A Geological Wonderland Defines a Journey with Students on Ice

Museum mineralogist Dr. Paula Piilonen was thrilled this July to be part of the educational team for the annual Students on Ice Arctic expedition. Enjoy her reflections from the first part of the trip in Labrador—a true geological wonderland—which preceeded the expedition’s journey to Greenland.

Stunning. Rocky. Green. Breathtaking. Desolate. Pristine. Harsh. Unforgiving. Amazing. These are just a few words that I could use to describe the landscape of the Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador.

Sunset off the northern Labrador coast

Sunset off the northern Labrador coast. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Steep fjords carved out of the ancient folded gneiss. Ice-filled bays where the water is so pristine and clear that you can watch Arctic char swim beneath the Zodiac and strike your lure. Alpine peaks separated by snowfields and meadows filled with Arctic wildflowers. Brilliant blue bays where polar bears dive, play and hunt while, quite pointedly, ignoring the Zodiacs close by. Sunsets (at 11p.m.!) which paint the sky and surface of the water with streaks of pinks and oranges that are not to be found on any colour wheel and cannot be properly captured by a camera lens. Oh yes, the Torngat Mountains are a special, magical place and I for one am feeling humbled and honoured to have been given the opportunity to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

View of fiord from the bow of the expedition ship.

View from the bow of the Sea Adventurer in Kormaktorvik Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park.
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

As I write this, I am sitting on the bridge of the Sea Adventurer, watching the endless grey expanse of the Labrador Sea on all four sides and feeling thankful that we have once again lucked out in the weather department and that the sea is calm. Gary Donaldson, our on-board ornithologist, is also on the bridge doing a survey and watching for Arctic sea birds.

We are headed east towards Greenland (about 550 km away) after spending three days in the Torngat Mountains National Park along the coast of northern Labrador. It has been a trip full of many “firsts” with Students on Ice, a trip for which the original schedule has been thrown out the window and “Plan B” has become the norm.

We have visited fjords and bays, climbed peaks and walked on beaches where no one, with the exception of local Inuit, has roamed before.

Paula Piilonen with two other participants pose on top of peak overlooking a fiord.

Museum staff Caroline Lanthier, Noel Alfonso and Paula Piilonen atop the small peak (330 metres) in Kormaktorvik Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park.
Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Torngat Mountains are still relatively unexplored and offer visitors a true sense of adventure and a chance to be an explorer.

Research basecamp and buildings at edge of bay along Torngat Mountains.

The research basecamp at Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

The geology of the Torngat Mountains serves as one of the world’s best places to teach geology. You couldn’t ask for a better classroom—from the ins and outs of large-scale metamorphic processes, to the weathering of rocks to form heavy mineral beach sands, to the analysis and identification of minerals under the microscope back on the ship.

The students on the expedition are learning what it means to be a geologist and are already picking up interesting rocks whenever we make a Zodiac landing. They have learned how to use their mineral identification tools provided by the museum; back on the ship we can take the time to examine the samples under a loupe or a microscope and determine what minerals are present.

Paula and others sitting on side of Zodiac with fish they have caught.

Let’s go fishing! Paula, Noel Alfonso and some of the students on the expedition with their catch of the day—12 Arctic char and one Arctic cod. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Normally, there is no collecting in a national park, but Gary Baikie, our absolutely wonderful Parks Canada representative, allowed us to collect a few samples from the beach at Komaktorvik Fjord to take back to the ship for educational purposes. For this, we are extremely grateful—thanks Gary!

Paula Piilonen and colleague Noel Alfonso sitting on an ice floe in a harbour.

Paula Piilonen joins museum ichthyologist Noel Alfonso atop a “bergie bit” in St. John’s Harbour, Saglek Fjord near the basecamp of Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Soon, we will reach the Tasermiut Fjord in Greenland and embark on a new adventure with new geology to explore. We will have more opportunities to do extensive sampling along the western coast of Greenland, especially at the now-defunct Ivigtut cryolite mine in the Arsku Fjord and in the many Proterozoic deposits along the way.

But Greenland is in the future and we are learning to take life one day at a time appreciate the nature around us. Today is a sea day and our expedition team is busy participating in workshops on board the ship. We are learning about Greenland, leadership in harsh environments, climate change, wildlife monitoring, glacial processes, Inuit art, and songwriting with Kathleen Edwards and Ian Tamblyn, our resident musicians. For now, the ship steams ahead and we keep our fingers crossed that the weather gods remain on our side and the crossing remains calm.

Paula Piilonen holds an Arctic sculpin caught while fishing.

Paula Piilonen with an Arctic sculpin caught near the basecamp of Torngat Mountains National Park. Caroline Lanthier © Canadian Museum of Nature

Read more about the journey to Labrador and Greenland with the 2014 Students on Ice Expedition.

About Paula Piilonen

A mineralogist with the Research Division at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Geological Wonderland Defines a Journey with Students on Ice

  1. Pingback: Searching for ‘White Gold’ in southern Greenland | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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