Paving Tundra

We pushed off onto the Koyukuk from Wiseman at 6 pm on the 17th of July.  A little later in the day than we had intended!  But we were all hooting and hollering with excitement nonetheless.  With Alaska’s summer nights there was no darkness to stop us from going as far as we pleased.

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I’ve run that section of river at least one hundred times but not since 2012.  It was strange and good to be back at the top of Koyukuk country.  And this time was different.  This time we were going beyond the road system and then west.  Land that I had never seen.  A good 350 miles of it with four of the best people I know.  We are on a mission to raise awareness to protect this last wild place.

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I would stand in front of the Brooks Range if I could, eyes level with the Beaufort Sea, right shoulder in front of the Kobuk and Noatak, left shoulder in front of ANWR’s wildest places, and my beating heart over Koyukuk Country.  Any attempts at desecration I would swat away in an instant.

But, at 5’6″, I am a few feet short of 400 miles tall and hopefully a few feet short of 800 miles wide.  It’s unfortunate because this place needs protecting.  There are many threats to this area of the world and our mission north was sparked by worries over a powerful mining interest’s plans to develop a road 220 miles through the southern reaches of the range.  220 miles cutting through tundra, wetlands, rivers, mountains, caribou migration paths, and even Gates of the Arctic Park and Preserve.

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Tom Attwater, Jayme Dittmar, James Q Martin and Lane Brown in Fairbanks the day before heading up into Alaska’s Arctic.

 

Through long distance hiking I have seen most of our country’s wilderness areas and I can tell you that the  Brooks Range is one of the very few true piece of wilderness that we have left.

I was lucky enough to bushwhack and packraft 1,000 miles across it a couple of years ago from the Canadian border to the Chukchi Sea.  Even after 10,000 miles of long distance hiking across our country, this place shattered my concept of what wilderness is.  Alaska’s Arctic is one of the last wild places, not just in our country but on earth, with such an intact ecosystem.  It is one of the last places where you can walk for weeks on end without seeing a road, a fence, a trail, trash or even a human footprint.  It would be a tragedy to see industrial development take anymore of it than we have already let go.

And what can we do?  We will start by telling about it.

Check out our website:  pavingtundra.com  and follow our Facebook page if you’d like to learn more about our project.   More entries and journals to come soon.

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Iditarod Adventures

After ten years of transitioning between remote locations and cities very quickly I have grown used to this variety of culture shock . . . or so I thought.  It has become a point of pride. . “Denali to Boston?  No problem!”  “The Cascades to St. Andrews?  Sounds good to me!”  “The Brooks Range to New York?  . . . Alrighty.”   I’m as flexible as Gumby.

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Since Christmas I have been up in Denali Park in my quiet cabin or out on the trail, rarely being in the presence of more than three people at a time . . . But yesterday after driving 6 hours, (spending the final two in traffic behind a 15 car pileup on the Glenn!!!) I arrived in Anchorage.  The Iditarod starts on the 6th and I’ll be helping out in the village of Nikolai, which we fly to via Alaska’s big, scary city. . . AHHHHHHnchorage.  My past experiences in Anchorage have been very confusing and as brief as possible.

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I parked at a grocery store to buy a few things for Iditarod, stepped out of the car and froze.  The traffic, the noise, the people . . .  instead of curling up in a ball on the ground I forced myself to march into the store, heart pounding, and locate carrots, apples and granola bars (and promptly forgot everything else on my list).  I was completely dazed by the endless aisles and baffling set up and millions of choices.

Notwithstanding my desire to jump in my car and leave the big city as soon as possible, I wouldn’t have gotten very far.   Here’s an article about the 70 car crashes in the city the day I drove in.  (Don’t worry, I made it through without a scratch although I did get to sit on the highway for 2.5 hours while the pileup was cleared)  http://www.adn.com/article/20160304/anchorage-police-15-vehicle-crash-glenn-highway-over-50-accidents-reported-friday

IMG_8473.JPGApparently, I may not be immune to city-shock after all.  I somehow managed to stay put in the city for a whole fourteen hours before flying out to McGrath to get to Nikolai. The first half of the flight was in the clouds, but for the second half the weather cleared and we could see the Alaska Range give way to the western flats.

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It was great to arrive at McGrath!  Everyone waves if they are driving by and, if you cross paths with a stranger, they immediately introduce themselves and don’t stay a stranger for long.

