Out of the Northwest Passage: An Arctic Field School

Welcome to the blog for the first ever University of Waterloo ‘Physical and Human Geography’ Arctic field school.

In Summer 2019, we announced a three-year pilot project program focused on practical learning that introduces students from the University of Waterloo to notable geographic areas and communities in the Canadian Arctic allowing them to study on-site. As they prepare to depart on our Classic Northwest Passage and Greenland voyage, let’s learn a little bit more about them and what they will be doing.

Who They Are: two instructors (Dr. Christine Dow and Dr. Natalie Carter) and fifteen students from the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo (including two visiting students from the University of Ottawa).

Their Destination: the Northwest Passage and Greenland travelling along the route that explorers fought so hard to find centuries ago.

Their ride: RCGS Resolute, our flagship vessel.

What They Will See and Experience: spectacular glaciers, polar oceans and dramatically eroded landscapes, areas of historical importance, Inuit and Greenlandic cultural interactions.

beechy island, ken burton
Beechy Island. Final resting place of some of Franklin’s men. Photo credit: Ken Burton

Their Goals:

1) to introduce the students to many aspects of physical and human geography such as glaciology, oceanography, sea ice dynamics, culture, economies, and geopolitics.

2) have students use a variety of data collection methods to explore the Arctic and show the links between the physical and the human environment.

learning onboard the ships
Studying charts while travelling through the Arctic. Image by Roger Pimenta

Above all, they are excited for their students to experience and learn about this unique part of the world. We look forward to facilitating their experience as we travel through presentations, experiences, and daily onboard assignments. They are hoping that it will be a positive, life-changing experience for them- and we are sure it will be!

Their adventure begins on Thursday, August 29th in Edmonton with one and a half days of introductory content. On Saturday, August 31st they will hop north on a charter flight through Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

The students will be blogging daily about their experiences in the Arctic so we will update this blog with their stories so that they can tell you all about the excitement and adventure. Watch this space for regular updates!


Excerpt from student writer Ash Mohanraj

Before officially heading out on our voyage tomorrow, we had a quick welcome meeting with our hosts, One Ocean Expeditions. Gathered with all the excited passengers we were greeted by members of the One Ocean crew as well as the onboard Photographer and Ornithologist. There were plenty of questions in the room, but to no surprise One Ocean staff had a carefully thought out answer to every query. They had meticulously planned every single detail of the embarkation process; from the breakfast bags at 4 in the morning, to the exact distance from the Cambridge Island community center to the zodiac docked beach (it was 300m in case you were wondering).

Aside from all the excitement of cruising the Arctic, there is one underlying issue that I want to address and further explore while on the ship. I recently came across an article that found that men are less likely to engage in environmentally cautious behavior because they don’t want to be perceived as feminine. Being the only male delegate from the university certainly reinforces that stereotype, but I want to use this as an opportunity to eliminate that stigma and change the narrative that environmentalism compromises one’s masculinity.

The calm before the storm is over. It’s time to strap on the rubber boots and prepare for what’s next.

Arctic Field School group from the University of Waterloo
Arctic Field School group from the University of Waterloo

Update: Day 1

Excerpt from student writer Laurence Dupaul

After the truck/van/car rides to Cambridge Bay, we went to the community center where we had the chance to taste a few traditional Inuit dishes, including Narwhal blubber, berries, Arctic char, and caribou!

We then walked to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) where we had a very interesting guided tour; learning about the construction, management, and involvement of Inuit in CHARS, saw beautiful Inuit art, and heard about the wide variety of research conducted there. CHARS is managed by Polar Knowledge Canada, a federal agency for the advancement of knowledge, science and technology in the Canadian Arctic.

After the guided tour we had our first zodiac experience to get to the RCGS Resolute, where we were warmly welcomed. Just before dinner, we were given safety instructions and had a lifeboat safety drill with the other passengers and the crew. We then had an informal meeting with all the crew members in one of the lounges, where they introduced themselves and told us about their expertise.  Finally, after a really long day, we had a delightful dinner on board, with all of the other passengers!

