able to stand-up paddle board in Tay Bay, near the entrance of the Northwest Passage! As I held my breath and dove off the paddleboard into the Arctic water, the freezing temperatures awoke my brain, giving me an elevated sense of awareness of my surroundings and making me feel one with the environment.
We also had the opportunity to visit Pond Inlet, Nunavut. In Pond Inlet, the SOI students were moved by the magnificent beauty of the cultural show. However at the same time we were saddened by the state of the infrastructure we passed by. Mary Simon and Udlu Hanson – two wonderful ladies who represent the Inuit people in global conversations about business and policy development – spoke strongly about the crucial role of education in solving Arctic social and economic issues. A system has to be developed that incorporates Inuit culture, so that parents will be proud to encourage their kids to stay in school. Education leads to small businesses, jobs, long-term housing and waste solutions, and endless other possibilities. In addition, programs have to be included that will improve the mental health of youth, and create hope for the future of the Arctic.
Whenever people say “life’s a beach”, they’re certainly not talking about Beechey Island, Nunavut! Our final full day in the Arctic featured a fresh dusting of August snow, and a brutally cold walk on Beechey Island to the graves of several members of the Franklin Expedition. Ironically it was at this time that I felt the most alive. After all, like James Raffan said, the miserable moments are also the most memorable ones! We were blessed with such fantastic weather conditions throughout the whole expedition (our karma meter was off the charts so that came as no surprise…), however I was thrilled to have tasted the harsher side of the North as well.
On August 9 we boarded a plane in Resolute Bay and headed back to Ottawa. It was announced that we had completed an astounding 14 zodiac landings during 10 full expedition days in the Arctic, spotted 21 polar bears, and consumed 69 gallons of ice cream. Surely numbers like those can be shared and duplicated, but it is our unique memories and experiences that are immeasurable and invaluable. We explored breathtaking natural environments, and learned about the challenges facing both the Arctic environment and the people that live there. And we now have the ability to teach others what we have learned, in order to connect people in our southern communities to our neighbours in the North. Thank you Students on Ice for giving us a truly epic expedition that we will never (ever) forget. And from now on we will be constantly living…
…in the expedition spirit,