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Arctic expedition a learning experience

Peter Gorrie
Special to Northern News Services
Published Monday, October 17, 2011

Three Northern students didn't have to travel far to join with six others from across Canada on an Arctic Ocean expedition.

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From left to right, on board the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen, Davis Neyando and Allison Baetz,both from Inuvik, and Kendra Bolt of Kugluktuk. - Ariel Estulin photo

Still, the experience of spending two weeks on the Beaufort Sea on the Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, took them a long way from anything they've known.

"I've been in small boats no more than 15 miles from home," said one of the three, Kendra Bolt, who lives in the embarkation point, Kugluktuk. "It was very new, even though I live here."

Bolt and the others - Davis Neyando and Allison Baetz, both in Grade 12 at Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik - have been participating in Schools on Board, a Winnipeg-based program that every year offers students a chance to watch and work with scientists studying the Arctic's marine environment.

The program is affiliated with Quebec-based ArcticNet, a consortium of 26 universities that focuses on potential impacts of climate change on the North's environment and people. This year, schools across Canada applied for one of nine places and those selected each selected a student with a strong interest in science and a high level of participation in other activities.

The Amundsen stops at prescribed spots along its meandering route to deploy a variety of nets, canisters and other devices that collect samples of the seawater and bottom sediments. The aim is to determine what plants, fish and animals live in the ocean, and how many.

That information is integrated with data on water temperatures, salinity, currents and contamination to paint a coherent picture of the marine environment.

The research is still at an early stage; the scientists are simply trying to understand the area so, eventually, it will be possible to see if changes are happening because of global warming or economic development projects.

"We're still working on the story and how it all fits together," said chief scientist Steve Blasco.

Some of the research is sponsored and used by oil companies to help them to prepare environmental assessments for Northern projects. Ottawa provides about 20 per cent of the funding, and the rest comes from Canadian and international research institutions.

Schools on Board participates in one leg every year. The students, part of a group of nine, were partially funded by ArcticNet but must raise money for the registration fee, which varies annually but is kept around $3,000.

The students were to board the Amundsen on Sept. 22, but fog kept them from landing at Kugluktuk for two days. For the southerners it was a good lesson in typical Northern travel, says Jennith Peart from Baker Lake, one

of the supervising teachers.

Finally, they were able to land and, after a quick helicopter ride to the ship, started their busy schedule. They donned floater suits, steel-toed boots and hard hats - sometimes in the small hours of the morning - to watch sampling gear being raised and lowered from the bow, and perform the often-messy unloading of their catches. Or they worked in labs on tasks such as picking specimens from muddy sediments, testing seawater for mercury contamination, and measuring and photographing tiny Arctic cod. Some, including Bolt and Baetz, bounced over the Beaufort in a Zodiac, helping researchers collect mercury test samples, so sensitive the water must be taken a considerable distance from the Amundsen to avoid contamination from the ship.

The program also included presentations from scientists about their work and ship's crew about Arctic history and the workings of the Amundsen.

Bolt, 16 and in Grade 11 at Kugluktuk High School, called the trip a tremendous experience. "I'm the only one in the class that likes science a lot," she said. "I really love it. Science and physics is my everything."

Her favourite part was watching deployment of the Agassiz trawl, a tubular net suspended from a square frame. It is dragged across the sea bottom for three minutes, picking up any creatures in its path.

Back on the ship, the bottom of the net is opened, the muddy contents spill into boxes, then, are put on to screens where they're washed clean and separated for counting.

"I liked sorting through the little creatures," Bolt said. "I saw a lot of things I hadn't seen before."

Even though she lives in Kugluktuk, the sight of ice out in the open sea was another novelty.

Baetz says her interest in science was sparked by class trips to Ivvavik National Park in the Yukon.

Her favourite part of the trip, too, was watching the Agassiz trawl and sorting its contents. The catch varied at each of the several stops and varying ocean depths. "You got to see what the sea floor is like in many places," she said. "There are big differences depending on the depth and whether the bottom is rocky or muddy.

"I didn't expect how many different parts of science there are board, and people working on different parts of the ocean."

The voyage has broadened her view of science, she says. "I was thinking about becoming a biologist, but when I saw all the sciences ... it opened up alternatives.

"I had a really amazing time."

Neyando, originally from Tsiigehtchic, hadn't seen the Arctic Ocean or been in a large boat before the Schools on Board trip. "People think Inuvik is hard-core North," he says. "Only this opportunity gave me the chance to experience the real North.

"They expect us to have this as our daily lives, but we don't."

Neyando got especially interested in studying contaminants in the sea. He went sampling with scientists, then, helped them conduct tests. "I really liked doing it ... the whole process of it and the build up to the results."

He says the trip "opened my eyes to science and to see it isn't just experiments and theories. Now I know that for science to work, you need all types."

It also transformed his view of the Arctic Ocean. "I liked looking at everything that came up from the sea. I thought there was nothing up here. Now I've seen it with my own eyes."

And it has changed his plans. "I wasn't thinking about going into science. Now, I'm considering going into marine biology."

Part of his motivation is to protect the fragile Arctic environment. He has already spoken against offshore drilling at a National Energy Board hearing. "Everything is beautiful and unique," he said. "I don't think we should risk affecting the Arctic."

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