Young Yukoners swap poles

There's a reason why the stretch of water is nicknamed the Drake Shake. The swells were 30 feet high and the ship was hitting a 30-degree tilt.

There’s a reason why the stretch of water is nicknamed the Drake Shake.

The swells were 30 feet high and the ship was hitting a 30-degree tilt.

“Pretty much all of us were wearing motional sickness patches and taking Gravol like it was candy,” says 23-year-old Kaitlyn Obstfeld.

She was one of three Yukoners who experienced the shake first-hand when they travelled to Antarctica this winter as part of the Students on Ice program.

The Drake Passage is a 1,000-km body of water between the most southern tip of South America and the most northern point of the Antarctica peninsula. Its storms are nothing to be scoffed at.

The trip through the passage the first time was a pretty calm one.

“The Drake Passage is nicknamed either the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake. We had fairly calm seas going down so it was considered Drake Lake,” said Obstfeld.

But when the ship had to come back through to head home, things had changed. The vessel found itself caught between two storms.

“You don’t eat for three days and you just sit there in the lounge looking out the window,” Obstfeld said. “Trying to focus on the horizon, but you’re seeing sea, sky, sea, sky.”

At one point during the “shake,” Obstfeld, along with fellow Yukoners Shyloh van Delft, 19, and Teah Dickson, 16, stood on the deck to do an interview with reporters back home.

“We basically had one hand on the sat phone and one hand on the railing. You’re just trying to focus,” Obstfeld said.

“And not fall over the rail,” van Delft added.

The Students on Ice program takes students from high school and university on expeditions to either the Arctic or Antarctic. Since 2000, more than 2,500 high school and university students from 52 countries have participated, according to organizers.

The Yukoners first flew out of Whitehorse and to Toronto.

They made their way down to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and from there to the city of Ushuaia in the most southern part of the country.

By December 30 they were on a ship with students ranging from 14 to 38 years old.

The ship would spend nine days at sea exploring the region.

“It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another thing entirely to go down and experience it,” van Delft said.

Students are guided onboard by a range of professionals including everything from university professors to historians.

But most of the education came from the first-hand experiences.

Obstfeld said the group saw more activity in the wildlife then organizers have ever seen before.

In one particular bay, four different whale species were spotted.

And they were showing off.

“The real show was the orca whales. They were teaching their young how to hunt. We were actually seeing them chucking a leopard seal up to the sky. They didn’t kill it, they were just chucking it up and teaching their young how to hunt,” Obstfeld said.

“We saw them actually hunting the minke whales too. It was crazy, we’d see a couple of minke whales – they have smaller fins – and then these big orca fins going by.”

The trip itself was not cheap. The group estimates it would have cost them about $11,000 each if they had to pay for it on their own.

Dickson was one of five Canadians to receive a scholarship. Obstfeld and van Delft relied on fundraising and company sponsorship to help cover their costs.

Van Delft, who’s from Tagish, said she is particularly grateful for her community’s support.

“Pretty much the whole community there sent me on my way,” she said.

Everyone agreed it was worth it.

“It’s opened up all kinds of other opportunities. We’ve been connected to people who have the same interests, who have achieved amazing things, and they’re going to help us get to where we want to go,” van Delft said.

After effectively swapping poles – the furthest they travelled was 64 degrees south – the experience was clearly memorable.

“To see this untouched and vast environment down there – it’s an amazing ecosystem that’s full of life. But then again it’s so sensitive,” Obstfeld said.

The trip was the next step for both women when it comes to their education. Obstfeld recently graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in environmental sciences. Van Delft, who will be graduating Grade 12 in a month, has plans to become an ornithologist.

Dickson is already dreaming of going back.

“This is something you’ll never forget. I definitely want to go back now. There’s so much more to see and do. It’s not just a big piece of ice anymore.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services building in Whitehorse on March 28, 2019. Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed for good say they were relieved to hear that the Yukon RCMP has undertaken a forensic audit into the now-defunct NGO’s financial affairs. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Former Many Rivers board members relieved to hear about forensic audit, wonder what took so long

Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed… Continue reading

Whitehorse General Hospital in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. The Yukon Employees’ Union and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
YEU, Yukon Hospital Corp. at odds over whether hospitals are understaffed

YEU says four nurses quit within 12 hours last week, a claim the YHC says is “inaccurate”

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates, Ray Hartling and Mark Lange, have filed a class action against the jail, corrections officials and Yukon government on behalf of everyone who’s been placed in two restrictive units over the past six years. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Class action filed against Whitehorse Correctional Centre over use of segregation

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates have filed a class action against… Continue reading


Wyatt’s World for Oct. 21, 2020

Movie poster for <em>Ìfé,</em> a movie being shown during OUT North Film Festival, which includes approximately 20 different films accessible online this year. (Submitted)
OUT North Film Festival moves to virtual format

In its ninth year, the artistic director said this year has a more diverse set of short and feature films

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Most Read