Inuit dishes served at the Community Centre in Cambridge Bay
Inuit dishes served at the Community Centre in Cambridge Bay

Update: Day 2

Excerpt from Dr. Natalie Carter

After having spent a few extra hours in bed, and with the help of medication, water, and crackers one-by-one members of our group appeared over the course of the morning; a few attended a presentation by the ship’s ornithologist learning about birds we are likely to see during our cruise but we missed the presentation about the lost Franklin expedition, which is being kindly being rescheduled for us. The planned excursion was cancelled since the waves and wind made it impossible to get near Victory Point or get out in zodiacs. So we continued sailing for the day toward Coningham Bay, spotting our first sea ice; one small growler to begin with and as the day progressed and we moved steadily north, past sheets of thin first year ice. With sea ice around we’re now keeping a watchful and hopeful eye out for polar bears on or near the ice.

Following a lecture about geomorphology, which some of the passengers also tuned into, the students used Google Earth to do some of their own mapping of past ice flow structures and looks at the elevation of topography near our sailing route.

As we travelled through increasingly thick sea ice, the first of the daily fireside chats was hosted by Alex, an Inuk woman from Pond Inlet, Nunavut. She introduced us to life in the Arctic and Inuit culture; her use of humour and jokes kept us laughing and hanging on her every word.

Alex Anaviapik womens day
Alex Anaviapik, OOE Inuit Guide

Update: Day 3

Excerpt from student writer Brittney Wong

We bundled up after breakfast and boarded our zodiac around 9:15am. We collected some data about water temperature and conductivity and took a sample of sea ice back to the ship to assess further. Using the HOBO app, it produced a graph showing us the temperature of the water at different depths as we released a fishing line with a sensor into the water. Due to the presence of polar bears in this specific area, we stayed on the zodiac and tried to spot them from the boat. Being out on the water for just over two hours, we got a chance to spot some beluga whales, and many whale skeletons and bones on land. Luckily, just before we sailed back to the ship we were able to spot one creamy, buttery coloured polar bear lying on the coast.

In the mid-afternoon, the ship entered Bellot Strait and we spent the afternoon watching the rock formations and land mass go by, as well as spotting wildlife such as birds, whales and polar bears. The captain made announcements throughout the afternoon whenever the staff noticed anything unique. As we sailed through Bellot Strait, we passed by Zenith Point which is the most northern point of continuous land mass in North America. From this point, the land connects all the way to Mexico. The day came to an end with a lecture on sea ice and completing the tasks assigned from during the trip. Looking forward to tomorrow’s adventures!

Passing by sea ice on a Zodiac excursion
Passing by sea ice on a Zodiac excursion

Update: Day 4

Excerpt from student writer Rachel Dennis

In only four days at sea, one of the major lessons we have learned in addition to curriculum, is that you are truly at the mercy of the elements in the Canadian Arctic. Today’s agenda to visit Fort Ross, one of the last Hudson’s Bay Company posts to be open in the Arctic, was thwarted by high winds and the too close presence of the King of the North; also known as Nanuk, Papa Bravo, or as you may call them, Polar Bear. Alas while we hoped to step foot on land for the first time in four days, the ship’s Bear Assessment Investigation Team (hilariously nicknamed BAIT for short), sighted three Polar bears patrolling our landing site at Fort Ross. Thankfully, the One Ocean staff made every attempt to accommodate our desire for history and adventure, as our onboard archaeologist (Chuck) and historian (Charlotte) offered a brief seminar on the origins of Fort Ross, and the rich history these sites still hold.

Around 1600h, passengers were invited on a surprise Zodiac expedition of Somerset Island! In the distance we were greeted by a herd of Muskox, decaying whale vertebrae, sea birds, and fascinating landscapes.

