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Bowdoin students venture to Arctic as program expands

September 8, 2023

For over 160 years, Bowdoin has been connecting students and faculty members with the Arctic, forging intellectual and community relationships across Norway, Finland, Canada, Alaska and Greenland. This summer, the Arctic studies program sent student researchers to Greenland and the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador to continue this legacy of years past.

Susan Kaplan, chair of the department of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, instructed the Arctic research program this summer for the first time since Covid-19 and the program’s move into the new Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies. Kaplan emphasized Bowdoin’s strong community ties to the Arctic from previous expeditions throughout the College’s history.

“The tradition is the biggest part of this. Bowdoin people from 1860 were going to the Arctic, and people keep going back to the same parts of the Arctic,” Kaplan said. “There are some Inuit communities that know how to pronounce the word Bowdoin­—let’s put it that way.”

Alex Peacock from Maine Maritime Academy captained the Schooner Bowdoin’s voyage to Labrador this summer, with students Lilli Frank ’25 and Reed Carlman ’24 on board. The ship sailed 3,000 nautical miles to some of the same communities it had visited decades ago.

At one port, the crew met a man who had last seen the ship as a child, when it was painted gray and used in service for World War II.

“It was incredible just to see the students’ world open up. It was my first time on the ice as well, so we were all experiencing it together. It was definitely remarkable,” Peacock said. “In every community, we saw nothing but hospitality, excitement and gratefulness that the ship was back.”

The Arctic studies program-sponsored Greenland trip, spearheaded by Aggie Macy ’24, was similarly designed as a portal into Bowdoin’s storied Arctic past.

In 1913, 1898 Bowdoin graduate and Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan made a historic voyage to Greenland that inspired the construction of the Schooner Bowdoin. While he was there, he took a number of photographs, many of which Macy took with her on her five-week journey. She then worked with Greenlandic museum curators to recreate MacMillan’s images in their original locations.

“I was trying to give back to these communities in making sure they have online access to these photos. There’s a lot of industrialization—new buildings, old buildings—that are gone. So much has changed,” Macy said.

Traveling to the Arctic was a long-time dream of Macy’s. She noted that many of her seminar classes have culminated in research projects collaborating with the Arctic studies program. The program’s leaders helped Macy acquire funding, make an itinerary and navigate the complexities of Arctic living—including camping in 35-degree weather.

“Their knowledge and expertise was so influential. I absolutely would not have done this trip without their excitement about continuing the tradition of Bowdoin students in the Arctic,” Macy said.

Kaplan hopes that the program’s recent move into the Gibbons Center will mean that this summer’s adventures are just the tip of the Arctic studies iceberg.

According to Kaplan, new program specific classrooms and office space will allow for expanded offerings across different departments including anthropology, government and legal studies, Hispanic studies, biology and physics.

“What this new space is going to do in terms of our interface with academic programs is amazing,” Kaplan said. “It makes it much easier for us to work in diverse and various ways … and to be a place where science, social science and art overlap.”

Kaplan hopes that the program, which now offers a concentration in Arctic studies, could someday offer a coordinate major. She noted students’ increasing interest in the region with each new class, as partially attributed to its rise in global politics and the increased impact of climate change on global ecosystems and Indigenous populations.

“Not a week goes by where there’s not an article about the Arctic,” Kaplan said. “Especially with Russia having the longest coastline in the Arctic. The Russia-Ukraine War and global warming, shipping traffic, tourism and so on have magnified the geopolitics of the Arctic.”

With its new space, the program will be able to sustain research projects and exhibits to highlight the region’s importance and bring Indigenous speakers to campus, such as the building of an Inuksuit (an Arctic wayfinding structure made of large stones) that Inuit artist Peter Irniq will build in front of Gibbons this fall.

In the meantime, the Schooner Bowdoin has increased its number of scheduled voyages to the Arctic, with three trips planned over the next decade.

On next year’s Arctic circle expedition, Peacock hopes to reconnect with the communities they formed connections with this summer.

“On the way back, hopefully, we can see these new friends in Labrador,” Peacock said.



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