Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Factors Affecting Expedition Dynamics

Whilst the traditional view of group dynamics and effectiveness is dependent on cognitive ability and technical skills (Brymer, 2006), contemporary research indicates a strong link between performance and individuals' ability to co-operate, resolve conflicts effectively and communicate openly (Forsythe, 2006). Further work has highlighted the importance of individual meaning, values and beliefs that are brought to the experience (Smith & Mackie, 2007). However, studies of these or other factors that may affect individual, group and leadership dynamics on expeditions are sparse. Obtaining insights into such elements could be of use to outdoor leadership practitioners, in the same way exploring the dynamics of sport teams has been useful in understanding organisational structures (Brymer, 2006).

In terms of appreciating the dynamics that exist in an emerging group setting, then overlapping similarities can be found between sports and expeditions (Brymer, 2006). In that, physically oriented activities are inherent in both, requiring successful leadership, either designated or emergent, to succeed in achieving specific goals (Ogilvie, 2005). However, there are a number of important differences. Expeditions often include an extended preparation period in order to achieve a goal that may take months to complete (e.g. Fuchs, 2007). Furthermore, the task is rarely associated with direct competition against another team and once the task is complete, the expedition usually disbands (Wright, 2005). Some organisational groups share these task similarities. However, expedition participants are together for twenty-four hours each day. Often expeditions involve journeys in hazardous environments where members' interact with cultures that are vastly different from their own (Beames, 2003). In addition, work-based teams generally gain support from an overarching body, whereas on expedition groups are invariably self-contained and remote from familiar surroundings.

A crucial factor affecting group dynamics and effectiveness, especially considering the extreme situations that are sometimes experienced on expeditions, is the extent to which leaders have an effect on the emotional and general wellbeing of others. Therefore, it seems likely that the way a leader perceives their role during an expedition will have a strong influence on group dynamics (Blanchard et al., 2007; Deegan, 2007; Wagstaff, Attarian & Drury, 2007). Higgs et al., (2005) note that a leader should ensure the best use of each team member. As such, the role of the leader is vital in ensuring that individuals develop the shared feelings required for optimum performance (Mitten & Clement, 2007; Wright, 2005; Yukelson, 2005).

Potentially the time spent away from home can give participants the opportunity for experimentation, observation and reflection leading to a deeper and broader understanding of their place in the intellectual, physical, social and emotional world (Bartunek, 2006; Priest & Gass, 2005; Pike & Beames, 2007). Still, the use of expeditions for personal development has been challenged (Allison, 1998; Garst et al., 2001). Furthermore, it has been argued that positive experiences depend on the individual's initial attributes, value attainment, beliefs and identity (Brymer, 2006). It is possible that an expedition could result in personal devastation. Only if this intense emotional conflict results in personal integration will growth take place. Conceivably, this is how expeditions enhance personal growth. If this is the case, then support and understanding from the leader are critical (Wagstaff et al., 2007).

Expeditions are clearly complex and unique matters where groups dynamics are interwoven with personal experiences. Mortlock (2001) suggest that an expedition can bring together everything that is central to outdoor learning. An expedition can represent the pinnacle of a participants existence, aligning elements of discovery through new perspectives (Bartunek, 2004). For indivdiual group members, expeditions can constitute changes in their experience of their world and their reactions to these situations reform their personal relationships with the world and ‘self’ in intellectual, physical, emotional and social dimensions (Beames, 2004; Fredrickson & Anderson, 1999; Stott and Hall, 2003). Certainly expeditions can be a suitable vehicle for learning (Ashby, 1999; Drury et al., 2005; Kennedy, 1992).

Despite the disparate nature of expeditions, existing research has indicated the importance of psychological and psychosocial considerations, in particular the role of group dynamics (Brymer, 2006; Potter, 1998; Woodvine, 1998). Any form of leadership within that context needs to demonstrate an adaptable and flexible approach. Expeditions can also be led more effectively if the factors and antecedents that may affect individual, team and leadership dynamics are recognised and understood.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gino's Greenland

Considered by many as the birthplace of the Inuit qajaq, Greenland's coastal waters offer a sea kayaker some of the finest paddling, probably anywhere in the world. Whether gliding over mirror-like fjords at sunset or battling through moving pack ice in stormy tidal passages, time spent traversing the coastline will not be easily forgotten. The wildlife, miles of unpopulated wilderness shoreline, the calving glaciers and icebergs as well as stunning light conditions make for a rich and varied experience.

Although the whole of Greenland's coastline is of interest to paddlers, it is the wild and remote East Coast that inspires most of all. A combination of incredible mountains and seascapes together with the ancient Inuit culture that lives on in the region's few tiny settlements will capture hearts and minds. One other draw to this region of Greenland in particular is the connection with Henry George "Gino" Watkins

Gino Watkins was only twenty-five when he died on 20th August 1932. Yet by that time, he had earned a reputation for himself such as few men twice his age enjoy. The leader of several major expeditions to Arctic terrain, he had won the respect of both elders and contemporaries through the strength of his mysterious personality. A passionate enthusiast for adventure, he was yet level-headed and shrewd; pleasure–loving, perhaps cynical in some ways, he was outstanding among explorers for his careful assembling of the details of the intractable wilds into which he journeyed.

