For the first time in 16 years I won’t be with my grandfather on his birthday in late July. I will be in the Arctic with a program called Students On Ice (SOI). Ironically it was my grandfather who first taught me about the Arctic region and the North Pole.
When I was a little boy he would read me chapters from one of his favorite books, The Arctic Grail, as a bedtime story – chapters about the British explorations to find the Northwest Passage and the controversial Cook and Peary expeditions in which both men claimed to have made the voyage to the geographic North Pole first. One, nicknamed the ”Prince of Liars,” was a medical doctor who was later convicted on mail fraud charges (he was subsequently granted a full pardon by FDR). The other, who had studied Inuit survival techniques and dressed in native fashion on his expedition, was known as “unpleasant” and even “untrustworthy” by some. After finishing the chapters about these men, my grandfather asked me, “Well, do you think one of them is the greatest explorer of his time or are they both career con men?” I sat there wide-eyed in my footed pajamas sipping my juice box in silence. Back then I thought the North Pole was all snowdrifts and Santa’s village, not an ocean surrounded by ice. I was 6.
A civil engineer by trade, my grandfather later taught me about climate change, global warming, and the melting polar ice. He even taught me about the causes of local beach closings and what we could do as citizens to keep our water clean. At nearly 85, his mind is sharp and his opinions are well formed.
This knowledge was exponentially compounded by my biology teacher and EGHS Science Department chair, Mr. Nicholas Rath, who pointed me towards this opportunity and supported my application with a letter of recommendation. A second letter needed from a community member was furnished by Mrs. Elizabeth McNamara, editor of the East Greenwich Patch, who has graciously allowed me to blog for the Patch this year and who will allow me to chronicle my journey to the Arctic here.
When I think about the trip I am sure of only two things: I will be surprised by what I see and learn and I will return home determined to raise the funds needed to send another EGHS student next summer. This trip is expensive and has only 80 spots for students from all over the globe. Nearly 80 percent of students receive some type of funding or grant money. Most of us would be unable to travel on this expedition without these funds, yet they are hard to come by and highly coveted. The committed scientists, explorers, activists, environmentalists, and educators of SOI believe that the youth voice can be a powerful motivator for change. They stress that expeditions into the natural world inspire young people to advocate for our planet, the preservations of its resources, and the protection of its diverse species. That’s why they take students to the polar regions despite the distance and expense. More of those students need to come from EGHS.
When I broke the news to my grandfather that I would be missing from his 85th birthday celebration to visit the Arctic, he smiled. At almost 85, he knows that each birthday is precious, but I think his biggest regret is that at age 16, I am still too young to buy him a bottle of his favorite vodka for a birthday present from the Duty Free shop at the airport. He did give me some parting advice, though. “You’ll be on top of the world up there but be careful. You’ll be on some very thin ice.” He also gave me a parting gift. Something to take with me.
So I depart for the Arctic in late July. I fly to Ottawa and board a ship. I carry with me a dog-eared copy of The Arctic Grail in my pack and a letter written by my cousins addressed to “Santa Claus at the North Pole.”
I fully expect to see a jolly old man in a red suit and so much more. So much more.