Arctic Expedition 2014 – the story of our adventure…sailing from Kuujjuaq

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On July 12th, Day 4 of our adventure, we woke super early, gathered up all of our gear and headed for the school buses, which took us to the Ottawa International Airport. There we loaded our mountain of gear and hoped that we weren’t about to overpack our First Air charter flight. It’s happened on previous expeditions, apparently. Sucks to be on the tarmac, scratching your forehead and wondering what to leave behind because the plane just can’t handle the weight of all of it. In the end, it was beer bottles that were left behind. But that’s another story that I’ll tell a little later. And it does have a happy ending.

The excitement over the start of the northern part of our adventure was palpable, despite the early hour of the morning

The excitement over the start of the northern part of our adventure was palpable, despite the early hour of the morning

 

Our charter flight was headed to Kuujjuaq, a remote community on Ungava Bay, in northern Quebec. Our ship would be waiting for us in the bay. And we were so anxious to get on board and begin the expedition component of our adventure together. Our flight time from Ottawa to Kuujjuaq was about two hours.

Boarding a flight from Ottawa to Kuujjuaq in the early morning. The air was buzzing with excitement.

Boarding a flight from Ottawa to Kuujjuaq in the early morning. The air was buzzing with excitement.

Welcome to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec. Population ~ 2,400.

Welcome to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec. Population ~ 2,400.

We arrived to overcast skies, much cooler temperatures than we’d had in Ottawa, and an incredible landscape. We walked about a mile from the airport to the town’s community centre and then had a walk around town, headed down to the beach and then back to the community centre for a BBQ that the town had put on for us. Youth from our expedition connected with local youth and soon, friendly challenges of Inuit games and rapping and beatbox were being exchanged.

The village of Kuujjuaq, home to some of the students on our SOI expedition.

The village of Kuujjuaq, home to some of the students on our SOI expedition.

 

Stretching our legs on the beach and enjoying the fresh, cool air.

Stretching our legs on the beach and enjoying the fresh, cool air.

After a few hours in town it was time to head for our ship, the Sea Adventurer. She had come upriver a bit and anchored, waiting for our arrival. But we still had about a 30 minute zodiac ride to get to her. Exciting! Our first ride in the zodiacs! As we sped down river, the wind in our hair and the northern sun on our faces, the rhythmic bouncing of the zodiac on the waves, we soaked up the scenery as we went.

The shoreline as we headed downstream, from Kuujjuaq, towards the Sea Adventurer, our floating home for the next 12 days.

The shoreline as we headed downstream, from Kuujjuaq, towards the Sea Adventurer, our floating home for the next 12 days.

The landscape around Kuujjuaq and along the river is rugged. Kuujjuaq is located just at the edge of the boreal forest treelike. So you see some trees to the south, but they are small spruces. And the treelike quickly disappears as you head north. The shoreline is rocky and rugged. Looking out onto the massive pieces of rock, one expected to see a polar bear lumbering across the landscape.

The rocky and rugged shoreline near Kuujjuaq

The rocky and rugged shoreline near Kuujjuaq

The crevices in this ancient rock creates its own version of art

The crevices in this ancient rock creates its own version of art

Leaving the tree line behind us, the ruggedness of the landscape seemed more apparent

Leaving the tree line behind us, the ruggedness of the landscape seemed more apparent

As we made our way down river in the zodiacs, everyone was pretty quiet. Talking above the sound of the outboard motor was difficult. But part of the silence was that we were all just taking in our surroundings. For many on the expedition, this was the farthest north they had ever been. The magnitude and magnificence of the landscape was something many had not experienced before and none of us could help but just look and watch as we sped along.

Our first zodiac ride of the expedition. One of many, but in some ways, the most exciting as we had no idea what adventures awaited us.

Our first zodiac ride of the expedition. One of many, but in some ways, the most exciting as we had no idea what adventures awaited us.

As we headed down river towards our ship, we began to notice camps dotted across the landscape. One of our northern students said that families were out on the land now, hunting and camping.

Temporary camps along the river

Camps along the river

Many of these temporary camps consist of canvas tents

Many of these are temporary camps with canvas tents

 

As we sped downriver, the outline of our ship came into view. And as we got closer, it’s size and magnificence became apparent. It was hard to believe this would be home for the next 11 days! There was definitely a palpable excitement in the air as the zodiacs circled, waiting their turn to tie up to the ship’s platform and step aboard.

