Students on Ice Arctic Expedition participants were taught about global warming on the Illulisat Icefjord in Greenland.

Polar expression

Surrey student Abhayjeet Singh Sachal, 14, learns about Canada’s Arctic region in person.

A Surrey teen’s what-I-did-for-summer-vacation story is something he’ll carry forward for years.

Never mind the polar bears Abhayjeet Singh Sachal saw on his first day off the plane; the 14-year-old witnessed first-hand, in otherwise deathly quiet, blocks of ice crack off a glacier and splash into the ocean in the Illulisat Icefjord in Greenland.

The jarring lesson about global warming took place during the Seaquam Secondary Grade 10 student’s participation in the Students On Ice Foundation’s 16-day 2016 Arctic Expedition, which explored areas of northern Quebec, Baffin Island and Greenland.

After applying in April, Sachal won a $12,000 scholarship for the trip from the U.S. embassy – a result of his academic record, school environmental activities and a piano-infused TEDx talk about creativity that he gave at Science World in 2013, when he was 12 years old.

The July 21 to Aug. 5 expedition began with orientation sessions in Ottawa (with a surprise visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), followed by a ship launch into Frobisher Bay from Iqaluit, Nunavut.

There were 120 students aged 14-24 aboard the cruise ship MS Ocean Endeavour, supported by 80 crew, educators, artists and Inuit elders.

At 14, Sachal was the youngest on board.

“Originally, we planned to go up to Baffin Island, but there was too much sea ice in the area, so we went to the coast of Labrador,” Sachal says.

That’s where he saw nine “huge, majestic” polar bears on the first day, and later visited “ancient” Inuit villages that weren’t on the expedition itinerary.

“A big part of the expedition was just talking to all of these people around the world,” he says. “There were scientists, historians, climatologists… over breakfast lunch and dinner, because there was no Internet, we would just talk to each other.”

Sachal described a powerful moment when the expedition visited the abandoned Moravian mission of Hebron, the northernmost settlement in Labrador, where Inuit people were forcibly evangelized in the early 19th century before the settlement was finally abandoned in 1959.

(A testament to the cruelty of the times, the Inuit family of Abraham Ulrikab from Hebron was displayed in a zoo in Hamburg, Germany in 1880-81.)

“There were a lot of Inuit students (in the expedition) that had a personal connection to that place,” says Sachal. “It was very personal to many of them.”

While the expedition students took in the views, kayaked around icebergs, and made a brief polar dip, they took in lessons about global warming and the effects of its first victims, the northern peoples and ocean wildlife.

Sachal, an avid piano and hockey player,  has already given talks at Seaquam about what he learned during the trip, and hopes to give more at other schools before pursuing a career in science.

“Wherever my path takes me, I have a few years to decide.”

Sachal turned 15 on Oct. 18, and says he thinks about the trip every day.

“It won’t go away because it was something that powerful.”

More photos below.