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Anchored downriver from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik

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07 Aug 2011

We have arrived at the end of our physical journey. But for most of the students, and many of the staff, the mental journey continues. We spent a lot of time in the last couple of days “processing” the experience -- taking what J.R. Raffan described as “public knowledge” and converting it into “personal knowledge”. This means taking what we have seen and learned and making sense of it, and then learning both how to understand and to communicate it. Both of these processes are inter-related. There is no formula that guides the time it takes an individual to develop this personal knowledge, and there is no set “outcome”. What the students experienced will continue to influence them in years to come: some will become social and political activists, some will be researchers, and others will incorporate the experience into their daily lives, into the decisions they will make, in very different ways.

Thomas Dewey, the American philosopher (1859-1952) is credited with being the “father of experiential education”. Dewey wrote that the value of an experience can be judged by the effect it has on a person’s life -- their present, future, and the extent to which an individual is able to contribute to society. Only time will tell where this experience takes our enthusiastic cast of 72 students from 15 countries.

Some of the experiences that will stand out for all of us include:

  • Seeing a blue whale mother and calf swimming beside the ship for an hour the first morning in the Denmark Strait;
  • Hearing elders’ stories about how a giant sat down and widened the Nachvak Fjord by pushing one rock wall with his feet. He did this so he would have more room to hunt. On one side of the fjord one can see the indents in the rock where his feet pushed; on the other, a slope retains the impression of his buttocks (the story is told accompanied by much giggling);
  • Talking with elders who were born in sod houses, and sharing caribou and char raw and cooked on rocks at North Arm;
  • Cruising in zodiacs in Prins Christians Sund in Greenland and watching a retreating glacier calve off massive chunks of ice;
  • Holding a “mock Arctic Council” meeting on rocky slope in Nunatsiavut overlooking one of the most spectacular fjords on the planet;
  • Standing beside erupting geysers in Iceland;
  • Swimming in the fabled Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik as gale force winds whipped the normally placid thermal pool into frigid white caps;
  • Sunrise on the open sea and yoga on the upper stern deck in the early morning light (only for a select group of early risers);
  • New friendships formed across linguistic and cultural barriers;
  • Zodiac driving lessons in Saglek Fjord;
  • Spontaneous drum dancing, throat singing, poetry and painting;
  • For many of the students, hitting the grocery store in Nanortalik in southern Greenland, where they obeyed the “no junk food on the ship” edict by stuffing themselves;
  • A new understanding of the significance of the Arctic in the global picture -- and how it affects climate, ocean circulation and geopolitics;
  • And, of course, polar bears -- roaming on shore or seen from a distance peeking out of the bushes along the side of a fjord, far enough away to elicit oohs and aahs and comments like “cuuute!”. Far enough away as well to be relatively unconcerned about us.

On our final zodiac cruise we found an island free of bears, though there were guards posted on all the hills. It was foggy and quiet. We had just watched a peregrine falcon hunt and not quite kill a glaucous gull three times its size. The falcon, covered in the blood of its prey, retreated to a rocky outcrop to let nature and the damage it had inflicted take its course. For some of the students, it was a stark lesson in the cycle of life in the Arctic.

We landed and told the students this was the last time they would be on the land and they should take advantage of it by just being there. “You can chat with your friends when you get back to the ship,” we told them. The next hour was for quiet, and preferably solitary, reflection. All within sight of the bear guards, of course.

For the most part, it worked.

I climbed a rocky slope encrusted with black lichen and from the top had a 360-degree panorama of water and rock. We were actually in Nunavut, which includes the very tip of the Labrador peninsula, at the edge of Ungava Bay. One might be forgiven for thinking that the land was empty, that humans had never touched it. But a closer look revealed a cove with rusted fuel drums dumped on the beach. And from a stone seat that very much resembled a living room couch, I looked out and saw Killiniq or Port Burwell about two kilometres in the distance.

Now just a few abandoned and decaying houses, Killiniq was once a trading post, mission, fishing station and Royal Canadian Mounted Police post. It’s been on European maps since the 1560s. In 1978, it was evacuated by the Northwest Territories government and its 47 residents moved to Kangiqsualujjuaq, about 250 kilometres to the southwest on Ungava Bay.

The repercussions of that move, including an ongoing housing crisis, are still being felt. Looking at the abandoned village, I can’t help but think about how everywhere we have been has a story, and sometimes those stories are painful. At every turn on this journey we have been confronted with change: from ancient glaciers carving the land, to the recent history of the changes wrought by the coming of European society, to the modern story of renewal and revival in both Greenland and Nunatsiavut.

We have been privileged to pass through these places. And we will have a reservoir of personal knowledge to draw upon once back in the whirl of everyday life.

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