Environment

Youth join crew of NWT research vessel rescued from scrap


A research vessel brought back to life in a million-dollar refit spent its maiden voyage carrying five NWT youth to Great Slave Lake's East Arm aboard a surveying expedition.

Former Canadian Coast Guard vessel Nahidik lay decommissioned in Hay River for almost a decade before being leased by the Arctic Research Foundation – a private non-profit known for its recent role in discovering the wrecks of Franklin expedition ships Erebus and Terror.

Nahidik's first trip with the foundation took place last month, carrying among its crew five students, aged 13 to 19, from the Yellowknife area and Łutselkʼe.

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"It's humongous. Huge. I've never seen anything like it before," said 17-year-old Zhanayii Drygeese, from Dettah, as she looked out to Great Slave Lake from the 53-metre-long ship's bow.

The scientists inspire the youth – and the reverse, too.

Adrian Schimnowski, ARCTIC RESEARCH FOUNDATION

Drygeese spent four days learning from the ship's crew and researchers surveying the lake bed at Christie Bay, where Great Slave Lake descends to a depth of 614 metres – making it the deepest lake in North America.

"They've been able to do everything from observing the different surveying instruments – in terms of the things that people are using to observe the lake bottom – to how the ship is run, from the radar to the engine room, to the professionals cooking our meals three times a day," said Tracey Williams, NWT lead for Nature United, a conservancy organization that partnered to create the trip.

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"I learned a lot," said Drygeese. "It's really interesting and it's something that I want to get into – but probably not marine," she added, laughing, "because I kinda have a fear of water. I just fought my fear."

The project grew from nothing with remarkable pace. Work to refit the ship, built in 1974 and decommissioned in 2011, only began in June. After initial conversations in summer about taking students aboard Nahidik, Ali McConnell – project director at Northern Youth Leadership – quickly found five youth to participate.

"The kids had so much fun on board," McConnell told Cabin Radio. "I think all of us kind-of pulled up to the boat and it was a bit like, 'Whoa, this is actually where we get to live for five days!'

"And the energy among the youth was so palpable. Every day, as they got more comfortable, they were engaging more and they were asking more questions, and they were getting so excited about it.

"Forty-eight hours in, they were already going: 'When do we come back? How do we get back on this boat?' I think it'll take them probably, like, three months to process everything that's happened in the last five days."

Nahidik docked in Yellowknife Bay

Nahidik docked in Yellowknife Bay. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Taylor Schear on board Nahidik

Taylor Schear on board Nahidik, her home for four days while exploring Great Slave Lake. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Taylor Schear, a 13-year-old at Ndilo's K'alemi Dene School, stepped in to replace a student who withdrew from the trip.

"I wanted to come because I wanted to learn about the lake and some science," Schear said.

"It was really relaxing and peaceful out there. It was really beautiful, too, and I got to learn about the machines up there in the bridge. And now, when I look at it, it all makes sense."

Nahidik – which will soon be renamed, with the help of students – is the Arctic Research Foundation's fifth research vessel. The ship had passed from the Canadian Coast Guard to marine transportation company NTCL, then ended up in the territorial government's hands when it assumed control of the failing NTCL in 2016.

A photo of Nahidik in 2005

A photo of Nahidik in 2005, in Canadian federal livery.

Nahidik with repainted GNWT funnels

Nahidik in repainted NWT government livery. The ship passed into territorial government hands in 2016. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Foundation chief executive Adrian Schimnowski came across Nahidik last year, setting in motion its new life.

"We're trying to create a vision where youth can work alongside scientists who are specialists in many broad areas of research," Schimnowski said.

"An interesting thing happens when you have a group of people come on a ship. We're out on the water, the lake or ocean – wherever it is we come together – and everyone becomes equal. So the scientists inspire the youth, and the reverse, too."

While youth get to join expeditions, Nahidik is primarily a fully operational research vessel.

"This was the maiden voyage. Later today, we're departing to the East Arm and we're doing a bathymetric survey," said Schimnowski. "Basically, a lot of the areas [of Great Slave Lake] are uncharted, and we have instrumentation on board to build charts, accurate hydrographic charts.

"We had students on board but they were partaking in the research, the surveying, the work that we're doing. Everywhere we go, we're making use of our time."

McConnell says Northern Youth Leadership is beginning to plan future voyages. Opportunities will be advertised through the organization's Facebook page.

Drygeese, returning from her trip, urged other students to sign up as soon as they can.

"Just take every opportunity that you have come your way," she said," and you'll get great experiences from it."

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