A herd of muskox in the distance
A herd of muskox in the distance

Excerpt from student writer Jessie Hooker

Update: Day 5

The crisp arctic wind made for a wavy Zodiac journey to the cliff face of the island, which rises nearly 300 metres tall and is an important nesting ground within the Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Every direction that we looked there were birds; they were perched on the cliffs, flying overhead and swooping into the water. Based on a presentation that the ornithologist on board gave earlier in the trip, we were able to identify Northern Fulmar, Black-Legged Kittiwakes and Thick-Billed Murres (to name a few). For those who are not avid birders, the wildlife we were able to see got more interesting when we heard radio chatter of a possible “Papa Bravo” sighting. Having learned that the One Ocean staff use the phonetic alphabet to identify animals, we turned our eyes to the shoreline ahead and soon spotted a polar bear. This was the best view that we have had so far of a bear; observing from a distance as it entered the water, swam along the shoreline, then pulled itself back onto a block of sea ice and shook out its fur.

a polar bear sighting
A polar bear sighting near Prince Leopold Island

Update: Day 6

Excerpt from student writer Jackie Wintermeyer

We began our busy day with a morning excursion to Dundas Harbour at Devon Island, where we got the chance to see ancient Thule sites (originating from 1200 A.D.) including several sod houses that families lived in during the winter as well as meat caches where food, especially whales, were stored until needed. The waters of Dundas Harbour were teeming with groups of seals, which were very curious about our zodiacs and one Bowhead whale made an appearance as well as red-throated loons and many other birds. With our equipment in hand we began taking various measurements in between site explanations from the tour guides. For example, this site was an excellent location to see the effects of thawing permafrost on the landscape. We managed to take a couple of soil moisture content, wind, and temperature measurements before the fog started to roll in and we had to end the hike early. The great thing about heading back to the ship early was that we managed to observe a sunbathing seal while riding in our zodiac boats back to the ship.

After lunch and a lecture on food security in preparation for our excursion and task in Pond Inlet tomorrow, we got back on the zodiac boats to visit West and East Cunningham glaciers. This excursion was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and our student group was given exclusive access to the beach. We hiked about a kilometer to a basal water outlet cave at the base of East Cunningham glacier, then headed back to the beach when we were notified that a polar bear was lurking in the area.

Feeling exhilarated by our unique experience, we embarked on our zodiac to see the face of the West Cunningham glacier. Weaving through the icebergs and smaller chunks of ice, we headed back to our ship. Holding a small piece of iceberg to our ears we could hear a popping sound –air trapped inside the ice being quickly released as it melted. Going ashore after spending so much time on land can be tricky, as you spend so much time adjusting to the gyroscopic movements on the sea that being on land could start that process all over. Luckily, we all had our sea-legs in tact when we headed to dinner. We ended our night  working on assignments, then lounging in the hot tub or pool, and wishing for another night of aurora borealis (northern lights), since we all missed them on the first night due to going directly to sleep.

Seal spotted lounging on a piece of sea ice in Dundas Harbour
Seal spotted lounging on a piece of sea ice in Dundas Harbour

Update: Day 7

Excerpt from student writer Maya Townend

Today we went to Pond Inlet, or in the local language of Inuktitut, Mittimatalik, which means “a good place to land”. We started up the hill and approached a woman making a pot of arctic heather tea over a stone fireplace, overlooking the ocean with the mountains in the distance. She explained her traditional clothing and boots and we got a chance to ask her some questions. She was wearing an amauti, which is a traditional women’s jacket made of caribou fur and sealskin, that has an enlarged hood to keep a child carried on her back sheltered and warm. Her boots were made of dried seal skin and fur, which are waterproof and insulated for weather conditions as cold as -50℃in the Canadian Arctic. As we continued into town, our lovely guide Steven showed us to the library and museum. On our way to the library, he pointed out some important buildings; this included the Catholic and Anglican churches, the elementary school, and the new clinic with around 8 doctors and nurses working there. One building that stood out was the Nunavut Arctic College, which Steven told me used to be a residential school.

After completing an assignment at the Co-op, we walked to the community center where we were treated to an amazing cultural performance. Locals of Pond Inlet performed traditional drum dancing, throat singing, traditional games like swing-the-caribou-vertebrate-on-the-stick, juggling rocks and friendly competitions. We were told about the dark reality of residential schools, the history of Nunavut, traditional ways of hunting, trapping, making clothes, doing chores and much more.

