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2013 Fall Arctic Trip

October 27 & 28 - Written by Cory Silver '16 (Park School)

The sporadic rocking of our train, coupled with the beams of sunlight streaming in through the enormous window beside my seat, roused me from my deep sleep. The Arctic Tundra I had grown accustomed to now receded to Boreal Forest. We were only a few hours out of Thompson, our destination. The moment the train came to a stop, I realized that this would probably be our group's final moment as a whole-we would split up into vans for the 9 hour drive back to Winnipeg. However, I was wrong. We had one final bonding experience-working as a group to try and push one of the vans out of a ditch where it got stuck. Even though we inevitably had to call someone else to pull us out with their truck, the laughs and memories we made sliding around on the ice attempting to move the van made our efforts worth it. We finally made it onto the road. The trip, filled with reminiscing, laughs, catching up on school work, and even a surprise stop for sushi at the Grand Rapids Esso, made a memorable trip back to Winnipeg. After many goodbyes from our newly found friends from Kelvin, we retired to Donna's house for some delicious midnight soup and sleep

The alarm on my phone began its shrill beeping at about 3:20 in the morning, warning me I had about 10 minutes until it was time to leave for the airport. The final leg of our adventure back home was about to be completed. The chaos of getting ready to leave in the wee hours of the morning made the idea of this incredible experience finally coming to a close seem very distant. However, as we shared many hugs and goodbyes at the airport, it finally set in. 

We boarded our flight to Chicago around 5:30, but of course not before getting our coffee and pastry fix from the airport's Tim Horton’s. Throughout our flights, one from Winnipeg to Chicago, and the other from Chicago to Baltimore, I finally had time to reflect on the past week. I was, and am incredibly grateful to have the good fortune to see such a unique area of the world that few people get to see. The ability not only to visit the Arctic, but to do meaningful research as well was an unbelievable opportunity. While I am very grateful for this experience, I am also incredibly thankful for the kind people and friends I met on this amazing journey. Our very first October Arctic expedition has finally come to a close, although the memories of the experience we had will certainly continue to live on. 


Our journey home


October 25 - Written by Cory Silver '16 (Park School)

 When I woke up this morning and looked out at the miles and miles of tundra, it felt like a dream. It's still hard to believe that we're actually in the Arctic. After a delicious breakfast provided by the CNSC, we headed out armed with cameras in search of polar bears in Tundra Buggies, bus-like vehicles modified to drive on the Arctic terrain. We worked under the guidance of Dr. Jane Waterman, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Manitoba. Photographing the bears was essential; one of the main uses of these photos was adding to a growing database of bears in the Churchill area. Bears are identified by importing profile pictures into a computer program, which then pulls "whisker spot" patterns (see picture), and compares to each bear already in the database. Finally, it returns a score for each pair. A lower score signifies a greater similarity in whisker spot patterns, and thus, a greater chance of the two bears being the same. This ID system's goal is to create a non-invasive way of providing statistics on bears; in the past bears have been darted and then examined. The moment we saw our first bear, everyone rushed to the windows to get a glimpse, and certainly photos. The springy floor of the buggy groaned and shifted at our excited footsteps. Seeing a polar bear for the first time was truly a magical experience for me. Witnessing such a magnificent and unique creature stroll by only a few meters away was breathtaking. I can unwaveringly say that I don't think that overwhelming feeling of seeing a polar bear for the first time went away for any of us as we continued our work throughout the day. Later that evening, we were fortunate enough to talk with Caroline, a member of the Sayisi Dene. Her discussion about Dene culture, and the injustices they suffered in Churchill really was an eye opener for us. Her positive attitude despite all of the hardships she went through was truly inspirational. When discussing what we learned afterwards, many people shared deeply personal experiences and talked about their own identity. People I had only met a few days ago felt like life-long friends. Overall, this first day in Churchill not only brought the experience of doing awe-inspiring scientific work in the field, it also brought meaningful reflection and bonds.



