Builds a Force for Global Good
November/December 2011 by Lee Narraway
The water is toasty, the setting idyllic. Surreal.
Before me icebergs drift slowly down the fjord, colours bright and pristine against the dark mountain backdrop. Geothermal hot springs are rare in Greenland so it is possible that long ago the Vikings used this small pool here on Unartoq Island. Perhaps they stopped here for their annual bath after their victorious returns from far-off raids.
Teenagers amble along the shore. Occasionally, stopping to examine a bleached bone or witnessing (in awe) as another huge chunk of ice collapses from a melting berg.
The Students on Ice (SOI) program brings international youth on ship-based expeditions to Earth’s Polar Regions to witness its fragile beauty and heart-rending vulnerability firsthand. Geoff Green, the director of Students on Ice, is an educator and environmentalist. His belief in the power of the outdoor classroom is firm.
This year due to the generous support of sponsoring companies and individuals, 80 percent of the students travelled on a fully or partially paid scholarship,” he says, “and 30 of the students were Inuit and aboriginal Canadians.”
Our voyage begins in Iceland, that land of living volcanoes, steamy hot springs, stunning mystery and magic. As expedition photographer, I again joined a group of 70 students from fifteen different countries plus a team of educators, scientists, artists, communicators and explorers on an expedition to retrace the Vikings’ journey from Iceland to Greenland to Labrador.
At Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park, (a UNESCO World Heritage site) we sit on a cliff overlooking Parliament Plains. In the past, from approximately 930 AD to 1798, Icelanders made an annual pilgrimage to this spot. For two weeks, they would camp here to listen to their leaders recite the laws of the land and settle disputes. Words were bellowed at the opposite cliff and due to exceptional acoustics, they echoed back to the waiting crowd with the resonance of a modern amphitheatre.
In the rift valley of Thingvellir, the Eurasian and North American plates are separating and Iceland is being slowly torn apart by the tectonic forces which created this island 20 million years ago.
Iceland is famous for volcanic activity and geysers. We climb the Grabrok Crater and hike around its rim, gazing down at the cone that erupted over 3,000 years ago, then watch, wait and cheer as the Strokkur Geyser blows a tower of steaming water more than a hundred feet into the sky.
Any trip to Iceland would be incomplete without dropping in to visit the President. He invites our team to tea at his summer residence. One hundred and thirty people cram into a chandeliered salon and listen as Iceland’s President, Olafur Ragnar Grimmson, speaks passionately about the Arctic. He talks about political and environmental issues that Arctic nations will face in the near future. He believes the North will be of enormous global importance as climate change accelerates three times faster there and what happens in the Polar Regions will impact the world.
“The fate of the Arctic is the fate of the world,” he says.
Grimmson encourages the students to believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference in the world… and to never give up. He uses his own country as an example. Iceland has moved from an almost total dependence on fossil fuels as an energy source to now using 80 percent clean energy by utilizing their geothermal resources. A country considered in 1970 to be one of the poorest in the world has accomplished this in less than one generation. They never gave up.
For some, the crossing of the Denmark Strait to Greenland passes in a blur of seasickness. But when the announcement came of a Blue whale and her calf portside, everyone appears on deck, camera in hand. For an hour, we watch and listen as the largest mammals on the planet, 30 metres long and weighing more than 200 tons, swim alongside our ship. It is a rare and precious gift.
Nanortalik (place of polar bears) is Greenland’s southern-most settlement. SOI hosts the townspeople to a performance at their own open-air museum and most of the community turns out for the party. We sit on a grassy hillside overlooking the sea and our talented Inuit students entertain the crowd with traditional drum dancing and throat singing.
The Greenlanders respond with a display of outstanding qajaq skills and a women’s crew, dressed in sealskins, rows a replica of an ancient umiaq (large sealskin-covered rowboat). Curious students investigate the small stone buildings and sod–roofed remains of an early Norse settlement and then explore the town, accompanied by an ever-expanding crowd of children. Hand signals and laughter erase any language barrier and result in a spontaneous game of soccer with the locals before we say goodbye to our new friends and board the ship again.
Next day, workshops are held amid the stunning scenery of Prins Christian Sound. Groups gather on the mountain to learn wilderness survival, drum dancing, song writing, art, interview skills and how to identify plants, bones and birds. They climb to a shrinking glacier and fill their drinking bottles with pristine water from a glacial stream and listen as glaciologists explain the effects of a warming climate. A Zodiac cruise takes them further down the fjord to the wall of a massive glacier and there they watch in safety as the glacier calves new bergy bits into the sea.
When Joey Loi returns to the ship, he says, “Climate change is evident in this part of the world as glaciers are shrinking in size and melting earlier in the year. The science tells us why we need to protect it; the beauty convinces us.”
Seas are calm as we sail from Greenland to Labrador, where the Clipper Adventurer moves slowly into the narrow fjords of the Torngat Mountains National Park. Tourngats means “the place where the spirit lives.” This area has been home to the Inuit and their predecessors for more than seven thousand years. On board is a group of Inuit elders who had arrived by motorboat early that morning from the national park’s base camp. We sit in the sunshine on the back deck while they tell us funny stories and spooky legends and answer questions about their experiences growing up here.
Our destination is a remote sandy beach at the end of the north arm of Saglek Fjord. We climb up sand dunes and hike back to a waterfall that fills multiple turquoise pools as it tumbles down a rocky mountainside. A still lake reflects the surrounding mountains and provides an icy swimming spot for many intrepid souls.
Back on the beach, students are given poles and a fishing lesson and a once-in-alifetime opportunity to fish for Arctic char. Most have never fished before and the catch is impressive. Others help elders gather rocks along the beach, build small fire pits and collect driftwood to keep them fuelled. They learn to clean and cook the fish they have caught. The air is filled with the delicious smell of onions, char, shrimp, caribou, mussels and bannock cooked on top of a flat rock. Many also try, and enjoy, the Inuit way of eating raw char and caribou.
Yashvi Shah, a participant on the 2011 Students on Ice expedition, explains our journey best. “It took a surreal set of experiences with an extraordinary group of people to help me discover myself, my values and my goals. This is what Students on Ice has given to me.”