In the evening, we were on “glacier patrol”; for six hours, small groups of us (one hour per group) took turns taking pictures of every glacier we sailed past, as well as GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude) in preparation for today’s physical geography task.

An exhibit at the Pond Inlet museum showing traditional modern hunting and cooking
An exhibit at the Pond Inlet museum showing traditional modern hunting and cooking

Update: Day 8

Excerpt from student writer Simran Hundal

Today we sailed down the east coast of Baffin Island, until we reached Refuge Harbor in Gibbs Fjord. We woke up to a beautiful sight, with mountains on both sides of the ship, and glaciers scattered across them. To give background for those who may not know, a fjord is a geological landform that is created by glaciers. When a glacier travels through an area, it erodes and pushes the softer material out of the way while the harder materials remain on the sides, forming a u-shaped valley. A fjord occurs when these same valleys are at or below sea level, so that they get filled by water. They’re actually probably my favourite thing that can happen because of glaciers, so I’m really glad that it was my turn to write the blog post today!

Even with the sights, we still did our science! We took a temperature reading of the water soon after we boarded the boat, giving us a temperature profile of the sea with depth. We took air temperature readings as well. We even got to watch Christine being filmed for a short video for Environmental Defence; an environmental non-profit organizationthat challenges and inspires change in government, business and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all. In the video, she encouraged Canadians to think about climate change when choosing who to vote for in the next election, so keep an eye out for that!

A large iceberg spotted in Gibbs Fjord

Update: Day 9

Excerpt from student writer Cassandra Zatka

After another great breakfast aboard the ship, we headed out for a Zodiac ride through the bay to see if we could catch a glimpse of Bowhead whales—which we did! Bowhead whales have a unique blowhole that creates a heart-shaped blow when they surface. We learned about the history of whaling and the vast number and types of whales that have been hunted commercially for centuries, and continue to be hunted in some parts of the world. As we were heading back to the ship we were surprisingly intercepted by “Team Chocolate”. Our ship’s very own Captain Hans brought delicious hot chocolate directly to our Zodiac! Once we were back on board the RCGS Resolute we headed off to sea again where we were surrounded by icebergs big and small as we sailed through Baffin Bay.

We’ve spent the last few days in some amazing places here in the Arctic and collected valuable data for our projects along the way for example interviewing passengers, talking to resource people, measuring ocean temperature and changes to the land caused by permafrost. Today many of us took the rather calm day to catch up on our research projects, attend on-board lectures by the One Ocean team about Greenland’s glaciers, and have our questions about Inuit communities answered by Pond Inlet’s very own Alex Anaviapik! She even invited us to her traditional Inuit sewing class tomorrow morning and I can’t wait to make myself a new pair of mittens for Waterloo’s upcoming cold winter.

Captain Hans bringing a tasty beverage right to our boat
Captain Hans bringing a tasty beverage right to our boat

Update: Day 10

Excerpt from student writer Nazifa Uddin

We discussed interpretation of historic whaling logs from voyages in the 1800s, allowing us to understand how whalers navigated throughout their time. It became more and more interactive out in the ship when we then attended a mini-skipper’s talk on the ship’s bridge. The Captain of the ship held this session, along with his First Officer. They described their operations and methodology that revolved around navigation. It was very insightful as it allowed us to make comparisons between historical and modern navigation techniques and how much everything has advanced. Being able to see how these procedures have evolved into modern maritime logs is indicative of marine technological advancements over the past 150 years.

Page from 1890 logbook from a whaling ship
Page from 1890 logbook from a whaling ship

After our session, a few hours later we all went on another excursion to explore the Qeqertarsuak Cliffs within the area. These cliffs are an incredible example of basaltic columns formed by fast cooling lava. The rocks looked like stairs and pipe organs, and there were even caves and tunnels, as well as many waterfalls. This excursion was the gateway to probably one of the most enticing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for anyone to do ever: the iconic POLAR PLUNGE.