Arriving at our new  floating home, the Sea Adventurer

Arriving at our new floating home, the Sea Adventurer

The Sea Adventurer, is a 100 m long ship with an A-1 ice class rating. So technically, it’s not an icebreaker, but its reinforced hull can find its way through plenty of  ‘bergy bits’ that often litter the waters of the northern Labrador coastline in July.

Total excitement as we are greeted by those already on the Sea Adventurer

Total excitement as we are greeted by those already on the Sea Adventurer

Welcome aboard!

Welcome aboard!

The Sea Adventurer, with 10 zodiacs that allowed us to get to shore to explore

The Sea Adventurer, with 10 zodiacs that allowed us to get to shore to explore

The Sea Adventurer staff had already kindly installed all of our luggage in our cabins by the time we arrived. Our cabins were tidy, modern and comfortable. Sure, they’re small, but we were just there to sleep (and as we’d find out, grab whatever rare nap-time could be stolen during our busy days).

Our two person cabin. Very comfortable and a great sized window for iceberg watching.

Our two person cabin. Very comfortable and a great sized window for iceberg watching.

I remember on Day 1 of our adventure, during our introduction, Geoff Green was describing the Sea Adventurer. His comment was that this ship is far, far too nice for us on us. Ya, sure. 😉 It wasn’t until I began to explore around the ship and came upon the dinning room that I understood what Geoff meant. Just peeking into the dinning room, I felt as if I should have brought my evening gown on this arctic expedition! Note to self for next time – don’t just pack the rubber boots and blackfly jacket, include evening wear as well. 😉

Our ship's dinning room - not what I expected on an arctic expedition, but hey, I'm not complaining! ;)

Our ship’s dinning room – not what I expected on an arctic expedition, but hey, I’m not complaining! 😉

But it gets better. Not only is the dinning room fancy-schmancy, but all of the serving staff were wearing tuxes. And they were the most incredibly friendly people. By the end of the expedition, we’d all become friends. And… we certainly didn’t starve during our expedition. How could one starve while eating 5-course meals for dinner, for 12 days? Seriously! They fed us 5 course meals for dinner! Breakfast and lunch were buffets. And all I can say is that the food was phenomenal! I normally don’t eat dessert, but I did for these 12 days! Although I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the delicate pastry that was shaped like a swan. Seriously, it was ‘pastry origami’! Talk about roughing it on our arctic expedition. 😉

I didn't think you'd believe me about the 5 course meals, so here's the menu from lunch

I didn’t think you’d believe me about the 5 course meals, so here’s the menu from lunch

And…. the menu from dinner one night… some evenings we ate fresh arctic char that members of our expedition had caught that day.

And dinner. Oh... how we suffered! ;)

And dinner. Oh… how we suffered! 😉

Here's more of how we suffered. Dessert one night. I think it was a blueberry cheesecake, but I can't remember because my head is still swirling with delight. Oh so many desserts...

Here’s more of how we suffered. Dessert one night. I think it was a blueberry cheesecake, but I can’t remember because my head is still swirling with delight. Oh so many desserts…

After dinner, I wandered up on deck with my camera, soaking in the fresh evening air as we made our way through Ungava Bay. The land disappeared and the open water lay before us. As the sun began to sink in the sky, many of us took some time on deck to jus have some quiet time to ourselves, to reflect on all that had happened up to this point and what our next 11 days would be like.

Time to reflect as we leave head out of Ungava Bay

Time to reflect as we leave head out of Ungava Bay

Watching land disappear...

Watching land disappear…

And the sun sink low in the sky. It never got completely dark because we were so far north. But we were treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen.

And the sun sink low in the sky. It never got completely dark because we were so far north. But we were treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.

This is how our days ended. Falling into bed, tired from the days activities. But what more could you ask for... arriving in your cabin to find your bed turned down and a mint sitting there.

This is how our days ended. Falling into bed, tired from the days activities. But what more could you ask for… arriving in your cabin to find your bed turned down and a mint sitting there.

Our floating home, the Sea Adventurer, was INCREDIBLE. All of the staff were more than outstanding. So friendly, courteous, the food was out of this world. The cabins so comfortable. We all complained when we got home that our beds at home seemed not to be nearly so comfortable as those on the ship. Our captain was phenomenal. You’ll hear more about him later and how he’s given us the adventure of a lifetime.

