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  • Writer's pictureNikki Mantell

Students on Ice turns 20

Chelsea founder’s polar voyages born out of serendipity

Just as the world, which Students on Ice takes youth out into, has changed, so too has the foundation since its first voyage two decades ago.

Chelsea resident and Students on Ice Foundation founder, president and expedition leader Geoff Green near Itilleq, Greenland during a 2018 Arctic expedition. Martin Lipman photo, courtesy Students on Ice
Chelsea resident and Students on Ice Foundation founder, president and expedition leader Geoff Green near Itilleq, Greenland during a 2018 Arctic expedition. Martin Lipman photo, courtesy Students on Ice

The organization, founded by Chelsea resident and foundation president Geoff Green, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Though it had to cancel its 2020 summer expedition due to COVID-19, which would have marked the milestone, and the planned upcoming expedition in March 2021, the foundation still has much to celebrate and ways to celebrate during the pandemic with virtual events and coming programs.

“The [original] goal was really simple; it’s become more complex in 20 years, as the world has evolved,” Green explained during a recent video-call interview with The Low Down.

He started the foundation to give youth from all backgrounds the experience of seeing the polar regions of the planet. As the leader of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions for a decade before founding Student on Ice in 2000, he said he had witnessed the profound effect seeing these places could have on stubborn and set-in-their-ways adults.

“The polar regions, I learned first-hand, were incredible classrooms,” Green said, explaining that they combine science, global affairs and sensitive ecosystems all in a place that very few people, especially young people, have the opportunity to see with their own eyes.

Funnily enough, the organization was born out of sheer coincidence, Green explained.

Born and raised in a small farm community near the shores of Lake Ontario, he got his first taste of exploration during an exchange program to Europe as a teenager.

“The world wasn’t much bigger than Canada for me or Ontario,” Green said.

But that exchange, he said, broadened his horizons, and after university he returned to Europe and worked as a ski instructor. But he ran out of money and ended up in southern France, waiting on a wire transfer from his mother. So a 19-year-old Green set about looking for work and ended up knocking on the doors of yachts along the French Riviera. The first two yacht owners told him promptly to “get lost or the French equivalent,” he said, but his luck changed on the third yacht.

“After 10 minutes of conversation [the owner] said, ‘Move on board, you’re the new captain,’” Green said.

Over the next two and a half years, he learned to skipper vessels. In 1994, his friend needed someone to captain a ship to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

“That experience, particularly as a young Canadian, blew my mind,” Green said. “I was so hungry to learn as much as I could.”

The next year he was asked to lead an expedition to Antarctica.

“One day, standing on a beach in Antarctica, those two passions [for education and exploration] collided,” Green explained.

He said his life would have been radically different had he given up looking for work on ships after the first two yachts in southern France.

“You can turn left or right and your life can completely change; anything is possible,” Green said, which is a lesson he said he tries to instill in each student that has joined one of his expeditions over the past 20 years.

Chelsea resident Alexandra Leroux has been on two Students on Ice expeditions, one to Antarctica in 2011 when she was in Grade 10 and another to the Arctic as a foundation employee in 2019.

She’s seen colonies of penguins in the Antarctic and where icebergs are born in the Ilulissat Icefjord on the west coast of Greenland – “We were seeing climate change,” she described – but what sticks with her even more are the interactions with people she met on the expedition vessel, a community she described as a “village.”

“I made a point at every meal to sit with someone different,” Leroux said.

She explained that she sat and ate with people from all over the world, including a young dog sledder from Nunavut and a Sami reindeer herder from Sweden. She said she keeps in touch with friends all over the world and wouldn’t be where she is today had she not gone on that first trip.

“I wanted to make a difference in this world, small or big, but I want to make a positive change,” Leroux said.

Green, now 54, has led 135 expeditions over the past 30 years, including in his years prior to founding Students on Ice.

The first expedition in December 2000 took about 50 Canadian students to Antarctica; now expeditions take 120 students on average, depending on the size of the vessel, and those students come from all over the world. The foundation places an emphasis on including low income and Indigenous students for expeditions.

The first expedition was about expanding students’ horizons and showing them rare-to-see corners of the Earth and, though recent expeditions still have those experiences at their core, they seem all the more important since the polar regions and its fauna are more vulnerable now that they have experienced 20 years of climate change.

When asked what Students on Ice has in store over the next two decades, Green said, “Hopefully more of the same, but getting on a vessel will be challenging.”

Without trips to plan during the pandemic, foundation staff have been able to focus on bringing alumni together and other programs and initiatives. Next month there will be an online alumni summit.

“That will be an opportunity to share, celebrate, learn and use that global force the alumni have become,” Green said.

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