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