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(McGrath)

One of the first other volunteers I met happened to be a fellow thru-hiker!  We walked around town and took in the sites.

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Tomorrow we fly to Nikolai (pop. 97) where the mushers should arrive on Tuesday.  Nikolai is a subsistence community that is tied to Denali Park.

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(River Ice Clock )

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(Where us volunteers are staying tonight)

Someday it’ll be good to be back in a city, but for now village life in Alaska is pretty great.

I just launched a GoFundMe campaign for the Sedna Epic Expedition to the Northwest Passage that I will be joining this summer.  Check it out here to learn more: https://www.gofundme.com/u7xquw !! Even small donations will go a long way!  For your support a range of rewards are listed on the site.

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Savage Ice

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“Who wants to follow me out onto the ice?” Jen asked.

My three co-workers and I stood at the edge of the frozen Savage River hesitantly.

I didn’t have much experience with river ice travel.  In the three other places I’ve run dogs up in Alaska, the only river crossings that I had to deal with were pretty inconsequential.  The kind that, if you happened to break through, you might be up to your big toe in water.

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The Savage River certainly is no Yukon, but it is big enough and the angled ice covering it only made it look bigger.  We stared across the gray sheet and I tried to read signs that meant nothing to me yet.  Why is the ice lighter there?  Why does it rise like a hill over there?  It is open upstream in the center, what does that mean for the ice downstream? Is that safe?

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It has been my goal this winter to learn everything that I can while running dogs in Denali Park, which has meant throwing myself into every new situation that comes my way, actively learning instead of sitting back and watching.

Gulp.

“I will.”  I said forcing myself to step forward as my gut dropped to my ankles.  I come from the east coast where nothing seems to be freezing very solidly anymore and stories of kids skating over frozen ponds usually end with someone falling through.  I don’t understand ice so I’m afraid of it.

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Even in Alaska ice has become a big question mark with increasingly warm winters.  Climate change is something that dog mushers have to deal with every day when they are traveling in the backcountry.  The old-timer knowledge of river ice and what is safe no longer applies.  Everything is new.

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Jen and I armed ourselves with axes, trekking poles and micro spikes.  The poles were used to tap the river ice to listen.  The axes were to chop through to check its thickness.  The micro spikes were so that we didn’t fall on our butts on the slick glare.

We had skied a handful of miles from Savage cabin to get to the River.  The six puppies were along for the scouting lesson and my co-workers had to hold them all back on the bank as they would have happily come bounding out after us not understanding the potential danger.

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Tap.  Tap. Tap.  We walked out not too far before hearing a different sound through the ice.  A definitely hollow sound.  Jen hacked through with the axe to reveal several inches of air with another layer of solid ice beneath it.  Still safe.

When you don’t know squat, you sometimes have to decide to put your complete trust in someone else.  And I definitely trust Jen, the kennels’ manager, who has run dogs in Kotzebue, who has camped in 50 below without an Arctic oven up the Squirrel River, and who has run the Yukon Quest.  She wasn’t afraid so I shouldn’t be afraid.

We continued out.  Tap. Tap. Tap.

There was questionable ice in the middle of the river so we diverted our route a little north where we found good going and made it across, learning a few more lessons along the way.  By the end of the day I felt good about the Savage.  While it was a good learning experience, the Savage is nothing compared to the miles and miles we’d be following the Tek and Toklat and Denali Bar.  I still have a lot to learn.  How do you know when there is good ice under overflow?  How do you know that jellow-y overflow isn’t going to be up to your neck?  Do the dogs really have a sense of what ice is good ice?  What if your dogs get wet?  What if you get wet?  What if you fall in and it’s 40 below out?  I’m still figuring these things out, but we do travel with an “oh sh#$%t bag” in which we carry a dry change of clothes in case something goes wrong.  We also keep BIG parkas in our sleds that we never end up wearing because of the rigorous work- running up mountains, yanking the sleds onto a single runner to get them around tight turns, chopping away at surprise downed trees across out route and so on.

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A week or two later we climbed over Primrose Pass on my first longer trip into the park.  Denali was out in the distance towering over everything.  The sky was pink and cheery and the Alaska Range looked wild but not unwelcoming.

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever run dogs,” I said.

Jen smiled, “Just you wait.”

“Just you wait.”

We continued west towards the Mountain.

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Moving to Denali

The first time I visited Denali Park I hated it.

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It was July.  I drove down the Parks Highway from Fairbanks with a friend during a three day vacation.  We were on a mission to see the mountain.