Screenshot of Whisker Print Software                                            Picture taken from Tundra Buggy today



October 24 - Written by Sabina Diaz-Rimal '15 (Park School)

I woke up this morning and my sleeping bag was sliding off my chair, covering the floor of the train’s aisle.  Across from me was Natalie and right next to me was Anna Kroeker, both still sound asleep and warm underneath Natalie’s open sleeping bag. Chris was nowhere to be seen; he was apparently fast asleep in a gap between two rows of seats.  Cory, who was surprised with unexpected space in the middle of the night, was comfortably settled in the seats across the aisle from us.

We had finally pulled out of the station at 3:20 in the morning when all of us were sound asleep.  Our expected arrival time was around five or six in the afternoon. We had known from the night before that our first day in Churchill was going to be cut short, so we settled in for a ride of sleep, some preparation for our anticipated journey, and attempts at catching up on our missed school work.

When I had woken up our car was still silent and filled with bodies comfortable in their restful slumber. I lay there for a few moments, soaking in the view of the morning sun stretched over a landscape of small trees and shrubbery.  We were in Canada. Every second of travel on the train led me to the furthest point north that I’d ever been from home – every second the train crawled a few more meters ahead, I was moving that much closer to the Arctic circle. When breakfast was announced, the train began to fill with the noises of waking souls, realizing that, yes, in fact we were not in our beds back home in Winnipeg or in Baltimore, that we were in fact on a moving train northward to our destination.

Soon after, most of the car was awake. We stayed in our seats, energized by the wonderful meal of yogurt, boiled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, cereal, and baked goods. Our intentions of catching up and getting ahead of our missed work were somewhat forgotten as we connected with old friends, new friends, and the teachers and parents on the trip. We filled the rest of the nine hours on the train with wonderful laughter as we shared and connected through stories of our lives back home, the memories of previous Arctic trips, and odd conversations about crazy adventures we’ve had in our recent pasts. We bonded, tried connecting with the Kelvin kids through the frenzy of this surreal experience, and peaked nervously over at Dorothy, Anand and Webs as they flipped through our Arctic essays for the upcoming summer trip.

We spent our time in two rows of two chairs facing each other with foot rests folded out and extended to form a somewhat cushiony and flat bed, if you placed our parkas and open sleeping bags and pillows in the right places. Our feet were facing inwards, upper bodies in our respective seats. We at our meals in this ‘bed’, and we realized soon enough that we were almost like the four grandparents in the older version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, somewhat lethargic yet deceptively energetic and expressive. Some of us ended up doing homework in the dinning car, others took a quick nap for part of our time on the frequently stopping train.

During the final couple of hours on the train ride, we assembled for a bonding activity with the other students. We split into groups of four and went around, speed dating style, answering questions from the faculty that were somewhat personal yet thought provoking. We learned a few more names, as well as their different lives in Winnipeg, now hours behind us.

The conductor announced over the intercom our arrival in roughly twenty minutes. We bustled about, finding our warm clothes and packing up all the nonessentials for venturing out into the below freezing temperature of Churchill. We were antsy, and yet we realized part of our rip was already over, spent in a comfortable train car with twenty new faces.

The train finally groaned to a stop. Outside, it was flurrying, speckles of white complimenting the darkness of the landscape around us. The thirty minute ride to the CNSC was filled with the black cover of the sky, but we managed to spot some of the abandoned buildings, remnants, as I later heard, of the Cold War. We could hardly see anything in front of us – but then, in the distance, we saw the determined glow of lights of the CNSC. We got increasingly closer as those of us awake on the bus began cheering and growing more excited and more aware of our surrounding. So enthralled were we with our destination that we hardly registered the cold weather as it nipped at our extremities.

Though our day had been cut short we still managed to accomplish a number of things. Dr. Waterman, the Behavioral Ecologist we were working with, gave a truncated talk about her research methods and some of our intended goals for our two days up north. After playing with the rangefinders, her student’s whisker-plotting computer program, our need to understand everything for the early and long day tomorrow was soon satisfied. We were excited – enraptured perhaps by the realness of it all.

 Slowly the classroom was emptied by exhaustion and the desire to get some sleep. The Baltimoreans stayed up for a little while longer, making sure we were set for the next day and the prospect of some polar bears. After a couple of yawns, quick trips to the bathrooms, and some shifting to get comfortable in our beds, we were ready. 




