• The 2012 Students on Ice Arctic expedition sails into Coronation Fiord, near Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. (Photo: Samia Madwar)

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The 75 teenagers travelled from Iqaluit, Nunavut to Greenland and back during the two-week journey. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

On an early August afternoon, somewhere between Baffin Island and Greenland, a group of teenaged students are gathered in the reception area of the Akademik Ioffe — a Russian former-research-vessel-turned-cruise-ship that’s been their home for the past week — to take part in an ancient custom. As the ship rises and falls and Inuktitut rock blasts from the boom box in the corner, the students smear their faces with dabs of red, black and white greasepaint, tracing patterns on their foreheads, cheeks and chins, creating looks that are comical, threatening, even sensual.

“See how your eyes become more prominent when you put on the makeup?” says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, the Iqaluit-based performer who’s leading the students through this workshop on Uaajeerneq, a traditional Greenlandic mask dance. “Widen them. Roll them around. Catch somebody’s gaze, and see how long you can hold it.”

They contort their faces, experimenting with their new masks. “You look great,” says 17-year-old Alexia Fabiani, grinning at Harmony Jordan, 17, who smiles back, delighted with a makeup job that’s made her look like a jester. The students swing their arms to loosen their muscles, getting ready for the dance. They form a line and strike a pose, squeezing together before breaking apart and moving around, adopting a gait that matches the personality each has assumed. Together, they practise vocalizing a bestial growl before dancing out into the adjacent dining room, where a glaciology workshop is taking place. They stare down at their bashful, unmasked peers, inviting them to join the dance before moving on. Emboldened, they prowl through the ship’s hallways, sticking out their tongues at passersby, snarling, giggling, snorting, shaking their hips and swinging their arms. Before long, the dancers are out on the open deck and climbing up to the bridge, shocking its occupants into a hearty round of laughter.

The impromptu ship-wide dance is a breakthrough moment for the students, many of whom could barely introduce themselves to one another a week ago without blushing furiously. Uaajeerneq has changed that. The dance is meant to instill a healthy fear in Inuit children, the kind of fear that teaches them to respect the dangers of the Arctic. But it’s also meant to teach them to embrace the unknown within themselves and their environment. That’s one of the most important and difficult lessons any young person could learn and one that ordinary textbooks and classrooms can rarely impart. But, then, Students on Ice is no ordinary education program.

Students on Ice is the brainchild of Geoff Green, a former elementary school teacher from southern Ontario, who founded the organization in 2000. His goal was to teach teenagers how fascinating, unpredictable and impressive the natural world can be — and how important it is to protect it — by taking them on the ultimate field trip: a two-week sea voyage in either the Arctic or Antarctic Ocean. “I saw the polar regions as the world’s greatest classrooms without walls,” he says. “We just needed to get the students there.”

Since then, 2,235 students and staff between the ages of 13 and 87 from around the world have participated in the yearly voyages. Although some pay their way with their own fundraisers, many are supported by a range of not-for-profit organizations, such as the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Makivik Corporation, which represents Inuit land claims in northern Quebec, and provincial governments. The Students on Ice educators are all volunteers and offer a range of diverse experiences and knowledge that would be rare to find together in any one setting, especially one as confined as a ship. This particular expedition, which stretches from late July to mid-August 2012, includes a sculptor, a glaciologist, wildlife biologists, a botanist, a paleobiologist, a geologist, broadcast journalists and politicians. The classroom setting is, for the most part, the ship itself, albeit with far fewer blackboards and projectors and nary a multiple-choice test in sight. Personal computers, cellphones and MP3 players are not allowed, meaning students have no choice but to be fully immersed in the expedition rather than Facebook.

While many workshops are planned ahead of time, some lessons unfold more, well, naturally. After the students land in Iqaluit, the expedition’s starting point, for example, they learn that Frobisher Bay is packed with ice, preventing the Akademik Ioffe and several other vessels from pulling in to the harbour. Their planned route is to sail up the coast of Baffin Island and then across Davis Strait to Greenland; where they stop along the way will be dictated by the weather and ice conditions. Although there are backup plans for the various stops, none will work if the group can’t leave Iqaluit. It’ll take a strong current, Green tells the students during one of their first assemblies, to clear a path to their ship.