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(This is one of two pictures I took that weekend. . . I know, I should become a professional photographer)

I don’t actually remember whether or not the mountain came out of the clouds while we were there.  All I really remember about the trip are stiff legs from sitting in the car all day and being completely overwhelmed by people every single place we went.  Our first stop was “the canyon”- a sea of shops and tourists (not that I can “tourist” shame as I am the dorkiest traveler you have ever met).  There had to be at least 100 stores crammed into that narrow strip and hundreds upon hundreds of people.

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(This is the second and final picture I took that weekend)

Next it was on to the visitor center in Denali Park where a similar crowd of people running around in every direction greeted us.

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(http://www.tundracomics.com/)

We opted to skip the bus ride into the park, since it sounded unbearably long, but instead drove out to Savage River where we went for a day hike, regularly jumping to the side to avoid other hikers following the canyon in a single file line.  Ahh wilderness.

Then is was on to Talkeetna where we were greeted by a similar scene.  We spent more time in our car than out of it, but a few months in the Arctic had turned me into a wilderness snob and in my mind I had already written the place off as a crowded tourist trap and had little desire to spend any more time there.

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(just a random comic because I love Chad Carpenter)

I drove by the park occasionally over the coming years.  I once dared stop in the canyon for an entire 10 minutes on my way from Anchorage back to Fairbanks to grab a burrito.  A few other times I drove by in the winter and saw all of the shops boarded up and the whole area looking sad and ghostly.

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It was silly to give up on the park after never having actually seen any of it beyond the pavement and, luckily, this fall I found myself signing up to move there for a job.  I figured I’d have a better chance of liking it during the winter anyway.

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It’s a good thing I had the opportunity to give it a second chance because it turns out it is a pretty spectacular place with incredible history.  Since October I have been rambling around it (mostly by dog team for work) and, once you get out there, it is quite nice and maybe even a little wild.

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(My team running by Thorofare Ridge with Denali in the background)

I had great ambitions to keep this blog going through the whole season but we were out in the field so much that I have fallen behind.  I am in civilization until Iditarod so I’ll do my best to catch up!   Stay tuned to read about moose encounters, swimming in knee deep overflow in January, elusive wolf kills and some wonderful sled dogs.  You can follow my instagram site to see more pictures here.

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(Little Vista running in team for the first time and Koven showing her the ropes)

Meeting Team Sedna and a Few Manatees

The transition from solitary cabin life in Alaska to the DEMA (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association) Show in Orlando was a bit of a shock.  I hadn’t been in the company of more than five people at once for a good while and all of the sudden I was standing in a room of hundreds.

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I was in Florida for a long weekend to meet with Team Sedna.  To meet with the scientists, explorers and artists who I will be traveling the Northwest Passage with over the coming three summers.  I couldn’t wait to meet more of the expedition members and to see Lisa and Susan again.

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The first person I met was Renata Rojas who has a talent for making everyone feel welcome.  Renata has been diving since she was twelve and has dived all over the world.  She has an MBA and works for a bank in New York.  Renata also has a passion for the Titanic and won a spot on an expedition to take a Russian submersible down to the ship.  Unfortunately the trip was canceled but Renata still hopes to visit the Titanic one day and I bet she will.

Next I met Becky Kagan Schott who is an Emmy award-winning underwater videographer.  Becky has been diving for 19 years and is known for being able to get video in the most challenging environments including under ice in the Bering Sea!!  I had seen some of her work before and was very excited to meet her in person.  Check out her website here to see some of her incredible images!

I already felt like I knew Amanda from her fantastic facebook page which is always filled with amazing shots.  Amanda Cotton is an underwater photographer.  After meeting us in Florida she was off on an expedition in Norway with Amos Nachoum to photograph orcas and other wildlife.  Amanda is also the founder of Water Women Inc which she created to help build confidence and leadership skills in young women.

I was very excited to meet Stephanie Gandulla who just joined the team and is an underwater archaeologist.  Stephanie works in the Great Lakes with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. She is a National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Association Scientific Diver and has great stories about wrecks in the Great Lakes.

It was wonderful to meet Beatrice Rivoira who is a Marine Biologist and scuba diving educator.  Beatrice came all the way from Italy for the event!  She has dived all over the world and always has had an interest in the polar regions so it seems only right that she would end up heading to the Northwest Passage.  Beatrice co-authored a book called “BioDiving: Ambienti e organismi del Mediterraneo” and writes articles about marine biology to spread environmental education in the diving community.

