Girls on Ice – a wilderness adventure

Contributed photoChristelle Inema is headed to Alaska.

Christelle Inema, Spring Street International School exchange student from Rwanda has not had much experience with snow or ice but she will spend 12 days trekking about Alaskan glaciers from June 17-28, in the program of a life time “Girls on Ice”.

“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for a student who just showed up from Rwanda,” said Tim Dwyer, Spring Street science and math teacher.

Girls on Ice” began 16 years ago, when Seattle native Erin Pettit launched the program in the Cascades. Five years ago, she expanded the program with a partnership through the University of Fairbanks, to include a trip into the Alaskan glacial wilderness. The group of nine girls will collect data on Glukana Glacier, near Fairbanks, for research programs the girls design, according to Pettit. And they will present their research to the public at the end.

“I started “Girls on Ice” to give girls the kind of opportunity I wish I had at age 16, the chance to challenge myself, learn what I was really capable of,” said Pettit.

In looking at applications, there are 10 different categories “Girls on Ice” organizers looks at, according to Pettit, including altruism and a passion for life.

“It’s easier to explain what we don’t look for,” she said. That list includes girls who are only interested because it will look good on their college applications, although Pettit makes it clear they do not have to be a “science geek”.

“Our society seems to like to tell girls that they aren’t smart enough to be scientists, they aren’t strong enough to be mountaineers, they aren’t powerful enough to be leaders,” said Pettit.

“We want to show these girls they actually are smart, strong, and can be amazing leaders.”

Incredibly, for such a large scale program, with such a huge vision, “Girls on Ice” is tuition-free. Pettit said they feel even a scholarship program might inhibit some families from applying to “Girls on Ice,” so she decided to go another route to ensure no girl will be left behind. As a result, she explained, they rely on private donors and agencies. Contributors like National Science Foundation, Charlotte Martin Foundation, and North Face Explore Fund help “Girls on Ice” continue, and allow its organizers to focus on the actual programs, and the girls who experience them, Pettit said.

Inema, passionate about life and learning, clearly meets their criteria. Inema said she is excited to learn about mountains, glaciers, and wildlife, and to see Alaska and explore the differences between San Juan County and the arctic region.

“Every place is different, which is why I love traveling,” she said.

Inema is also excited to meet new people. In an interesting twist, one of the other eight girls accepted into the program is from Lopez Island, Ashwini Bartolucci (for more on Bartolucci, please read Island Weekly’s “Lopez Island Student Bound for Alaskan glaciers”). The two had not met before the trip, and while Inema would have liked to meet Bartolucci before the trip she was looking forward to eventually meeting her during the program. As of press time, the girls will not only have met but have had amazing adventures together and be on their way home.

To get an idea of what some of their adventures may be, Pettit described some of the more crazy things that have happened during “Girls on Ice”, like during a recent Alaskan trip when the girls hiked down the glacier in a storm with pea-size hail.

“They were all glad they had climbing helmets on,”Pettit exclaimed.

This will be an intense experience for Inema, who only began hiking after she arrived in Friday Harbor. When she learned she was accepted in to “Girls on Ice,” Inema trained herself by hiking around the island.

“I wasn’t born to do this,” Inema said. “Some people have been hiking for years, but it’s kind of hard. No matter how old you are, though, you can get into it, train yourself.”

For Inema, who grew up in the warm lush green landscape of Rwanda, the Glukana Glacier will be a very different type of environment. Before she left, Inema envisioned herself getting into either medicine or education, but as Dwyer pointed out, “[this trip] could take her life in a whole new direction.”

Regardless, Inema plans on returning to Friday Harbor afterward, and spending the rest of her summer preparing for her senior year at Spring Street. That too, she is excited about.

“It’s a nice school,” Inema said, “it gives me the chance to explore.”