Sarah Gutzmann's Parks Canada Co-op in the Arctic

Things You Learn Journeying (Close to) the Top of the World

There is something special about traveling to the Arctic that thrusts the rest of your life into a stark new perspective. This summer, I had the mind-blowing privilege of journeying to Torngat Mountains National Park and Hebron in Nunatsiavut Labrador, as well as areas in Greenland including Evighedsfiord, Disko Bay, and Illulissat. This opportunity was all thanks to landing my dream co-op placement with Parks Canada, who partnered with Students on Ice (SOI) to send us Northern Engagement Outreach team members to the North. This expedition in a nutshell was (and this is quoted from the founder of Students on Ice) essentially a “cult without the drugs” that connected and inspired about 200 polar veterans and newcomers from around the globe with the North. From these three life changing weeks, I gained a few invaluable life lessons I learned from these people and the Arctic itself.

Life Lesson 1: There is no “I” movement

As an environmental science student, sometimes the pressure of mitigating the changing climate becomes overwhelming. This was especially evident to me as we sat in silence at the stunningly powerful Jakobshaven Ice Fiord. Advancing at a massive 65 meters a day, this United Nations Environment Commission World Heritage site could disappear within my lifetime. And that thought is absolutely terrifying.

    In moments like that I tend to feel incredibly small and insignificant; I tend to take all of the world’s challenges upon my shoulders, feeling like I have to do everything humanly possible to make a meaningful difference. But, after spending these past few weeks surrounded by likeminded individuals, the idea that the every “small” movement made by each one of us adds up was reinforced. As pointed out to those of us returning from this incredible Artic journey, even if each of us tells 10 people about our experience, then suddenly that is 2000 people better informed about the Arctic and its related climate and culture. Don’t underestimate the power of the multiplier effect.

Life Lesson 2: Guilt gets you nowhere

Building off of Life Lesson 1, the environmental movement is shockingly negative. Which is the last thing it should be when environmental health is so interconnected with mental health and wellbeing. Compared to movements like social rights, the environmental effort does not seem to publicize successes nearly as much as it does the overwhelming stats and figures projecting the eventual decline and doom of the planet as we know it. This is something that needs to change. As a self-proclaimed environmental educator, I know how difficult it can be to convey the urgency of our situation without feeling myself shut down. Or worse, sensing that the other person is putting up walls of something that is not denial, but rather a feeling of smallness or hopelessness. What I have found in my few years of studying in the area, is that this field can be exceptionally discouraging and mentally exhausting. A similar feeling was admitted to me by many students and educators aboard the SOI vessel as well.

    Yet, I think there is a way to change that. Personally I feel like the pressure to change the world is primarily guilt driven. Every time I discuss things like the vegetarian, bike-more, or anti-plastic movements with peers, I later experience this intense feeling of guilt when I do eat meat, drive to work, or have a spontaneous plastic clad beverage. Instead of focusing on the fact that we always have to do more, we need to start celebrating what efforts we are all making. Working against the framework of society is no easy task, and it’s time to start showcasing and encouraging all innovative ideas, inventions, and personal/community movements towards a greener planet. Again, focus on what we ARE doing, not what still needs to be done, because we will never get there without positive motivation.  

Life Lesson 3: Flexibility is key

From the very beginning, “flexibility is key” became the SOI mantra. First off, what was essentially the entire trip itinerary was altered due to the very nature of the Arctic. Heavy ice conditions made the old trip route impossible, and it was onto plan B. Now, as an individual who is typically surrounded by beloved plans and schedules, this gave me some minor anxiety. But, this theme of flexibility soon became something I wholeheartedly embraced. Every day of the expedition we were given only a few hours of notice before any event of activity, and even then this plan was often scrapped due to weather or the appearance of polar bears. This dramatic change in lifestyle taught me one main thing: live in the moment. Yes, it sounds horribly cliché and like something that should show up over top of a sepia-filtered Instagram photo; but, those inspirational photos have nothing on the whims of one of the most unpredictable environments in the world when it comes to teaching you meaningful life lessons.

    In addition to this lesson of embracing change as I learned it from nature, I learned it from the people onboard by virtue of their life stories and experiences. And that is, it is okay to change as a person. Your passions, hobbies, studies, careers, etc. can all fluctuate as you live. There is NOTHING wrong with redefining who you are. Each phase of your life teaches you something, and those cumulative experiences are what makes you unique, more interesting, and maybe even more desirable as an employee.

    
    As the rest of my co-op work term wraps up, I will be highlighting my experiences in the Arctic and Torngat Mountains National Park, and I would love to share more with anyone interested. I learned so much more than what I mentioned here. The Polar Regions are in a state of dramatic change that is already visible to anyone who visits, and especially to those who live there. These changes will have global consequences, but I am choosing to remain optimistic. By working together, celebrating our progress, and remaining flexible in ourselves I know that our cumulative skills will change the planet for the better.


Yours in the expedition spirit,

Sarah