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After the DEMA show, Becky organized a chance for us to snorkel with the manatees!  We were all up before dawn ready to head out from Crystal River.  I was kind of nervous slipping into the water not entirely sure of what was underneath (our guide was smart enough to save all of his alligator and shark stories for when we were back in the boat!)

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We were lucky to spot manatees almost immediately and even saw a cow and calf.

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Just meeting the Sedna team was a great adventure.  It is strange to think that the next time we see each other might be in the Arctic!

After a few wonderful days in Florida, it was back to Alaska for me.  I could not be more excited for our Northwest Passage adventures.  We have a lot to do to prepare for the expedition but hope to accomplish a great deal.  To learn more check out our website!  http://www.sednaepic.com/

When Dogs Hitchhike

By 11 pm I was too tired to drive any further.  I saw a sign for a hiking trail an hour or so past Jasper and decided to sneak in to park my car and sleep there.  It was very dark.  No moon that night.  I began rummaging around the front seat trying to figure out where on earth I had left my headlamp when a noise became audible and began to grow louder.  It was coming closer.  It was coming towards me.  It almost sounded like a bell.   I held my breath and strained my ears.  Just as my fingers grasped the band of my headlamp the sound of a thud came from outside the car.  Something had rammed into the parked car.  I was in grizzly country . . .

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It had been a week since I had left home.  3,000 miles down and 2,000 miles to go to Denali Park in Alaska for a winter job.  Every inch further north I went, I felt less and less sure about my decision.  Leaving family and friends on the east coast is always hard and leaving them for a job that will have me living outside in Alaska’s interior with temperatures down to 50 below to patrol Denali Park by dog team is probably crazy.  I noticed the job on a website called sleddogcentral.com.  I check the site a couple of times a month – mostly because I have been missing dog mushing.  I saw the description for the park job and couldn’t resist applying . . .

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Denali Park will turn 100 years old in 2017.  The sled-dog patrols are just as old and have changed little since 1917.  The rangers still deal with the awful cold, wild winds, navigating river ice and overflow, angry moose and storms.  The patrols last from one day up to six weeks, increasing in length throughout the winter as the dogs build up endurance.  The dogs help transport scientists doing research in the park as well as supplies for cabin building and restoration projects.  The dog trails can be used by winter recreationists to ski and snowshoe on.  The winter patrols also help deter illegal activities in the park.

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It sounded like a great adventure and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the 4 person team and began driving north a few weeks later.

. . .

Another thud against the car.  It’s gotta be a bear.  I turned on my head lamp and aimed it out the driver’s window.  It only illuminated empty space.  Shaken, I put my key back into the ignition and turned on the headlights ready to move forward.

A dog wearing a bear bell sat squarely in front of the car staring back at me.  He was maybe 55 pounds and had dark marble coloring and handsome eyes.  He was wearing a green backpack.  He ran over to the driver’s door and jumped up on the side.  I turned off the car and opened the door cautiously and found myself in the company of a very friendly kid.

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There was one other car on the far side of the parking lot but no one was there.  The dog had no tag on his collar and his backpack contained a water bowl and three bags of kibble.  I gave him some of my water and some of the food in his bag and settled in for the night, deciding that I’d take him to the ranger station an hour or so drive down the road the next morning if his owners hadn’t materialized.

As I drifted off to sleep, I became increasingly certain that the dog had been trained as a decoy to lure in unsuspecting travelers as his owner, a clever axe murderer, waited in the trees.  Luckily, this turned out not to be the case.

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In the morning, my new friend was still looking at me expectantly.  I invited him into the passenger seat and drove to the Mt. Robson Visitor Center.  He curled up and fell asleep immediately.  It was very nice to have company in the car for a few miles.  At the visitor center a very nice girl named Sarah took the dog in and recorded the information about where I had found him.  I called back to see what happened today.  It turned out that his owners had been hiking and the dog had gotten lost in all of his enthusiasm to run around.  The owners had continued to look for him out on the trail and camped out there overnight while he ran back to the parking lot.  They were very relieved to find him at the visitor center.

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Banff

. . .

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I probably should have researched my route through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory a little more thoroughly than just eye balling it on a terrible map and tracing it with my finger once.  I did not realize that I was heading straight for the Cassiar Highway – which apparently has a reputation of being worse than Alaska’s Dalton (ice road truckers) Highway – until I was sitting in a grocery store parking lot in Prince Rupert a few hours’ drive away.  Well, this will be an adventure, I thought.

