The kayak is the classroom — the polar circle is the teacher

The kayak is the classroom — the polar circle is the teacher

'No medals were won aboard the Ocean Endeavour, but we all returned with far more than a medal could ever symbolize'

By Adam van Koeverden for CBC Sports
September 19, 2018

Throughout my 18 years on the Canadian national kayak team, I took the luxury of globetrotting for granted.

Despite the fact that the “qajaq” is an Inuit invention, training on the water in Canada year-round is nearly impossible. Doing a summer sport in Canada means you need to chase good weather around the world in the off-season for training, and head to Europe for the summer race season. Those years of my life were spent living out of a suitcase, accumulating air miles and kayak-kilometres by the thousands.

Youth from Polar nations learning about the Arctic. (Submitted by Martin Lipman/SOI Foundation) Youth from Polar nations learning about the Arctic. (Submitted by Martin Lipman/SOI Foundation)

Since quitting my sport two years ago, right after the Rio Olympics, I've become a bit of a homebody for the first time. I adopted a dog, started baking sourdough, and took up gardening. I explore my hometown way more than I used to, and I take road trips rather than international flights. Cairo (my dog) wouldn't do so well in an airplane, but he loves the backseat of the car.

I often talk to youth about how my kayak is a great vehicle. Not just in the sense of being a great way to get from A to B, but also in the way that vehicles are used to express or fulfill something. Some people write, others paint or make music. My form of expression was paddling, and it took me all over the world.

This past summer I had the chance to go on a different type of boat trip. Or, as Students On Ice founder Geoff Green regularly reminded me – a voyage on a ship. He'd say, “You can put a boat on a ship, but you can't put a ship on a boat.” That is a helpful mnemonic whenever you find yourself trying to decide between the two.

Students on Ice is a Canadian foundation that educates the world’s youth about the importance of the Polar Regions, supports them in their continued personal and professional growth, and inspires and catalyzes initiatives that contribute to global sustainability. Or in short, they bring kids up north to learn about more than just the north.


The program recently expanded its activities to include kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding, so when they asked me to lead their paddling program and mentor youth, I was eager to volunteer. A week before we left I was told I'd be a pod-leader, with 14 youth in my group from all over the world.


Ambitious trip

The 2018 SOI Arctic Expedition was to be their most ambitious ever. We flew from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to meet the ship and her crew. The aptly named Ocean Endeavour would take us up the west coast of Greenland, across the Davis Straight to Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik) on Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) in Nunavut, and further north and west to Resolute Bay (Qausuittuq).

Some numbers:

  • 125 youth on board, ages 14-24.
  • 80% received full scholarships.
  • 40% of the youth are Indigenous.
  • 95 staff.
  • 12 days at sea.
  • 3,704 nautical kilometres traveled.

The voyage had four pillars: Truth and reconciliation, climate change, ocean literacy, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We spent the narwhal's share of our time onboard the Ocean Endeavour, chugging away at 14 knots for most of the day and all of the night. Onboard, we spent time in workshops beading, sewing, painting and stenciling. We heard lectures from Indigenous leaders, paleo-climatologists, geologists, storytellers, wildlife experts, biologists, and activists. We took part in reflections, watched cultural demonstrations, kept journals, wrote songs and poetry, expressed emotions and gained perspective on other people's lives and experiences.

We shared. We spent quality time together, purposefully engaged, and totally unplugged. We got really excited about rocks and mosses and stared at maps instead of screens. We laughed a lot, we cried a bit, we learned so much and taught others about what we know. We set new intentions and came home with new goals and aspirations for our futures. It was the most unique experience of my entire life, so thoroughly fulfilling and vastly rewarding on many levels.

We visited communities like Qeqertarsuaq and Uummannaq in Greenland, and learned how to pronounce their names as best we could. We went ashore by zodiac to hike and explore, paddle and fish. We ate food from the sea, admired the landscape, heard stories about the history of these places, and marveled at enormous icebergs.


One morning as I sat at breakfast with new friends from Norway, Japan and the United States, the loudspeaker rang out: “Attention Students On Ice: there is a polar bear on the sea ice about a kilometre off the port bow.” We sprung up from our pancakes and conversations and ran (you should never run on a ship) for 20 steps before one of the kids exclaimed, “We are running towards the stern, turn around!”

Apparently, I know my way around boats better than ships. We grabbed some binoculars and stared at one of the most spectacular animals I have ever seen: Arctic royalty. We were transfixed for about 15 minutes until the bear finally became just a white speck in the distance.


'Countless contributions'

We heard a presentation from Bev Sellars, author and chief of the Xat'sull First Nation at Soda Creek in British Columbia. Bev taught us about the countless contributions that Indigenous people have made to society at large, from sports to medicines, place names to forms of government. Bev also shared some of her experiences at residential school.

Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden relished every aspect of his northern adventure. (Submitted by Martin Lipman/SOI Foundation) Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden relished every aspect of his northern adventure. (Submitted by Martin Lipman/SOI Foundation)

It was difficult to hear and an emotional time for everyone on board. When I thanked her in person, I asked for one of her books. She had a copy of “They Called Me Number One” on board, and very generously offered it to me. I finished it later this summer and thanked her for the gift of her insight. I think perspective is the most valuable natural resource on the planet. I feel a deep gratitude to Bev.

We were north of the Arctic Circle for the entirety of our journey, so the sun barely set for those twelve days and nights. I like to think that the summer Arctic sun helped us keep our hearts and minds open for that time as well, illuminating new experiences and knowledge better than any mid-latitude sun ever could.  “Per aquas ad fraternitatem” is a Latin saying I've read on old trophies and canoe club crests over the years. It means “Through the waters to friendship”. Everyone on board the Ocean Endeavour came home with new stories, perspectives, knowledge, friends and ambitions. We grew and became more, together.

Canadian author and explorer James Raffan is known simply as “JR” when he’s at sea. He taught us about the four-step process called the "heroic quest" that humans have used to learn and grow for as long as we've been on earth: preparation, separation, tribulation and return.


It sounded a lot like the process of training for the Olympic Games, going away, racing my heart out and coming home, with or without medals. No medals were won aboard the Ocean Endeavour, but we all returned victorious — with far more than a medal could ever symbolize.

(Large photos submitted by Adam van Koeverden)

The Adam van Koeverden edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Impossible to say. Favourite author, Vonnegut. Most recent great book: Bev Sellars "They Called Me Number One". Currently re-reading "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: Revisionist History.

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: "Please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, if this isn't happy I don't know what is"  Kurt Vonnegut

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: Work, In Progress.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Chop wood, carry water (only works with great repetition).

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Skateboarding.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: Barack and Michelle Obama, Steve Nash and Julie Payette, Neil Turok and Thomas King.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: #ONPoli.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish? 
A: Setting one ... (stay tuned).

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