Always interested in outdoor pursuits, Watkins had become an avid mountain climber during his schooldays in Sussex. Many summer holidays were spent garnering enough climbs to qualify for membership of the Alpine Club until, in 1925, he suffered a serious fall while hunting chamois in the Austrian Tyrol.

After just three weeks of convalescence, he headed to Trinity College, Cambridge to begin a degree in Geography. However, because of the severity of his fall, doctors advised that Gino study little during the first two terms, and it was while searching for something to keep his mind occupied that Gino attended a lecture entitled 'Man in The Polar Regions'. Inspired by this, Watkins hunted down the lecturer and badgered him until he agreed to introduce him to J. M Wordie, a seasoned polar explorer who had taken part in Shackleton's 1914-17 expedition. The pair immediately hit it off.

Wordie was due to set off to the Arctic in the summer of 1926, and although his party was complete, he sensed promise in Watkins and offered him a place on an expedition to East Greenland the following year. When the trip was then postponed, Watkins decided to organise an expedition of his own to Edge Island, off the coast of Spitsbergen. This was followed by another to Labrador, and he then took part in the British Arctic Air Route Expedition of 1930-31 to Greenland.

Watkins returned to East Greenland in the summer of 1932 he set out, with three companions. The team took so much scientific equipment that they had little room for food supplies, intending to hunt seals and polar bears themselves. As the most experienced hunter, Watkins was often left to hunt solo. A firm believer in utilising local knowledge, he used a kayak that had been purpose built for the trip. 

It was while hunting seals, on 20 August 1932, just over a month after the expedition left England, that Watkins disappeared. His kayak was found adrift in the northern branch of Lake Fjord, and his trousers and kayak apron were discovered on a floe a kilometre away. A search for his body proved fruitless.

Watkins kayak has hung within the Royal Geograhical Society's for many years and the hunting equipment that was found inside it is now stored within the archives. Gino is credited as being one of the first Europeans to master the art of rolling for practical reasons, that being for survival whilst hunting, rather than showmanship like Hans Pawlatta.

For those interested in emulating the paddle strokes of Henry George "Gino" Watkins, the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, under the joint trusteeship of the University of Cambridge and the Royal Geographical Society, gives grants towards expeditions that meets its objectives of guiding and inspiring enterprising young people towards scientific research and exploration in the polar regions.

If you are feeling adventurous, I recommend participating in an expedition organised by Martin Rickard of Sea Kayak Adventures, Shetland. Martin has extensive knowledge of the region in which Gino explored and of Gino Watkins himself.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Greenland 2010 - Reflections

This summer I had the privilege of joining a team of sea kayakers who were venturing out to East Greenland under the guidance of Martin Rickard - Sea Kayak Adventures, Shetland. Martin has several years of experience leading expeditions to this area including a 600 mile unsupported trip down the uninhabited and wild coast between Scoresbysund and Tasiilaq - you can read more about that experience here. It gave me the chance to return to a much loved part of the world as well as furthering my PhD research in observing the sort of dynamics that occur on expedition.

East Greenland is one of the most remotely inhabited places in the world. Along the 2,600 kilometres of coastline you’ll only encounter two towns and 7 small settlements, populated by a little more than 3,500 people. There is a natural reason for this very sparse settlement - East Greenland is situated between the polar sea ice and the Greenlandic Icecap, and is only accessible with supply ships 5 months a year. An awesome wilderness of more than 1,457,000 km².

Flying into Kulusuk from Iceland, looking across to Ammassalik, a person can’t help but feel a sense of wonderment at East Greenland’s exceptional beauty, and at being in one of the world’s most stunning and unspoiled arctic regions. The land is a mosaic of steep, dramatic mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and green valleys as well as ice filled fjords. Ammassalik radiates purity, which can be both overwhelming and fascinating in equal measure when you are amongst it all in a sea kayak.

A boat trip from Kulusk takes you to Tasiilaq, which is located on Ammassalik Island just, and where Martin begins his expeditions. Tasiilaq boasts long hours of daylight in the summer, and the splendour of the northern lights in the winter. Colourful wooden houses fill the hillsides around the harbour, which is beautifully situated by King Oscar Fjord and surrounded by high mountains. Tasiilaq is very much a modern community with many of the amenities one would come to expect. At the same time traditional Greenlandic culture is present in many layers of the society, making an interesting co-existence of old and new.

The main occupation for many people here is still hunting, where seal, narwhal and polar bear are the primary sources of food and income. Old traditions associated with the division of the catch are still observed in East Greenland. For example, the skin of the polar bear is given to the person who first sighted the animal rather than the hunter who actually killed it, who will get the scull, some ribs and one of the behind legs.