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I also didn’t realize that I was driving the “Highway of Tears”- an infamous area where 40 unsolved disappearances and murders of young women have occurred since 1969.  I was relieved to leave the Highway of Tears behind and made it to the Cassiar by dark.  I feel safer hiking alone in the backcountry than traveling alone in the front country.

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The first sign I had seen with the word “Alaska” on it stood right there, so I knew I was heading in the right direction!  It was good to see.  I continued north for a few more hours.  The road was in very good condition.  I parked my car by a quiet lake just south of the Bell II River crossing.  I organized the back of my car for sleeping.  No mysterious creatures of the night jumped up on it this time.

There was a faint green band in the sky when I had parked the car and I was surprised when the color deepened and the lights began to dance around a few minutes later.  I could see them out of the car’s front window as I lay on my belly wrapped up in my sleeping bag.  There were even some darker pinks in the coloring.

It is good to be back in the north.

Women’s Dive Day

This weekend a geophysicist, a jellyfish venom expert, a doctor specializing in hyperbaric medicine, a professional photographer, a veteran Pacific Northwest Coast diver, a film crew, and a writer met at a marina just south of Seattle and set off into Puget Sound.  The skies were pure blue and the temperatures so warm, that all parties were eager to jump in the water.  It was Women’s Dive Day and what better way to celebrate?

George and Andrea from Ocean Quest took us to several snorkel/dive sites this weekend.  One with a great view of the Seattle skyline.

I was excited about the Sedna Epic Expedition before this trip, but meeting the team members in person, seeing how knowledgeable they are and the eagerness in their eyes brought the whole trip to life for me.

Caroline, Susan and Lisa!

We went snorkeling, diving, and learned to use Dive Xtras Piranha scooters.   This was all a blast and I felt like a kid again as I reeled around in circles, flying past pilings and practicing figure eights all while listening to my new friends laughing in delight as they swung around behind their own piranhas.

Susan and Lisa, the founders of “Synchronized Scootering”

The best part of the trip by far though, was meeting Susan, Angel, Caroline and Lisa all for the first time.  What incredible women.  I am just in awe of them.

Caroline, Lisa and Angel getting ready to head out into Puget Sound

Angel Yanagihara is a jellyfish venom expert.  After a nasty encounter with a box jellyfish while swimming in Waikiki, the biochemist began researching and developing a treatment.  After all of this experience, she was asked to accompany Diana Nyad on her legendary swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to Key West.  Angel’s job was to swim along with Diana in the night to protect her from box jellyfish.  Click here to listen to a TED Talk Angel gave!

Caroline suited up and ready to go!

Caroline has recently returned from an archaeological expedition in Mongolia!  She is a doctor specializing in hyperbaric medicine and will be the expedition doctor in the Northwest Passage.  Among her other accomplishments, Caroline has dived and snorkeled all over the world including Antarctica and has trekked to base camp on Everest.

Lisa and Nick

Lisa is a professional photographer who is working to build awareness and create change to protect the Arctic through photography.  Lisa will be heading up to the Arctic this August on Sylvia Earle’s Expedition:  Elysium Artists for the Arctic.  Learn more and view her amazing images here!

Brad and Nick on our way to the first dive site

It was fun to meet Brad and Nick who filmed the adventure and let me pick their brains about camera equipment and past adventures.  Brad has already spent a lot of time in the far north filming Ice Pilots and is full of wild stories.

George, Susan and the Dive Xtra crew

And then of course there is Susan, the expedition leader, bringing all of these amazing people together from the far corners of the globe.  She came up with the idea to snorkel the Northwest Passage after hearing about a sailboat that made it through a couple of years ago.  Susan has explored the world’s oceans in the snorkel zone and has traveled to both the Arctic and Antarctica multiple times.  She is a geologist, geophysicist, conservationist and journalist.

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I feel completely humbled to be a part of this team and am eager to learn everything I can.

With a group of such incredible women, amazing things are sure to be accomplished.  We are going to snorkel the 3,000 km Northwest Passage.  We are going to build a platform to speak about ocean and climate change.  We are going to work with the villages along the coast to learn more about how the environment is changing.  We are going build an educational outreach program.  We are going to inspire women and girls to think BIG.  We are going to do it!

Follow us on Sedna’s facebook page to watch as the progress continues.

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