It will seemingly take a miracle, on the other hand, to break the ice among the students. “I don’t want to mingle,” says Michael Milton, 15, burying his face in his hands. He sticks close to his friends Tyson Angnetsiak and Emanuel Maktar, both from his hometown of Pond Inlet, Nunavut. The prospect of spending the next two weeks with 75 students from places as diverse as Grise Fiord, Nunavut, and Goa, India, is daunting. Milton’s cheeks turn bright pink when it’s his turn to introduce himself to the group on their first day at Nunavut Arctic College, their temporary home in Iqaluit while they wait for the ice to clear. Like many of the other students, he keeps his eyes on the floor and mumbles his name quickly. For some, making new friends is as simple as playing a card game together. For others, like Milton, coming out of their shells will take a little bit longer.

On their second day in Iqaluit, some of the staff take the students on a hike along a trail connecting downtown Iqaluit with Apex, a community a few kilometres to the southeast. The goal is more than just exercise; their destination is the beach, where they’ll examine the ice chunks — the same ones standing between them and their ship — at low tide. Together, they explore the ice, touching it, climbing on it, listening to the snap, crackle and pop of what Eric Mattson, a glaciologist at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., later explains are air bubbles bursting within these mini icebergs, known as bergy bits. Arctic ice, they learn, is far more complicated than the cubes that come out of their freezers back home. Older sea ice is thick, its layers representing the cycles of freezing and melting over the seasons. Younger sea ice is more fragile, but when it breaks up, the smaller shards can be dangerous for passing vessels not rated as ice class. Summer ice cover may have reached a record low in 2012, but less ice doesn’t mean open seas and smooth sailing. It just means the already unpredictable environment of the Arctic has become even more so.

Over the next five days, as Students on Ice staff try to figure out how to reach the ship, the students begin to bond. Much like the formation of Arctic ice, it’s a gradual process. Cliques form, then melt away, then form again. But as each day passes, friendships grow, whether via an impromptu soccer match in the college’s gym or through riding the waves of mutual disappointment when the northerly wind and currents fail to clear the ice. By Friday, they’ve planned a flash mob to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” which they perform in downtown Iqaluit during afternoon rush hour, much to the amusement of the locals.

That same evening, in what is now fondly referred to as the Great Students on Ice Rescue of 2012, they finally make it onto their ship. The operation involves pulling on fullbody flotation suits, hopping into small boats that weave through the ice, clambering aboard a waiting Coast Guard icebreaker and then transferring to Zodiacs for another buzz across the water to reach the Akademik Ioffe.

It’s past midnight by the time they all gather to snack on smoked salmon and pastries in the ship’s dining hall, where, thanks to a sense of shared adventure, even the quietest students are beginning to open up. But despite the excitement, everyone is exhausted, and most are sound asleep in their cabins by 2 a.m., even though they know their adventure at sea is about to begin.

Yolo. Short for “you only live once,” the word punctuates every new experience the students have, becoming a sort of mantra. Watching three polar bears swim to an ice floe and roll around playfully? Yolo. Splashing one another before diving into the waters of a frigid Arctic lake? Yolo. Admiring a triple-spired iceberg that appears at sunset one evening? Most definitely yolo. With every one of these moments, the students grow closer together. “The ship’s community has become like the tight-knit, small-town high school community I’m accustomed to,” writes Andrew Miner of Rhode Island, editor of IceCap, the expedition’s daily newsletter, in one of his entries in the Students on Ice blog. “You would think we all grew up together.”

On board, the students take workshops on everything from polar history and climate science to storytelling and Arctic politics. But they also find their own ways to learn. During a break, a group of girls from Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay teach their new friends traditional Inuit throat-singing while other students fill their notebooks with words and phrases in Russian, German, Hindi and Inuktitut. There’s time for more leisurely pursuits too. Some spend hours outside on deck painting Arctic landscapes. In the early mornings and late afternoons, a few gather on deck for yoga sessions. Come the evening, during recap sessions, they share the day’s highlights, watch staff and student performances and listen eagerly as Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, the volunteer who led students in the Uaajeerneq mask dance, shares a local legend to give the students a sense of place and an understanding of Inuit culture. Each story begins with “ilaanigooq,” a Greenlandic Inuktitut word meaning “it is said to be a part of our reality.”