Outside of Tasiilaq and the other five settlements in the region (Kulusk, Kuummiut, Tiniteqilaaq, Sermiligaaq and Isortoq) a visitor to this area will come across very few signs of active habitation, though the Greenlanders have been around for centuries. This is evident in the archeological sites that we came across on our journey. Fallen stone structures, remains of turf huts, abandoned villages from more recent times, and hunting huts used currently by locals are dotted along the coast. Due to the climate and landscape there is no infrastructure outside Tasiilaq and the settlements. In the wintertime the local transportation is by helicopter, skidoos and dogsleds. In the summertime, it's by motorboat and helicopter.

As the group set off to circumnavigate Ammassalik Island – initially paddling up Angmagssalik fjord, then through the long and narrow Ikasartivaq fjord, to reach Tiniteqilaaq (Tinit) – vast gneiss spires and ridges overshadowed us as we paddled along. Kayaking underneath these mountains was a special experience in itself as the scale of them is simply amazing. From Tinit we chose to cross Sermilik Fjord in an attempt to reach Umiagtuartivit, the site of an abandoned settlement, as well explore Sermilik's upper regions as far as Fangsthus. There are 3 enormous glaciers calving icebergs into the waters at its head, creating a waterway always full of vast quantities of ice, and so presenting a sea kayaker with numerous issues.

In order to cross Sermilik Fjord, we had to carefully pick our way through a maze of pack ice, which was in contrast to other, more open fjords that in some cases had only large icebergs stranded on the seabed.  We discovered that the ice dampens down any swell, but also presents a unique set of challenges.  Martin advised us to always shape a wide course around any icebergs as their unpredictable nature and sudden collapse could bring a rapid end to someones trip.

The group also developed the routine of pulling the boats up high each night, as breakaway ice can cause sizable waves. This was also true of calving tide-water glaciers, in which case a secure tent location is also paramount! In heavy pack-ice conditions, we found that narrow fjords, especially those feeding into Sermilik, created 'chokes' where tide and wind had constricted the ice causing us to adapt our passage plans.

As the group continued to round Ammassalik Island, we entered a bay and landed at Ikateq, a village that has been abandoned since 1999. Martin explained that hunters do occasionally come back, but it was very empty and it appeared the people left in a hurry. The school and church displayed things that were left behind - books, maps, markers without lids, glue sticks, and numbers for song books. This community of only 30 people was moved to Tasiilaq, where they would have running water and electricity. The atmosphere of the place felt quite strange and as as such the group choose to move on further down the coast.

At this stage we had the completion of the circumnavigation within our grasp, having paddled over 250 kilometres. Not even a change in the weather or the sea state were able to deter the desire of the team to return to Tasiilaq for showers and a beer. The southern end of Ammassalik provided a contrasting landscape, leading the climbers in the team to gaze in awe at the sheer sided cliffs and ridges, perhaps planning a few ascents in their minds eye!

After taking a time out and re-supply, the expedition continued on to Kulusuk and explored aspects of Apusiajiik Island with its vast tide-water glacier and the surrounding series of skerries. One of the really special aspects of paddling in this region of East Greenland are the wonderful camps that are established each night with views of the iceberg-studded fjords, mountains and the hidden gems that can be found with a little leg stretching on land. Knowing that few have placed footsteps here before.

Throughout the 15 days on the water, we were blessed with pretty stable weather, which meant that as well as enjoying sublime sea kayaking each day we were also treated to breathtaking vistas and sunsets when camping. Even the overcast days, and the occasional rain showers, enhanced the dramatic atmosphere that enveloped us.

The wildlife was also wonderful too – cheeky arctic foxes, broaching whales and birds of many varieties. Though no polar bears on this outing! One occasion saw the group camped near to where two waterways merge, causing upsurges of plankton that minke and fin whales congregate to feed on. Once again affirming what a wild and special, as well as starkly beautiful, place we were in.

If you are a keen paddler looking for the ultimate sea kayaking experience, East Greenland has to be top of your list. I would recommend contacting Martin Rickard without delay as these trips are very popular and book up early. Martin is very knowledgeable about the region as well Gino Watkins, a key figure connected with exploration in East Greenland. Martin maintains a fleet of Rockpool and Valley boats for use on expedition, and provides a professional as well as flexible service for those paddlers who want to join a small like-minded group of people looking for a definitive sea kayaking experience while exploring this incredible and magical area.

As with many ventures of this nature, I was fortunate enough to have support from Kokatat in my role as one of their ambassadors. On this trip I took a number of items including my Kokatat TecTour Anorak, an Orbit Tour buoyancy aid, a pair of Nomad paddling boots, along with an inner core top and paddling pants.

One aspect of expedition life is that the clothes you wear and the equipment you use receives above average use and abuse. I'm glad to say that all the items I took stood up to the test of being in Greenland. A big thank you to Kokatat for making such great gear.

More pictures of the expedition can be found here and here