October 23 - Written by Christopher Mergen '14 (Park School)

There is a point in the early hours of the morning, somewhere between sleeping and waking, where the world seems to be comprised of a topology of gradients, where shadows collide with other shadows and light seems as if it is being refracted through murky water.  In this state, both everything and nothing at once feel familiar, and experiences are heightened and distorted, with sounds and colors becoming much more.  When I sat up in bed this morning at 4:30am, I felt akin to a monarch butterfly emerging from a cocoon: my legs didn't seem to work properly, my eyes wouldn't focus, and even though the room was silent, my ears rang.  I stumbled into the bathroom, turned on the water and let it run over my head for a moment, blinking as the edge of the door slowly came into focus.  I felt something, which might have been excitement, but I had little time to wonder about it before the timer I had set on my phone reminded me that I should have been out of the shower five minutes ago.  I dressed quickly, and hurried upstairs to join the rest of the group.  We rubbed our eyes as we piled into the old University of Manitoba van, disoriented by the cold, dark Winnipeg morning.  We drove four blocks to Kelvin High School, where we had our first chance to meet the other twenty students, parents and chaperones with which we would be sharing the next week.  All of us stood in a circle and introduced ourselves, but in the dark, it didn't do much good, leaving me to imagine faces for the voices calling out in the darkness around me.  Again, I thought I was feeling something like excitement, but we were herded into several before any feeling could congeal.  We drove off into the darkness, passing through the sleeping streets of Winnipeg, eventually merging onto the Perimeter Highway, and finally turning onto Route 6, which we would remain on for the next eight hours.  As we bounced along in the rickety old van, we drifted in and out of sleep.  I stared out the window, but the first few rays of sunlight hadn’t even begun to peek over the horizon.  It seemed as if we were driving into a void, a vast, uncharted territory that we couldn’t quite see yet.

I had been to the Arctic twice before, but each of those times were during the summer, when the sun rose early in the morning and lingered late into the day.  I always had a general framework of what to expect from those trips: I understood our research, had seen pictures of the tundra mottled with lichen, and had a general idea of how we would spend our time.  Before my second year, I even wondered whether or not I would still be amazed when I looked out at the landscape.  I had grown accustomed to the Arctic of late July and early August, sometimes falling into the trap of knowing what to expect.  Now, though, as I looked out the window into the night around us, I felt as if I knew nothing, as if the thing we were barreling along towards was also shrouded in darkness, describable only in the vocabulary of the early morning in-between state.

The sun rose several hours later, but the sky was blanketed by clouds, making the trees outside our windows turn lighter and lighter shades of gray. We passed around homemade baked goods from one of the Winnipegger’s mothers, and mumbled things to each other.  At each gas station, we filled our cars with gas, and ran in circles around them, dragging our feet across the snow. By lunchtime, our legs had become thoroughly cramped, and as we stood in a circle and reintroduced ourselves, it felt like we were finally waking up, and that things were finally coming into focus.  I began matching names with faces, and finally began to see the world that we were travelling through. After a lovely meal provided by Donna (and a snack of Northern Manitoban sushi), we made our only turn in the eight-hour drive, stopping again when we reached Pisew Falls.  The Falls was another reminder that things would be different: although it was relatively large when I had seen it in the summer, now, it was a veritable torrent, with the mist coming off the falls forming icicles on the rocks surrounding it.  Before I had a chance to think much about this change, however, we were on our way again.

In Thompson, we discovered that our train, which originally had been scheduled to leave at 7pm, would now be leaving at 2:30am because of delays along the upper part of the track.  This would shift our arrival to Churchill from 9am the next day to 6pm, throwing our original plans into disarray.  Here, again, was the unexpected, and here, again, there wasn’t much opportunity to worry.  We tried to use our newfound time as best as possible, taking walks along the Millennium Trail and having a picnic dinner on the train.  After dinner, some people went to see the only movie playing in town, and others stayed on the train and talked with the friendly VIA Rail staff and with each other.  Later, we climbed into our seats and folded them down into beds, finally drifting off into fitful sleep around midnight.  I stayed awake longer, somewhere between sleep and waking, still unsure of what lay in front of me, but finally able to feel the excitement that had been standing on the perimeter of my consciousness throughout the day. 