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Tune in  next time for the first BIG day of our adventure, exploring the beauty of the Labrador coastline…

Arctic Expedition 2014 – the story of our adventure… part II

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What’s one way to get 100+ people who are total strangers to bond really quickly? Answer: FEAR. I’m kidding…. but doing something that forces everyone outside their comfort zone and puts everyone on an equal playing field is a great way to create bonds between people. And so that’s what we did on Day 3. Well, that’s what most of them did. I declined due to a back injury I didn’t want to aggravate. I was having premonitions of being in a body cast as we boarded our ship for the arctic. NOT the way to see the north…. from a porthole window and a body-cast. Hence, I acted as motivational coach, keeper of the sunglasses, iPhones, cameras, hats and hoodies and cat-herder. 🙂

"So, what are we supposed to do with these thingies again?" "I think we hook ourselves to the structures so we don't fall to our death". "Oh, really?"

“So, what are we supposed to do with these thingies again?” “I think we hook ourselves to the structures so we don’t fall to our death”. “Oh, really?”

Day 3 has us head to the Aerial Park and Zip-line at Camp Fortune not far from Gatineau, Quebec. I was intrigued by this activity. A way to get the students to burn off some of their nervous energy. They had already begun to bond with each other, but by the end of the zip-lining, bonds were far more cemented. The glue that bound them? Fear of death? Well, not quite. But there’s nothing like experiencing uncertainty, fear, and questioning one’s abilities to bond people. The students were great. They embraced the ropes course with gusto. They encouraged each other. Coached each other. They didn’t need me. OK, well I was keeper of all their stuff that would fall off while they were on the course. And sure, I did encourage them all. But they were superstars!

Some tentative initial steps...

Some tentative initial steps…

But after a few minutes, the students were attacking the course...

But after a few minutes, the students were attacking the course…

I watched these young adults confront their fear of heights. Sure, there were nervous moments, but every one of them stretched outside their comfort zone to embrace the challenge. They climbed ladders, traversed rope ‘bridges’, swung their way across gaps between trees on swinging ‘steps’, zip-lined at top speed from tree to tree. And at the end of it, the only thing I saw were smiles and high fives. Awesome! Just awesome!

Combating fears of heights...

Combating fears of heights…

Using muscles that hadn't been used in a while...

Using muscles that hadn’t been used in a while…

And looking like pros from a swat team… :)

And looking like pros from a swat team… 🙂

 

Our next stop for the day was back at the Canadian Museum of Nature, but this time, to see its public side. We had a guided tour of the museum and were treated to exhibits that showed us the many of the animals that call Canada home, some of which we may see on our arctic adventure. Our tour ended with a wander through the dinosaur section. Not the fossils, but huge replicas of various dinosaur species which once roamed the earth.

Students look into a diorama of muskox in the high arctic.

Students look into a diorama of muskox in the high arctic.

I'm not sure if these were to scale, but some of them were certainly scary enough! Can't imagine meeting one of these grumpy beasts millions of years ago...

I’m not sure if these were to scale, but some of them were certainly scary enough! Can’t imagine meeting one of these grumpy beasts millions of years ago…

That evening, tired, sore, and happy students filed into one of the lecture halls at Carleton U for more inspiring presentations – by Mary Simon ( a prominent Canadian who played an important role in the creation of the 8-country Arctic Council), Trevor Taylor (former Fisheries Minister for Newfoundland) and Donovan Taplin, an impressive young SOI alum who at the age of 19, was elected to his town’s municipal government. Donovan’s presentation was nothing short of phenomenally inspirational -for me! I wonder what the students thought of it because it blew my socks off.

 

Although zip-lining through the Gatineaus seems a far stretch from an arctic expedition, it was anything but. Team building, building confidence, forcing people outside their comfort zone – all great things to prepare us for the next 12 days of adventure….

Tune in to the next blog post for the start of our northern adventure – flying up to Kuujjuaq and boarding our ship, the Sea Adventurer…

 

[All images on this blog post are copyright Shelley L. Ball. All rights reserved]

Arctic Expedition 2014 – the story of our adventure…part I

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The beauty of the north... photo © Shelley L. Ball

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.

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! ;)

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 foudre and executive director, Geoff Green, giving a welcome and introduction to the Arctic 2014 Expedition.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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…

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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]