The day after high school graduation in 1987, Bill Schmoker, a Lakewood, Colorado, native, and his friend headed to Alaska. They spent the summer fishing and hiking and even drove the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay where they saw the Arctic Ocean for the first time. Twenty-three years later, Schmoker saw the Arctic again from a completely different perspective.
“It’s easy to get fooled on a 420-foot ice breaker. Looking out, I realized that the Arctic is a rough place to cope with,” said Schmoker. “ There’s lots of darkness for half the year, cold water and shifting ice – darn tough! I have a new respect for the people who explored the Arctic and for the people who live here.”
As part of PolarTREC, an NSF-funded program which pairs K-12 teachers with polar field science projects, Schmoker spent five weeks aboard the 420-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Not only is the Healy the largest and most technologically advanced ship in the Coast Guard fleet, but her ice-breaking capabilities are what made the Healy an essential vessel for this summer’s science mission.
The Healy maps the seafloor using a variety of sonar instrumentation while breaking ice for the Canadian Coast Guard ship, the Louis S. St-Laurent, which maps the seafloor subsurface using a towed seismic reflection system.
This was the third year of the International Continental Shelf Survey, an ongoing joint effort between the U.S. and Canada to map the sea floor in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada. The countries are working together to collect data that will help each verify where they have natural resource rights in the Canada Basin under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which spells out how countries define their ocean boundaries.
Schmoker met the Healy in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where he spent a couple of days exploring and getting to know the science party before the group got underway. Schmoker settled in to life aboard the Healy during a five-day transit through the Bering Strait to the Chukchi Sea until “at around 4 am this morning I was awakened by a bumping sensation in my bunk accompanied by low thumping sounds,” Schmoker wrote in his June 21 journal entry. “It almost felt as though someone had banged into the bed or slammed something into the wall outside my cabin. Ordinarily I'd be concerned with this development but I knew that chances were good that we'd get into loose sea ice overnight.”
One of Schmoker’s many roles aboard the Healy was that of watchstander. During a daily four-hour shift he and another shipmate, along with one of the chief scientists from the United States Geological Survey, manned a station surrounded by monitors displaying data from the ship’s navigational and sonar systems – instrumentation crucial to the success of the science mission.
When not on watch, Schmoker joined the water sampling team, collecting and cataloging samples from a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) rosette which collects water samples at different depths as it is lowered to the sea floor. He also helped out with ice observations, coring operations, attended twenty ship-board science lectures, and talked with students via satellite phone.
Down-time activities like Saturday night movie night in the Healy’s helicopter hangar, bingo, and helping to cook pizza on science crew cooks night, helped Schmoker feel at home during his five weeks at sea.
“This was my first experience sleeping on ship overnight. It’s very stable and there was a lot of personal comfort. I was a little surprised - even though it’s a military ship, it’s more relaxed than I would have thought,” he said. “ They were so welcoming and accommodating, hosting me, a crazy science teacher. I could ask all the questions I wanted and they were very patient.”
A Teacher Recharged
Now in his 18th year of teaching, Schmoker found his at-sea experience a perfect melding of earth science and biology, the two courses he teaches at Centennial Middle School in Boulder, Colorado. An avid birder and bird photographer, Schmoker had plenty of first time experiences during his trip. He’s ready to share his adventures with his classes through lesson plans and curriculum development. And he’ll be telling everyone he can about everything he’s done and seen.
“A minke whale, eight polar bears and fourteen ‘life’ birds (bird species seen for the first time)—outstanding! And this trip made me a better science teacher.” —Marcy Davis