October 22 - Written by Natalie Rudin '15 (Park School)

Sitting through a day of school knowing that as soon as it was over I would begin the long journey Churchill was near impossible. Squeals, hugs, and little dances were frequent whenever members of our six person team passed in the halls. I struggled to not bring up the arctic in every interaction that I had. The excitement and anticipation building about the upcoming trip was all I could think about.

I had the privilege to visit Churchill this summer. The unmatched beauty of the north, along with the wonderful people I met, made Churchill a place that I quickly fell in love with. When I left this summer I had to accept the possibility that this was a place I would never have the opportunity to experience again. The fact that in two days I will get to experience it again, and in a whole new way, is incredible. I am so excited to see Churchill when it is covered in snow. I can’t wait to see how the change of seasons changes the town and the land. I can’t wait to see the friends I made this summer, and meet the new group Winnipeg students that I will share this adventure with.


At 3:15 we left from park and drove to the airport, the first leg of our five part journey. All went smoothly and we made it to O’Hare. Our time at O’Hare was the most noteworthy part of the day. Not only was October 22nd the day we left for the Arctic, but it was also the birthday of our very own Christopher Mergen! When we got to our gate Anand and Cory were given the important task of distracting Chris, while Webs, Sabina, and I set off to find something to make number 18 extra special. At Chili’s TOO go, we found what we were looking for. We got two cakes in boxes to go, and with the help of Hudson news managed to write “Happy Birthday Chris” in candy on top of the boxes. Best of all, we seriously embarrassed him when we sang to him in the middle of a crowded terminal. It was a birthday celebration to remember.

The flight from O’Hare to Winnipeg was one of the more entertaining flights I have been on. Our flight attendant danced up and down the isles as she gave the safety briefing. It was the first flight I had ever been on where everybody on the plane stopped what they had been doing paid full attention to the workings of a boing 757. She told us about her pet alligator named Charles, and talked a lot about the “Barbie and Ken” couple who were getting “cushy” in their seats. Finally we landed in “Manitoba, Winnipeg”.

The time between leaving the airport and getting into bed passed in a haze of excitement and fatigue. Dorothy and Jim Roth, the most enthusiastic greeting crew, met us at the airport and took us back to Jims house where we were spending the night. At the Roth’s we were given hugely thick parkas and snow pants and then quickly rushed to bed. In 5 hours we would be up again, meeting 15 new students, and getting ready for a 10 hour drive north. 



October 21 - Written by Julie Rogers - Biology Teacher at Park

Honestly, I keep pinching myself to make sure it's real we'll be joining our partners, and friends, at Kelvin High in less than 24 hours on yet another, fantastic adventure to Churchill.  Churchill, in many ways, is not like home.  It's not easy to get to, it's not warm and snuggly, and it doesn't smell like the family cat or dad's fresh bread.  But, in other ways, standing on Churchillian soil is like being on the field at the World Cup - it's exciting, exhilarating even, the game is on and you're a key player, it's hard to tell who will win in the end, but you know the act of showing up to play is half the battle, and that you're a part of an amazing team so, of course, the sky is the limit - dream big.  In fact, the sky seems limitless in Churchill.  In August, when we usually go up North, I've talked with the locals who laugh at how we wake up at 3:00am to see the Northern Lights.  So I once asked a local friend, when do you like best to see the Northern Lights and she responded in monotone, as if she's answered this question a million times, "I wait until winter when I can see them in the morning on my drive in to work".  That response left me speechless for quite some time.  Then I thought, if I saw the Northern Lights on my way into school, I might not make it first period!  Anyhow, here we are again, waiting (most of us not so patiently) and wondering the night before what is sure to be in incredible journey.  Who knows what this particular adventure will bring?  Not me. But I know it'll be hard to put into words, when I return, how reenergized, refreshed, and simply awed I am by the wonders of the North.  I can't wait to see the tundra in a season other than summer. I'm told October in Churchill is like the Gong Show - ecotourism is rampant and the locals are overworked and overpaid (for a change).  I wonder how does 10,000-20,000 people fit in a town of just over 200?  We'll report back.  Wish us luck...we'll need as much luck as parkas on this adventure (which thankfully, our Canadian friends are lending us).