After a short break and some time to process his experience in Antarctica, we caught up with the Inspiring Explorers’™ Expedition Kayaking Mentor Mike Dawson to get his perspective on the expedition, and find out about the highlights of his trip, and the big challenges he faced.
Olympic kayaker Mike Dawson joined the Inspiring Explorers’™ Expedition as a kayaking mentor for the second time in 2020. After taking up kayaking at a young age, the sport quickly became his main focus. During his career Mike has competed at two Olympic Games, has achieved silver and bronze medals in extreme kayaking championships, and has participated in kayaking expeditions in Chile, Uganda, Pakistan and beyond.
Now that you have been on two Inspiring Explorers’™ Expeditions, what are your thoughts about the value of this experience for young people?
The expeditions are such an amazing opportunity for young people to see an incredible part of world, that is so far away, mysterious and unknown. On both expeditions, the growth of the young explorers has been probably the most important thing to come out of it for me. Everyone gets so much out of it, and there is so much learning and growing going on. It is also cool for the young explorers to relate their experiences back to the historic exploration of Antarctica, and to build relationships with each other, the supporters, mentors, and other members of the Trust,
What does the spirit of exploration mean to you? Why is it important for young people to have a spirit of exploration?
To me, the spirit of exploration is about stepping outside your comfort zone and away from what you know, to experience something new or different. I think it is really important for people of all ages to maintain a spirit of exploration, to get out there and discover what’s around the corner. Exploration helps us to learn a lot about ourselves and even make changes for the better.
You have kayaked in some incredible places around the world – how is Antarctica different and what is special about kayaking in Antarctica compared to other places?
It’s a lot colder! My background is in white water kayaking on rivers and rapids, which can be quite scary, and at times even life threatening. I work with a robust team I know very well, and we map out the entire river, ticking off all the rapids to get down it safely. Sea kayaking in the isolated, quiet environment in Antarctica is very different and is certainly not as adrenalin packed, but I love it just as much. The experience is about seeing and taking everything in, from the incredible mountains of ice, to interacting with sea life and birds. Part of my role as a mentor is to share my story with the young explorers, and to utilise my skills as a kayaker to take them outside their comfort zone. It is amazing to see how far they end up pushing themselves in this environment. The remoteness and vastness of Antarctica is a truly unique experience, which gives us the perspective of how small we really are in the world.
As a kayaking mentor on the expedition – what are your impressions of how the team coped in this challenging environment, particularly given the varying degrees of experience between them?
Fantastic. They coped so well and had a great attitude and willingness to dive into the experience. There was such wide range of kayaking experience amongst the team, and those who knew more, helped those that didn’t and encouraged them positively. Everyone started out in double kayaks, but as their confidence grew, moved into singles and started to paddle and experience more on their own. One of my highlights of the trip was our last kayak, when the cloud dropped in on the water, and it was snowing. Most of the team wanted to land on the continent, however Jaylee stayed on the water with myself, Marcus, and Cam and Ryan from Quark Expeditions, and we went on a long paddle of around 5-7km around an island away from the rest of the group. The water was so calm and mysterious, and Jaylee was in her element, taking it all in. At the time, we didn’t know this would be our last kayak due to the COVID-19 disruption, so that long paddle was a great way to end the trip.
COVID-19 disrupted the end of the expedition – how do you feel the team handled the week on quarantine? Were you impressed by their resilience and the way they worked together?
As a mentor, part of my responsibility was to work hard to ensure we kept a good atmosphere and team environment on the ship during quarantine. This was such an easy job because of the rest of the team. Despite there being so much uncertainty and many unknowns about how we were going to get home from the other side of the world, the team was very resilient and handled it well. I was exceptionally impressed by everyone, and particularly A’aifou and Jaylee, who brought the team together to share with us and teach us about a whole range of things in those seven days on the ship, including the incredible team haka. The COVID-19 disruption added to our experience in the end, brought the team even closer and allowed us to experience things we never would have otherwise.
What was your experience of the team haka like – particularly around the leadership Jaylee and A’aifou demonstrated?
The haka was the biggest highlight of the expedition for me, and definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone! For a multi-generation team from many different backgrounds and cultures (including the young explorers, supporters and mentors, Trust staff, and even another Kiwi on the ship) to come together to create such an amazing haka was really special. The big transition in A’aifou and Jaylee was incredible to watch. Although they were the youngest members of the team, they stepped forward into the role of leaders, led the conversations and decision-making around the haka, then schooled us on it for a week. I’m pretty sure they enjoyed the power they had over us! A’aifou and Jaylee did a great job of educating us about how much the haka means and why it is important to do it properly. Going to the Games and other events, I’ve always been mindful of trying to do a good enough job of the haka so it is respectful to the culture, so I spent the week endlessly practising and learning the words on the ship. This was a far greater challenge for me than jumping in a kayak! At the end of the week, it was amazing to share our hard work and perform the haka to those who had helped us on the ship. It was an incredible experience.
What were some of your other highlights and reflections from the expedition?
It was great how well the team gelled together in adversity. Although we left together on a kayaking expedition, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation almost became a highlight, as it brought out the best in everybody, and added to the experience, rather than detracting from it. During the week we were quarantined on the ship with our heaters and food and easy living, I reflected on how resilient and patient the historic explorers like Shackleton must have been – to be stranded on the ice for such long periods of time, and having to figure things out for themselves rather than having all the modern conveniences.
Do you have any advice for future expedition members?
The Inspiring Explorers’™ Expedition is an incredible opportunity, and I would encourage anyone to apply for it in future, and make the most of it if they are selected. It truly is the trip of a lifetime, and may be something you would never get to experience again.