Interview with a Canadian Geographic Ambassador: Joseph Frey

Learn more about archaeology in Arctic Canada and Greenland from the expertise of Joseph Frey, Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Executive Committee and Chair of its College of Fellows. In this compelling interview, discover his unwavering passion for polar sciences and sharing the region's rich history as a Canadian Geographic travel ambassador.
Joseph Frey Canadian Geographic Ambassador 1

© Canadian Geographic

Joseph Frey, Canadian Geographic travel ambassador

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I am an explorer and storyteller. I have always been fascinated by what is over the next hill and what makes the universe work. I have an endless passion for field sciences and for telling the stories of expeditions.

Currently, I am the Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s (RCGS) Executive Committee and Chair of its College of Fellows. The RCGS is one of Canada’s largest non-profit educational societies and is the Canadian centre for geography and exploration. Previously, I held the position of Director and Vice-President of The Explorers Club, New York City and was a commissioned officer with both the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Navy.

I am a published science writer, having been published in major publications such as TIME, The Globe and Mail, National Post, Geographical, Canadian Geographic, Medical Post, DIVER, as well as others in the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, and New Zealand.

Do you have any projects planned for the future?

I will be flying to the most northerly year-round inhabited site on earth, the Canadian Forces Station Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, to document the lives of the military personnel, along with Environment Canada scientists and tradesmen who make this isolated community work. Then switching climatic zones, I will be heading to Belize on an archaeological dig at the Maya site of Ka’Kabish and then on to Key Largo, Florida, with the Coral Restoration Foundation to scuba dive and document coral restoration activities.

Have you travelled to the Arctic before?

My first trip to the High Arctic was to Greenland in June 2001, with the National Science Foundation on behalf of the National Post. I was reporting on the polar logistical support provided by the 109th Wing of the New York Air National Guard to European Union field scientists at Greenland’s isolated Summit base, where they were engaged in high atmospheric studies and paleoglaciology research. Six months later I was in the Antarctic with Antarctica New Zealand, where I ran into the aircrew that had flown me into Greenland.

Joseph Frey DYE 2 station Greenland

© Photo courtesy of Joseph Frey

Joseph Frey at the DYE II US Cold War era station on Greenland’s icecap with the National Science Foundation and the 109th Wing, New York Air National Guard (2001)

I have been to Greenland on three occasions and across Nunavut on five expeditions as either a science writer, military officer, or expedition member, including the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which discovered Sir John Franklin’s flagship HMS Erebus. I am one of the very few people who have been to all three year-round inhabited sites on Ellesmere Island, which consist of Alert, Eureka, and Grise Fjord. Serendipitously, not only was I a member of the expedition that discovered HMS Erebus, but I took part in polar survival training on the side of Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica in 2001 and sailed into Erebus and Terror Gulf on the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula during 2016.

Joseph Frey Beechey Island Nunavut

© Photo courtesy of Joseph Frey

Joseph Frey sailing past Devon Island during the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which discovered HMS Erebus (2014)

What was your favourite part of visiting the High Arctic?

The remoteness, combined with the stark beauty of the fjords found along Baffin Island and western Greenland. Flying in a small plane over the mountains that border Greely Fjord on central Ellesmere Island is stunning, not to mention the wildlife, especially the narwhals and polar bears.

On one occasion, while in a Zodiac, we unexpectedly came within twenty metres of a young, adult female polar bear who was napping on an ice floe. She woke up when she either picked up our scent or heard the low rumble of our engine. Confidently she got up and started strutting back and forth on the sea ice, for the most part ignoring us while sniffing the air for her next meal. From time to time, she would stop and pose which made for amazing photographs with my camera’s 200mm lens. You never forget these moments in the Arctic.

What does it mean to share the history of this region?

I love history, I always have. I hold two degrees in history and geography and have worked on several archaeological digs, which is the physical expression of history. The Arctic has a rich history of human migration, exploration and survival that dates back thousands of years. The history of this region is deeper and richer than most people appreciate, and I enjoy bringing it to life.

What are you most looking forward to returning to the Arctic?

Watching icebergs calving off Greenland’s icecap at Ilulissat is my top draw. The massive flow of swift moving glacial ice into the ocean is both breathtaking and humbling as you watch the power of nature. I must admit that I enjoy craft beers and two of the finest anywhere in the world are brewed by Brewery Immiaq in Ilulissat. Where else can you enjoy fine craft beers made from glacial ice water, while watching icebergs begin their two-year journey to Newfoundland?

Iceberg calving Ilulissat Greenland

© Michelle Valberg

Iceberg calving in Ilulissat, Greenland

In the Northwest Passage it would have to be the graves on Beechey Island, where three members of Sir John Franklin’s crew were buried in 1845. The graves, along with the rusting tin cans from Franklin’s expedition scattered on the beach, along with the endless, barren vistas of grey gravel and blue water, reinforces the isolation that must have been felt by Franklin’s crew during the winter of 1845 – 1846. For me, it is a sombre spot. That said, it increases my admiration for those explorers who risked their lives to further human knowledge.

How do you interact with guests on an expedition?

I love to engage with people, especially those who are naturally curious. Whether on board a ship or on land, I feel equally as comfortable speaking to individuals as I do to a packed auditorium.

Joseph Frey Erebus and Terror abandonment site holding explorers club flag

© Photo courtesy of Joseph Frey

John Geiger and Joseph Frey on sea ice were HMS Erebus and Terror were abandoned in 1846 (2014)

How does your work dovetail with Adventure Canada trips?

My work allows me to see remote regions of the world that most people, unfortunately never get the opportunity to see. Adventure Canada expeditions bring you to these remote regions, many only accessible by ship or helicopter, with a unique, extraordinary experience. Not only do they bring you to these remote communities, but they also travel with local people and experts on board, furthering guests’ education and connection to the places they visit.

On these expeditions to the Arctic, I can experience the sea routes taken by various expeditions and interact with Inuit communities in both Nunavut and Greenland. It provides me with a better understanding of polar geography and geology, along with gaining additional insight into both terrestrial and marine flora and fauna in these polar regions.

What can guests expect when travelling on a Canadian Geographic Adventure Canada expedition?

When you travel on a Canadian Geographic Adventure Canada expedition, you will travel with ambassadors who are passionate about their areas of expertise and who enjoy sharing their knowledge. You are also doing more than just travelling to remarkable places—you are contributing to supporting important research initiatives of the RCGS.

You will also be invited to attend an exclusive pre-expedition meet-and-greet with the expedition’s ambassador and Adventure Canada leadership team, and an on-board dinner hosted by the RCGS.