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

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

By: Sarah Gutzmann
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This article was originally posted to the SFU Environmental Science website

Sarah GutzmannThere 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. Over the course of three life-changing weeks, I gained a few invaluable life lessons 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 now 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 was reinforced that every “small” movement made by each one of us adds up. As pointed out to those of us returning from this incredible Artic journey, even if each of us tells ten people about our experience, then suddenly that is 2,000 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. This 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 study 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 these feelings. 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 always focusing on the fact that we 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 solely on 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 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 nature’s lesson of embracing unpredictability, I learned a lot from the people onboard by virtue of their life stories and experiences. One of the major things I took away from hearing their stories is that it’s okay to change as a person. Your passions, hobbies, studies, and careers 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 make you unique, interesting, and even more desirable as an employee.

Torngat Mountains Base Camp & Research StationAs the rest of my co-op work term wraps up, I will be continuing my work with Parks Canada highlighting my experiences from the Arctic and Torngat Mountains National Park, through presentations and outreach at community events. I would love to share more of what I learned with anyone interested, so feel free to contact me!

The Polar Regions are in a state of dramatic change that is already visible to anyone who visits, 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,



Beyond the Article: 

  • Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.
  • If you're looking for more info on the Arctic expedition Sarah went on, visit the Students on Ice website. If you would like to know more about Sarah’s job with Parks Canada, visit their website here
  • Where can International Co-op take you? Visit the International Co-op Blog and find out the many amazing places our students have worked. 
Posted on November 23, 2016