"Find a way, or make one." — Robert Peary, one of the first polar explorers to reach the North Pole
As an educator, I want to bring the world to students in a powerful way that gets them excited to learn and inspired to put that learning into action. Fifteen years ago I was giving my all in the classroom, but it didn’t seem enough. Students lacked the enthusiasm for learning that I sought. I wanted them captivated and engaged with the amazing, diverse world beyond the classroom door. Technology, I thought, might be able to bring that world to them in new ways, and adventure could be the driving force, the hook, that drew them in.
Jump ahead five years. Five team members and I are loading three dogsleds with gear for a six-month expedition departing out of Yellowknife, NT, Canada. It had taken years of fundraising, dreaming, expedition planning, and education prep to get to this point. Our goal was to undertake a 3,000 mile Arctic dogsledding expedition and to deliver an education program to millions of students live online as we did so. Which would prove the greater challenge, the physical undertaking or the educational one, that was the question!
As we crossed the Great Slave in the coming days, we battled heaved ice, strong wind, and brutally cold temps. We continually streamlined our daily routine, which included exiting the tent at seven each morning, tearing down camp, packing up the sleds, and hitching up the dogs all within an hour’s time. The mornings were particularly tough for me as no matter how much I ate or how many layers of clothes I wore, I struggled to keep warm. Getting into motion, with the dogs running and the team skiing alongside the sleds, was always a good thing, as my body warmed quickly with the activity. Each day involved continual moderation of body temps, pulling off or piling on clothing layers depending on the day’s temps, wind, and activity level.
Dogsledding across remote wilderness for six months brings enough stories to fill three books about adventure, teamwork, and the Arctic. When I sit down to reflect on the 3,000 miles we traveled and the seven communities we spent time in, it’s hard to select just a few stories to share. Travel in the Arctic always deals out more challenges than you can imagine. However, when asked what my favorite place in the world is, my answer is always the Arctic. The light, the silence, the bitter cold, the land, and the people there are unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Delivering an education program while dogsledding the Arctic presents its own set of challenges, but also many celebrations. The celebrations, for me, far outweigh the challenges. Sharing our story, the story of the Arctic itself, and the story of the communities we visited with millions of students worldwide was a dream come true. It was goal one in this whole adventure. Getting field updates out to the world was not an easy task, however. From capturing photos and videos in difficult conditions, to editing media and writing content from a tent, to getting the computers and satellite technology to work properly in the bitter cold and stark wilderness — these were all formidable challenges.
Our first full day on the Great Slave Lake brought unexpected, near life-threatening surprises. Hours into that first day, as we were crossing a lead (a break in the ice that had refrozen), our 1300-pound dogsled broke through the lead into open water. My sled partner Paul and I literally leaped out of our skis, landing on the other side of the water as the sled hung, partly submerged in water and teetering at the edge of the ice, with only the dogs holding it back from going under. Paul yelled to get away from the lead as he thought the crack in the ice might continue to spread.
We stood a moment in shock, then sprung to action to stop the two dog teams behind us before they reached the open water. We then began the task of getting our own sled out of the water. The coming hours were filled with tense work, unlashing the sled and unloading gear that ranged from cases full of technology to sleeping gear to many pounds of both human and dog food. We hooked up several team members to the sled along with the dogs. With the lighter load and everyone pulling at full might, we managed to get the sled back on solid ice. A huge sigh of relief. We fully realized the outcome of the day’s events could have been much worse, and this immediate and unforeseen challenge bonded our team together from the outset, shining light on just how unpredictable the next six months might be.
Our team sent out brief daily updates, but concentrated education efforts on a weekly report filled with photos, video clips, and stories from the team. Fridays became known as “Education Day.” We did not travel on Fridays, and instead spent the day editing photos and videos, writing the “trail report,” and fighting satellite technology, with the goal of getting the data sent to our team back in the United States before midnight. Graduate students at Education Basecamp in Minneapolis then spent the weekend formatting the report for the online learning environment and getting it posted by Monday morning for classrooms and the general public worldwide. This likely all sounds much easier than the reality of getting technology to work at -40F!
The impact the online learning environment was having not just on schools outside the Arctic but on the Arctic communities themselves hit us one evening as we were approaching one of my favorite communities in the Canadian Arctic, Baker Lake. We hadn’t seen anyone aside from our teammates for months. As the sun began to set, over the horizon came a light. We recognized it was a snow-machine fast approaching. The prospect of having a trail the dogs could follow into Baker, and the knowledge that we were getting close to a community brought heightened energy to the entire team.
