On the Kaska Coast of southern Hudson Bay, the air is clean and cold. Blue sky meets snow-covered Arctic tundra on this remote stretch of Manitoba wilderness. National Geographic photographer Jad Davenport, director of wolf programs at Churchill Wild, guides a small group of travellers on foot into a dense boreal forest in search of the elusive cloud wolves that inhabit the area. But these intrepid visitors won’t just be wildlife viewing. As part of Churchill Wild’s new Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast safari, guests act as field naturalists, helping researchers conducting a multiyear wolf study, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Travel has long been touted as the best form of education. Now, new citizen-science focused trips allow travellers to learn about a destination while contributing to scientific discovery. On Churchill’s cloud wolf safari, guests photograph the wolves, set up trail cameras, collect DNA samples through footprints and hair left around dens, and record howls. All of this data is then used by researchers to monitor and understand the rarely studied species, including their population health, behaviour, interaction with the region’s polar bears, and relationship with local Indigenous communities.
While the nine-day journey offers all the highlights of a luxury adventure, from sledding along snowy trails to gourmet food and wine at the end of the day at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, the research element deepens the experience. “Participating in science can heighten our joy on wildlife-focused trips,” says Davenport. “Studying wolf behaviour with naturalist guides and all the data collection [guests do] makes a glimpse of a wolf that much more exciting and meaningful.”
While the concept of citizen science trips isn’t new, their rising popularity and ubiquity is, and it’s part of a larger movement toward more purposeful travel. Some people emerging from the pandemic may be after “revenge travel” – a surge in bookings fuelled by travellers seeking to make up for lost time – but others are looking for quite the opposite. Slower, more thoughtful journeys that enrich both the traveller and the destination, often now referred to as regenerative or transformational travel, have gained momentum.
“As we search for more meaning in our lives, many of us count on travel to create space to gain clarity, purpose and wisdom, so, it makes sense to take a more altruistic and outcome-driven approach to our explorations,” says Jake Haupert, co-founder of the Transformational Travel Council, an organization that focuses on mindful travel. “We define transformational travel as intentionally travelling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”
Moving beyond simply supporting a destination’s conservation initiatives or staying at an ecofriendly property – a claim that is often rife with greenwashing – citizen science trips allow people to take an active role in research that often benefits the local ecosystem. At a time when the climate crisis can be so overwhelming that it’s paralyzing, people are looking for immersive, measurable ways to create change.
“Citizen science offers people the opportunity to take direct action and be a part of the solution,” says Alix Morris, communications director at Earthwatch, pioneers in science-first experiential travel. “Data collected by citizen scientists not only contributes to our growing scientific knowledge base, it directly informs policy at a local and global scale.” Information collected on Earthwatch expeditions has been used to establish marine and terrestrial protected areas and bring back threatened species from the brink of extinction.
In the Northwest Territories, Earthwatch takes adventurers into the majestic Mackenzie Mountains to measure evidence of climate change, such as a migrating tree line and retreating glaciers. While exploring this vast wilderness, guests collect soil samples and contribute to other long-term data that helps scientists mitigate and predict the effects of a warming planet. On another trip in the Rockies, visitors hike off-trail through remote, rugged parts of Waterton Lakes National Park to observe and measure how wolves, bison and fire contribute to a healthy ecosystem in one of Canada’s last remaining native grasslands.
This kind of in-depth learning can give travellers a profound connection with a destination, its landscape and its people. “It’s such a rich experience for the traveller,” says Marisa Rodriguez, who launched her company, Ancient Odysseys, last year. Her itineraries pair outdoor adventure trips, where visitors hike, bike and glamp through dramatic, ochre-coloured American Midwest landscapes, with hands-on experience at certified paleontology and archaeology digs. The researchers, who sometimes struggle to find volunteers, also benefit. “You experience the place on a completely different level because you’re not only having fun, you’re helping them go back in time to understand what was there before us and give back to that place,” she says.
Throughout Canada, people can take part in science while on self-guided trips, too, by using mobile apps in certain destinations. eBird, which visitors to the BC Bird Trail can use to enrich their birding adventures, is a global biodiversity project that documents bird population and habitat to advance species knowledge and conservation. Using iNaturalist, travellers can find and contribute to projects across Canada and the world, many of which are aimed at monitoring biodiversity.
Parks Canada has even integrated the use of iNaturalist into some of their guided citizen science excursions. In Yoho National Park, the splendour of the Rocky Mountains is on full display during the Paget Fire Lookout guided conservation hike. Beginning in dense, subalpine forest, the hike winds up the mountainside, ending with sweeping views of the dramatic continental divide. On the way up, hikers learn how to assist researchers by surveying the endangered whitebark pine tree and uploading their field observations to the app.
New citizen science initiatives are in development all the time with Canadian travel companies. Maple Leaf Adventures, which runs small expedition cruises along coastal British Columbia and into Alaska, shares their humpback whale sightings with the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) to help them flesh out gaps in their database. MERS and its colleagues are working to document members of different populations in order to influence the way they are listed and protected under the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Maple Leaf Adventures also has plans to launch a shoreline microplastic study guests can take part in, which will help governing bodies understand the scale of the microplastic problem and how to deal with it.
Whether travellers are documenting endangered species, collecting soil samples to better understand climate change or recording howling wolves in the Arctic, these trips allow them to become scientists for a short time. “Your observations matter, your input counts, your hard work becomes a part of something greater,” says Davenport.
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