The beauty of the north…
photo © Shelley L. Ball
So finally, I have enough of my 11,000+ photos organized that I can begin to tell my story of our arctic expedition. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that last January I created this blog – the Biosphere Blog – to be able to share my passion for environmental education and especially youth education. I had just created my own environmental education organization – Biosphere Environmental Education – something that has been a dream that has been a long time in the making. I wanted the focus of my organization to be educating youth about the environment, connecting them with nature, and encouraging and inspiring them to appreciate it, understand its value, and to become youth ambassadors for the environment, sharing their messages of why we need to preserve earth’s natural environments. And so, my dream of using expeditions to connect youth with nature and help them to be the agents of positive environmental change, was taking shape. But starting from scratch and creating one’s own expedition is a big job – tons of logistical planning, ferreting out providers of services such as travel, accommodation, outdoor activities. Given that I’m approaching 50 and time is ticking (loudly) I decided to fast-track my ideas – hook up with an existing expedition where I could provide my educational program as part of their bigger program. And that is when I met Geoff Green, founder and executive director of Students On Ice. After a meeting and some teleconferences, Geoff offered me a place on their 2014 arctic expedition. Only catch is that I had to come up with $10,000 to cover my expedition costs. So I fund-raised, dipped into my retirement fund (I hear retirement’s way over-rated anyway…) and guaranteed my place on the expedition. Next came a few months of planning, creating workshops, gathering gear. My role on the expedition was to teach environmental communication – photography and videography for creating messaging about the environment. And so I worked hard planning and preparing.
Fast forward to July 9th, 2014. That was the start of our expedition. Most of us were to meet in Ottawa, Ontario, my hometown and an hour and a bit from where I now live. Staff and students flew in from all around Canada, the U.S., as well as China, Monaco, Scotland, and Greenland. Carleton University in Ottawa was our meeting point. Most of the 86 high school students and 46 educators and support staff would assemble there to begin our 15 days adventure together.
Once settled in to my dorm room, my first task was to pick up incoming students and staff from the Ottawa airport and shuttle them back to the dorms at Carleton U. A few students, including some of the northern students, had arrived a few days earlier and we’re busy white-water rafting on the Ottawa River, visiting the Museum of History, and other activities to welcome them to Ottawa. But the rest were arriving over the next few days, all full of nervous energy, excitement, uncertainty.
The start of 131 new friendships – picking up students and staff arriving to Ottawa by air.
Our Students On ice swag. Gotta look good when you head out on an expedition! 😉
Once most of us were settled in our dorm rooms at Carleton U, the real adventure began – getting to know over 100 new faces (and remembering their names! Kuddos to Claire who correctly remembered EVERY name by about day 4 of our adventure. Nothing short of miraculous! 🙂 ). In the evenings, we had presentations by educators and staff, guest speakers who talked about the north, the environment. And we had incredibly inspirational presentations by some of the SOI alumni.
SOI founder and executive director, Geoff Green, giving a welcome and introduction to the Arctic 2014 Expedition.
Day 2 was off to a busy start. Our huge group of 86 students was divided into two groups – Sika and Sila (the Inuktitut words meaning ‘broken ice’ and ‘climate and the world around us’ – oh so appropriate….). It was a way to keep the group sizes manageable and whatever activity one group did in the morning, the other group would do in the afternoon and vice versa. It’s hard to herd 86 students, all buzzing with energy and excitement!
Our first big day of activities included a tour of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. This is where our federal government resides and does its ‘thing’. For many of the Canadian students not from Ottawa, it was their first time seeing the place where so many important decisions that affect their lives, are made.
Day 1 – a visit to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
We toured the inside of the Parliament Buildings, which are so grand and impressive. The stonework, the gargoyles carved into the stonework, the archways, and portraits of past Prime Minsters and other important Canadians. We also had a look at the House of Commons (The Green Room – where all the banter happens) and the Senate (The Red Room – the place of ‘sober second thought’). I’ve been through the Parliament Buildings a few times in my life, but I always like seeing them. The Senate and the Parliamentary Library have significance for me. My great uncle was the Assistant Clerk of the Senate in the 1950’s. And so, when my Mum was young, she used to go have lunch with him on Parliament Hill. She also used to tell me of the fun she had dashing around under the tables in the Parliamentary Library – something you wouldn’t see happening these days..
We had the full tour inside the main building, which is an architectural piece of art in its own right
The Senate – the chamber of ‘sober second thought’. And where my great-uncle was Assistant Clerk.
We also had a behind-the-scenes tour of the Canadian Museum of Nature. What a treat that was! The Museum is one of SOI’s biggest partner organizations. And so we go the ‘inside scoop’ – a look at the collections and labs where the research scientists and collections managers work. We were treated to the most incredible display of rocks and minerals – gleaming rocks of so many different colours, sizes and shapes. A feast for the eyes. Paula Piilonen, a mineralogist with the museum shared her passion for minerals with us. But this was just a teaser as she was to join us on the expedition as well. We also saw the collection of stuffed birds and eggs, dinosaur fossil skeletons and poop, preserved fishes (Noel Alfonso, the museum fish biologist was also to join our expedition), mammal skeletons and a whole lot more!
Some of the mammal skeletons in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
We even saw a very special and rare specimen – a two toothed Narwhal tusk. Wow! Narwhals are thought to be the unicorns of the sea.
Day 2 ended with more interesting and inspirational presentations. We also began to have students introduce themselves – stand up in front of 100+ people and say their name, where they were from and if they were really brave, share something heart-felt and something quirky about themselves. Needless to say the first night of these introductions was ‘slow’. Most of the students were hesitant, shy, and just not ready to stand up in front of so many people. One girl sitting next to me said, “I’m SO nervous! I don’t think I can do this!” She did. And that was just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the pun…) in terms of the courage these students mustered over the next 14 days. I have one especially incredible and inspirational story of a student that I’ll save for a later post. But suffice it to say that experiences like these are truly transformational. Most of those students will have arrived back home, not the same person as when they left. They returned with new-found confidence, knowledge, vision, understanding of the world around them, understanding of human relationships, new friendships and a lot more.
Update: I forgot to add in a link to the videos. We had a professional videographer, Sira Chayer, on board who put together fantastic short videos capturing great moments and telling the story of our expedition. Click on the image to play Sira’s video of the first part of our adventure.
And don’t forget to read the student blogs and journals to experience the expedition from the student’s perspective….
This expedition had such a huge impact on so many of these students. What it took from them was the courage to stretch outside of their comfort zone…
In my next blog post, I’ll share more of our adventures, including the half day of ropes and zip-lining that the students did. Boy, what a way to break the ice (pardon the pun again, but it was an arctic expedition, after all…) and get the students to connect.
Tune back in tomorrow for the next part of our adventure….
[All photographs on this blog posts are copyright Shelley L. Ball. All rights reserved]