But one of the students’ most profound lessons occurs in Qikiqtarjuaq, a tiny community of about 500 people on the east coast of Baffin Island, which they visit one week into the expedition. Few students know what to expect; all they know is that practically the whole town has come out to welcome them with a feast of freshly caught clams, frozen Arctic char and raw narwhal. In no time, baskets of bannock and green apples are being passed around and the party is in full swing. The students mingle, exchanging stories, photos and gifts. One trades earrings with a local girl, another buys locally made mittens for her sister back home, and several join in on a square dance. Some of the Inuit students on the expedition, much more familiar with their surroundings, show others how to slice off bits of narwhal meat. Even the vegetarians opt for a taste of whale and raw fish because, well, yolo.

And yet there’s more to this visit than simply feasting, dancing and making new friends. The students know they are visiting a people who have experienced upheaval and uncertainty. Just before they had arrived in Qikiqtarjuaq, they had heard Madeleine Redfern, former mayor of Iqaluit, give a lecture on relocated communities, a subject many of them have never studied. Redfern explained that many Inuit were relocated during the 1960s — some willingly, others by force — including Inuit from Kivitoo and Padloping, also on Baffin Island, to Qikiqtarjuaq. The students learned that the Canadian government established Qikiqtarjuaq and other similar new communities in the North to facilitate the delivery of programs and services, in some cases claiming to rescue people from starvation. But the relocated Inuit struggled to adjust to settlement life, while the many promises that lured them there, including better housing and work, never materialized. Still, the people of Qikiqtarjuaq managed to carve out a home for themselves, a fact that doesn’t fail to impress the students.

When it’s time to leave, nobody wants the experience to end. But as the students make for the dock, an army of curious Qikiqtarjuaq kids in tow, it’s clear their perspectives have shifted. Sure, workshops and lectures have shown them that nothing is truly isolated, even in the Arctic. They’re aware their lifestyles can generate pollution that can affect people in places as remote as Qikiqtarjuaq, people who they now know have already suffered, struggled and survived other trials. But now they’ve seen those places and met those people, and they realize that they want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It’s one of the last days of the expedition, and 18-year-old Ariana Vaisey of Port Moody, B.C., is in the ship’s lounge, writing an entry for the Students on Ice blog. Around her, others are enjoying a break between workshops, playing music and board games, peering through microscopes at samples of Arctic plants, lichens and fossils and helping themselves to doughnuts. “If you want people to value the Arctic,” says Vaisey, “they have to know it.”

At this point in their journey, the students know that the Arctic is more than just a cold place at the top of the Earth, more than just a white splotch capping the maps and globes in their classrooms back home. They know this because they’ve met the people who live here and delved into their culture, moving across land, water and ice from Iqaluit to Greenland and back again. They’ve seen walruses lolling on ice floes and bowhead whales emerging from the icy green depths. They’ve hiked up a hill at a fiord right on the Arctic Circle, listened to the thunderous sound of icebergs calving and learned something every step of the way. They appreciate it more now because, as Vaisey says, they know it better.

But there’s a palpable sense that the students appreciate themselves more too — and for the very same reasons. Much like the ice they’ve seen over the past two weeks — from those chunks that blocked their way out of Frobisher Bay to the bergs drifting off the coast of Ilulissat, Greenland — they’ve realized that there’s a much bigger story beneath their own surface and that they can be as unique and dynamic a force.

And that realization, that sense of empowerment, stays with them as they return to their everyday lives. Many go on to host presentations in their schools and communities, eager to spread the knowledge and the values they’ve learned. Some will launch their own environmental protection programs, conferences and non-profit organizations. Others, like Marck Mercado of Markham, Ont., who plans to enter the medical field, believe they have a responsibility to play a more direct role, one that may see them return to the North. “My ambition is to be part of improving the northern Canadian health system,” says Mercado. “After meeting the welcoming and caring people of Iqaluit and Qikiqtarjuaq, my new friends, I know that they and the other northern communities undoubtedly deserve better.”

Students on Ice by the numbers

13 years since the inaugural SOI expedition to the Antarctic
2,235 participants in SOI since its inception in 2000
52 countries represented among SOI alumni
30 percent of SOI participants come from Canada’s North
$10,000 is the average cost per student for Arctic expeditions
$13,500 is the average cost per student for Antarctic expeditions
11 polar bears sighted on the 2012 Arctic expedition
420,000 kilometres travelled since 2000
1,750 nautical miles travelled during the 2012 Arctic trip
4,536 kilograms of luggage and gear on the 2012 Arctic trip