Excerpt from student writer Megan Morash

We set foot for the first time in Ilulissat, a community of 4,905 off the southwest coast of Greenland. We then strolled through town passing by colourful houses, smiling faces and dozens of Kalaallit Qimmiat (which are the largest breed of husky dogs that the locals keep as sled dogs). We hiked several kilometres through the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kangia Ice fjord which is home to thousands of icebergs from the Jakobshavn glacier. Jakobshaven is the fastest flowing glacier in the world, moving at rates of up to 1m per hour! The face of this glacier is approximately 10km wide and on average 80-100 meters above sea level and up to 1000 meters below sea level! While walking the boardwalk through the fjord we were able to take height measurements of icebergs that were visible above water. With that information, we were then able to calculate the total thickness of the iceberg from top to bottom.

A young Kalaallit Qimmiat (Husky) laying on the side of the road in Ilulissat, Greenland
A young Kalaallit Qimmiat (Husky) laying on the side of the road in Ilulissat, Greenland

At 6pm we returned to the ship and started sailing to our next and final destination of the day. Due to a special request from several passengers, the students were asked to speak about our time on the ship, field work and assignments. It was very empowering for the students to have so many people interested and supportive of our researching. The rest of the evening was spent sharing photos, playing board games, and anticipating enjoying our last few days onboard RCGS Resolute.

Update: Day 11

Excerpt from student writer Simone Mantel

This morning we arrived in Sisimiut after travelling south down the west coast of Greenland. Sisimiut is the second largest town in Greenland with a population of 5,500 people and growing. The town consists of many bright-colored buildings and a harbor full of fishing boats nestled amongst some spectacular mountains, which are now showing their fall colors.

We visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site Called the Aasivissuit – Nipisat: Inuit Hunting Ground Between Land and Sea. The full site stretches from the archipelago near Sisimiut in the west to the ice cap further east. We only visited a small area of the site, where the Sisimiut museum was located. We saw items from 10 years of archaeological excavations at sites in and around Sisimiut; the excavations revealed that the first Saqqaq-culture settlements in the municipality are 4,000 years old. Among the items included evidence that dogs have been important for Greenlandic culture for that entire time period (cool!).

Upon re-embarkation of the ship, we had the opportunity to watch a Greenlandic kayak demonstration from the deck, where a Sisimiut community member carried out many kayak rolls in various forms and styles. It was very impressive!

Greenlandic Kayaking Demonstration.
Greenlandic Kayaking Demonstration

Update: Day 12

Excerpt from student writer Adrienne Huston

 Today is the last day of our Arctic expedition. Can you believe it went by so quickly? Starting our day off bright (sort-of) and early at 5:30 am West Greenland Summer Time, we rolled out of our beds and prepared to head home. With sleepy eyes we grabbed our things, tagged our luggage, and said our goodbyes to the new friends we made on our journey. Even brief encounters with other passengers and staff enriched our experience and we could not have asked for better company. We headed out on our last Zodiac ride to shore, parting ways from the RCGS Resolute; which has been our temporary home for the past 10 days.

While we waited for our flight home, we were able to squeeze in one more excursion. I was grateful that we got to see a little extra of Greenland today before leaving. Upon arriving in Kangerlussuaq we quickly realized that the area was rich in history. The airport was originally owned by the United States Army and was sold back to Greenland for only $1 in 1992. Now, a variety of people are able to use the airport, for example tourists like ourselves just traveling through, as well as Danish Military groups mainly using it for search and rescue missions. The area is also a popular hunting spot, as it has an abundance of muskox and reindeer – although we only saw Arctic hares. Like in other communities we have visited throughout the Arctic, country foods are a crucial part of the diet in Greenland playing an important role in their culture as well as people’s physical and mental health. Our tour guide for the day was full of great information about the region, including how they have the most northern golf course with 18 holes (a personal favourite fun fact I learned).

RCGS Resolute, home for the last 12 days
RCGS Resolute, home for the last 12 days