• Ellen Curtis can geo education Ben Woodward David Saint-Jacques

    2017 Canadian Geographic Challenge champion Ben Woodward (centre) with director of Canadian Geographic Education Ellen Curtis and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques following the final at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on June 5. (Photo: Matt Zambonin/Canadian Geographic)

Ben Woodward had few expectations going into the 2017 Canadian Geographic Challenge finals. The Grade 10 student from Central Secondary School in London, Ont., was just happy to be spending the weekend in Ottawa with, as he put it, 19 fellow “geography nerds” from across Canada.

But in the ultimate event of the challenge at the Canadian War Museum on June 5, Woodward topped the scoreboard through eight rounds of tough questions on everything from the Arctic to alpacas to clinch the championship and $5,000.

“I was a little nervous, but once I got up on the stage I just focused, and after a few questions, I got into the rhythm of things,” he said.

His one regret? “I’m really into physical geography, so I’m disappointed I didn’t get that alluvial fan question!” 

The performances of the five finalists — Woodward, Aaron Abraham (Calgary), Thomas Emmanuel Côté (Longueuil, Que.), Jake Douglas (Peterborough, Ont.), and Evan Fingerhut (Dartmouth, N.S.) — earned the admiration of the host of this year’s final, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. Earlier in the afternoon, Saint-Jacques told an audience of mainly students that his own exciting career, which will see him blast off for the International Space Station next November, began with a childhood fascination with the planet. 

“I encourage you to listen to your heart and find your dream,” he said. “Sometimes the dream is scary, but not chasing it is scarier.” 

Woodward and his fellow “geography nerds” will now have a chance to experience Canada’s unique geography and spectacular wildlife firsthand. In a first for the Challenge, One Ocean Expeditions, the exclusive ocean travel partner of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, has awarded the five finalists an all-expenses-paid 10-day cruise around Atlantic Canada, departing July 5. Among the iconic destinations they’ll visit are Nova Scotia’s historic Fortress of Louisbourg and Sable Island (famous for its wild horses), Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park and the French territory of Saint Pierre et Miquelon.

“They’re in for a treat,” said Andrew Prossin, managing director of One Ocean Expeditions, adding that this trip will mark the launch of One Ocean’s new youth programming on its voyages. “We’re honoured to support our partner in education in this endeavour, especially in Canada’s 150th year.”