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Amid the glaciers and icebergs, a "profound experience"

UTSC alum Claire Watson spent two weeks as part of the annual Students on Ice program, visiting Northern Quebec and Greenland. She's pictured here during a zodiac landing in Greenland. (Photo by Janelle Bruneau)

Recent graduate Claire Watson (BSc, 2014) doesn’t hesitate when you ask her the highlight of her once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Arctic this summer.

It came in Greenland after she and others in Zodiac inflatable boats had buzzed up a fjord to get a better look at a large glacier, part of the giant ice sheet that covers most of the island. “There was a huge blue-white wall of ice, towering over us,” says Watson. “We heard this cracking and these booms. All of sudden it cracked again, and this huge chunk plummeted down into the water.

“It only took seconds, but it seemed much longer,” she says. “To see this piece of ice fall off and become an iceberg, rippling in the water, was a moment I’ll never forget.”

In fact, says Watson, the whole trip made such an impact on her that she has a special message for current UTSC students as they consider their future.

An avid outdoors person who still works part-time for UTSC Athletics & Recreation, Watson was invited to join the annual Students on Ice voyage through the Arctic after she applied for a youth ambassador position with Parks Canada. She had just graduated from UTSC with a BSc in neuroscience and a double minor in biology and studio arts.

For most of the summer she would work with Parks Canada at the Toronto Zoo, but for two glorious weeks in July she joined 86 high school and university students from Canada and other countries, plus a diverse group of 50 scientists and educators, for a learning trip to Canada’s North and Greenland. Students on Ice, a non-profit, mounts one trip to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic each year with support from a wide variety of sponsors, including Parks Canada. Its goal is to create a deeper understanding of the polar regions and of the planet itself.

The group met up in Ottawa and flew to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec to board their ship, heading along the coast to Labrador’s spectacular Torngat Mountains National Park and a session with Inuit elders. “They were so welcoming,” says Watson. Then they crossed the Labrador Sea to Greenland.

As they sailed up western Greenland, visiting a local community and taking Zodiac rides to view the glaciers, they often spotted polar bears, muskox and various types of whales, including a huge humpback. Each day, experts aboard the ship held workshops and seminars about what they were seeing—including the effects of climate change.

“What everyone was saying, and what these scientists’ own research is showing, is how drastically the weather is warming in the Arctic,” says Watson. “When we were at different glaciers, we saw rushing water that never stopped—it is melting much more now. And you’re also starting to see larger shrubs, because the level of permafrost has changed and plants can grow more roots.”

The trip, she says, “has made me very proud to be a Canadian. I now have a great appreciation, caring and connection with the Arctic North and the people there, and I want to share it.” Recently she received funding for a project that aims to help young people connect with leadership and social-change opportunities, such as the one she experienced this summer.  

And that message for UTSC students?

“Take a risk, on something you really feel for,” says Watson. “I know a lot of students are struggling with where they’re going to go next, especially when they’re coming to their final year. But it’s OK to take a breather, slow down and check out other opportunities.

“I ended up doing something that was never on my radar, and it turned out to be a profound experience that’s changed my life and perspective on the world.”



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