Plants, Fossils, Stories and More: The Students on Ice 2015 Arctic Expedition

by Paul Sokoloff and Kieran Shepherd

The Canadian Museum of Nature and Students on Ice (SOI) have been partners in experiential education in the north from the very first expedition 15 years ago. Museum experts have been accompanying expeditions ever since, serving as educators, mentors, helpers, and occasionally even bear guards.

Collage: Three people and multi-coloured village homes.

Top: The museum contingent on this year’s Students on Ice Arctic expedition, a 15th-anniversary cruise from Kangerlussauq, Greenland, to Resolute, Nunavut, via the Northwest Passage. Paul Sokoloff, research assistant in botany (left), Ailsa Barry, Vice-President of Experience and Engagement at the museum (centre), and Kieran Shepherd, Curator of Palaeobiology at the museum (right).
Bottom: Students wander through Sisimiut, the second-largest community in Greenland, and our third landing of the expedition. Images: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman, Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

While the expedition starts in Ottawa, where the nearly 200 students and staff began to get to know each other, it wasn’t until we settled into our shipboard life on the Ocean Endeavour that we really got into the full swing of the expedition.

Collage: Flowering plants.

The vivid Greenlandic flora includes harebells (Campanula rotundifolia, left), and flame-tipped louseworts (Pedicularis flammea, right). Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paul: Each glorious Arctic day started out with a cheery tritone sounded over the intercom, followed by the dulcet tones of Geoff Green—SOI’s founder and expedition leader—saying, “Good morning, Students on Ice.”

Several people in a boat in front of an iceberg.

Students cruise past icebergs as we Zodiac through Jakobshavn Isbrae (Sermeq Kujalleq—Jakobshavn Ice Fjord), near Ilulissat, west Greenland. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paul: Following a morning briefing, the students would either find a workshop onboard that suited their interests (Ailsa ran workshops on digital storytelling, while Kieran, Lucie Metras—a botany volunteer with the museum—and I could often be found in the lab). However, if we had dropped anchor near an interesting shore (and as long as there weren’t any polar bears blocking the route), we’d file to the Zodiacs to make landfall.

Floating ice on the water in a snowy, mountainous landscape.

If you look carefully, you’ll spot the polar bear swimming in between the ice on Navy Board Inlet, between Baffin Island and Bylot Island, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Indeed, many of our expedition highlights were out on the land, where we would interpret the Arctic environment, past and present.

People walk among low plants next to water.

Kieran Shepherd leads students on a fossil-prospecting expedition on Bylot Island, Nunavut. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Paul: I really enjoyed the interactive nature of the botany workshops I held—where else could you search out fascinating Arctic plants while students and staff from the North shared their knowledge and perspective, all the while munching down on tangy, delicious mountain sorrel (qungulit in Inuktitut—Oxyria digyna is its scientific name)?

Museum biologist Paul Sokoloff explains the importance of the expedition and Arctic research to the advancement of science and the future of youth. Video: © Student on Ice Foundation

Kieran: I ran a workshop on prospecting for fossils but one of my best workshops happened by accident.

We landed in a place where there was no hope of finding fossils. I decided to run an “ology” workshop. As a group, we attempted to identify as many scientific disciplines as possible in the area. By the end of the workshop, we had covered mineralogy, bryology (moss), lichenology (lichens), archaeology, palaeontology, zoology and osteology (bones). The zoology, botany and geology of the Arctic are so unique.

Collage: Several buildings. A man looks through a magnifying glass at a fossil.

Bottom: The abandoned RCMP outpost at Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut, stands silent watch over the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. Top: Kieran Shepherd examines a beach fossil out on the shores of Beechey Island, Nunavut. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Paul: Kieran’s “ology” workshop was a smashing success, and indeed highlighted the extraordinary interdisciplinary possibilities made real by being on expedition. Ailsa’s digital storytelling workshop was equally awesome: what better way to share this trip than with a compelling first-hand account!

Collage: Moss and bones.

Bones provide the nutrients and shelter necessary to allow small moss communities to spring up in the otherwise hostile polar desert. Image: Kieran Shepherd © Canadian Museum of Nature

For us, the highlight was certainly getting to know our fellow expeditioners. While we hope we inspired at least one future scientist (fingers crossed), I know that the future of the North will be bright if these inspiring young minds are the driving force behind it, wherever they choose to make a difference.

Collage: People stand on shore, a ship in the background. A rock with fossils.

The last major landing of our expedition, Beechey Island provided students with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of the Arctic, from the ruins of Northumberland House, dating back to the days of Franklin (left), and even further back to the Ordovician era, when the island was underwater—as the coral fossils (right) attest to. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

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