ISAMR – Summer 2014: A student’s reflections on Wapusk National Park
© Jessica C. Levine
The Park School of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Wapusk News - Issue 8, 2015
Waking up this morning in my warm, cozy bed, encased in a soft blanket, I realized I didn’t want to be here; I wanted to be somewhere else. I longed to wake up in the middle of the tundra under the wide open sky, in a tent that was whipping in the wind. I longed to be amongst my beautifully unique, newly found family, sitting down to a warm breakfast at Nester One. It seemed like a strange thought at first, but then I realized what an impact this past two week journey has had on me. I missed everyone and everything about the trip.
When people think of the Arctic, they think of what physically constitutes its landscapes: tundra, polar bears, or perhaps caribou and dog sleds. This trip gave me the opportunity to look beyond the physical aspects of this region (although affording plenty of time to gasp in awe at the incredible topography and life of the north), and truly get in touch with the land, my peers, and myself. It was an opportunity to participate in authentic scientific research as a high school student. In the end, what I viewed as a research trip had become so much more.
I was blown away the moment I took my first step onto the tundra after getting off the helicopter in Wapusk National Park. I felt like I was entering a remarkable place, untouched by humans, and instantly felt honored to be there. At the same time, I felt connected to the land, and it seemed like you couldn’t get any closer to pure nature than this. It felt incredible to think that every time we set out on a hike, the path we chose may have never felt human footprints before. The land itself seemed alive, as it had center stage with no visual competition, aside from the majestic creatures that roamed its terrain. In Wapusk, there was a certain harmony between our group and the environment around us, a balance difficult to find back in civilization. As the days passed, and we continued our research, I came to the realization that I understood this piece of earth better than I knew my own backyard.
Having the opportunity to do field work at this age really sparked my interest in pursuing the sciences beyond high school. I’ve always had a keen passion for my science classes in school, although I often felt intimidated (despite being very intrigued) by research done outside of the classroom. I was never certain if my love for science in the classroom would manifest in the field. However, now there are few things that can match my passion for the incredible research we do every August (and October). As a student scientist working in the field, I also realized that the information we were collecting, dissecting and analyzing not only helped answer our questions and helped us gain knowledge—it went beyond that: it advocated for something that couldn’t speak for itself—the environment surrounding us. Our work was genuine and significant on more than one level.
One of, if not the most important aspect of ISAMR is the people who form it. The altruism between a group of people who didn’t even know each other a few weeks ago is astounding. How can you not get close to the people around you when sharing such incredible daily, no, hourly, no, minute-by-minute memories together? Your peers become part of these breathtaking moments, and we equally shared in the joy of seeing the majesty of a beluga whale swimming in the Churchill River, or the Aurora Borealis dancing above our heads. I don’t think my eyes have ever been opened so wide for such a long period of time, and I didn’t want to close them, not even for a second; I don’t think anyone did. We opened up to each other as only people so tired, yet at the same time so alive can, and we became an intimate group that worked and played well together; we became a diverse family. I am so grateful for the adults who were willing and brave enough to take a group of high school students to such a remote (and remarkable) place. It took an amazing group of people to be part of this journey, and I felt very privileged to get to know them.
To end this reflection, there’s one final point, however petty, that I feel is essential to this musing: The Arctic changed my definition of home. In the past, when I’ve traveled, no matter how deeply connected I’ve been to a place, home has always been Baltimore; I’ve always thought of house and home as synonyms. However, on our way back from Cape Churchill, after our second full day in Wapusk, someone asked how far we were from “home.” It took everyone a moment to realize that Nester One was not “home” in the traditional sense. The fact a place can become “home” in a mere two and a half days truly shows the impact such an adventure and such a place can have. And now, as I write the last sentence sitting in the basement of my house in Baltimore, I long for home.
What is ISAMR?
The International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research program (ISAMR) is a coalition of high school students and educators from Canada and the United States who share the common goal of thoughtfully and respectfully monitoring the effects of global climate change as perceived through the flora and fauna of the greater Churchill/Wapusk Ecosystem. This international research team, co-founded by Dr. Ryan Brook and Julie Rogers, focuses primarily on permafrost and polar bears.
Annually, about 40 Canadian students from Winnipeg and Churchill, and ten American students from Baltimore, participate in the fieldwork and data collection aspects of the program in August, October and February while another 50 participate in weekly ISAMR meetings. During ISAMR meetings, students learn about Arctic ecology, analyze data, develop presentations for international scientific conferences, and prepare for each of the three field expeditions.