When the snow-machine reached us, I skied out to greet the Elder who was driving it. Removing my glove and extending my hand to greet him, I said, “Hello. My name is Aaron Doering. I’m so excited to meet you.” The Elder shook my hand and laughed. “I know who you are,” he said. “I recognize your voice from the Internet.” It was at this time and during the days to follow we learned that our online education program was being used in classes at the local school. The school was using it to reinforce culture and pride in their community, while also providing the Inuit students the ability to participate in online discussions about the Arctic and share their own perspectives with the world.
Baker Lake was one of seven communities we visited during our six-month expedition. The others were Yellowknife, Lutselke, Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay), Hall Beach, Igloolik, and Pond Inlet. Visits to each of these communities allowed us to get to know community members, learn about and share community perspectives online on everything from culture to climate change to education and sustainability, and visit the local schools. It also provided us warm shelter from which to work on our trail reports without fighting the elements! Time in the communities was brief compared to our overall time on the trail, but it was always a treasured and welcome respite affording many memorable experiences and new friendships.
Travel to the hamlet of Igloolik brings one particularly vivid memory to mind. To reach Igloolik we had to navigate around a polynya, a region of permanently open water surrounded by sea ice. Evaporation from the open water brought constant snowfall. We were battling bitter cold and pressure ridges on the ice along with this intense snowfall. One travel day we covered just .6 miles due to the challenging conditions and slow ups and downs, with the dogs pulling like there was no tomorrow. That night, we stayed up very late working to get the report out to basecamp. We thus exited the tent later than usual the following morning in order to gain a few extra hours of sleep.
As I pulled on my mukluks that next morning, one of our dogs, our “polar bear dog,” started to give his alarm bark instead of his normal “wake up everyone” and “let’s get this party started” bark. I peered outside the tent’s vestibule and, much to my surprise, not more than 20 yards from me stood a large polar bear. At this point, all the dogs began sounding off like a pack of wolves on a Minnesota night. I yelled “Polar bear!” and grabbed a gun loaded with cracker shells to try to scare him away. I fired a shell over the bear’s head. When it exploded, however, the startled bear started walking toward the tent. Luckily, my teammates by this time were up and out of their tents and also began shooting cracker shells in the air. Eventually the bear nonchalantly walked away, seemingly nonplussed by the exploding cracker shells, 31 barking dogs, and 6 very anxious humans.
Not every day held so much excitement in store, thankfully. We continued slowly across the unforgiving but magnificent Arctic landscape, ultimately making our way to Pond Inlet. Every day was filled with a type of indescribable awe like you might read about in a Barry Lopez book. Six months of bitter but beautiful cold. Six months of varying sunlight ranging from near 24-hour darkness to 24-hour daylight, and rising temperatures that forced us to begin traveling by night due to sloppy conditions during the day. Six months delivering an education program to millions of students online. Six months learning what it means to truly challenge oneself, both physically and mentally, and what it means to be part of something much, much bigger than yourself.class="Body"
This expedition, Arctic Transect, inspired more than a decade of adventure learning programs around the world. It has been followed by a multitude of education-oriented expeditions worldwide, including eleven of my own that have taken me to regions throughout the circumpolar Arctic and to little-known areas outside the Arctic on six of the seven continents, with an expedition to Antarctica to come. Arctic Transect thus proved to be just the beginning of taking adventure into classrooms worldwide to inspire, motivate, and educate.
About the author: Aaron Doering is an associate professor in learning technologies at the University of Minnesota and the co-director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab. Aaron holds the Bonnie Westby-Huebner Endowed Chair in Education and Technology, is a laureate of the prestigious humanitarian Tech Awards, and is an Institute on the Environment (IonE) fellow. He has delivered education on sustainability and climate change to more than 10 million students by dogsledding and pulking over 5,000 miles throughout the circumpolar Arctic since 2004. One of his current projects, Earthducation, is investigating the intersection of education and sustainability on all the continents over the course of four years. Aaron gives hundreds of talks each year on adventure learning, design, online learning, and motivation. His academic writing is focused on how technology, online learning, and design impact the classroom experience. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.