Unveiling Canada's Wonders: Adventuring with John Smol

Join Canadian Geographic travel ambassador, John Smol, on an expedition that promises to reveal the hidden gems of Canada. Uncover the breathtaking beauty of lesser-known landscapes, rich historical sites, and vibrant cultures guided by this passionate researcher and professor. In this exclusive interview, learn more about this enchanting region and the insights John will bring to this extraordinary journey.
John Smol Canadian Geographic headshot

© Canadian Geographic

John Smol, Canadian Geographic travel ambassador

Travel with John on the Newfoundland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition.

Be sure to include the exclusive reference code when booking to claim all the Canadian Geographic Adventure offers and benefits.

Reference Code: ACCANGEO

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

I'm a professor in the Department of Biology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and I also co-direct the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL). PEARL is a group of about thirty people—research scientists, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and other scientists—whose main specialty is working on lakes and rivers. But our main focus is on reconstructing environmental history.

One of the biggest challenges we have in environmental research is addressing problems using appropriate time scales. For most types of environmental studies, if we have two or three years of data, we think that's a good long-term monitoring program, or at least the best we can get! But, because lakes are wonderful, they accumulate a history book of information in their sediments—It's like a time machine at the bottom of these lakes! We've developed techniques, as many of our colleagues have, that can reconstruct how the lake has changed due to natural changes, but also through human changes, over decades, centuries, and even millennia.

John Smol holding corer

© Photo courtesy of John Smol

John Smol holding a Glew lake sediment corer in his lab at Queen's University.

We work on a very wide variety of topics like climate change, how many cottages you can put around a lake, and different effects of past mining activities, to name a few. So, it's quite a broad subject.

I founded PEARL in 1991 and it's expanded since then. Now there are two professors here at Queen’s University, Brian Cumming and me, and we've been continuing to expand on applications.

We have worked on all seven continents—I've visited all seven continents myself—and these types of studies can be used all around the world. Mind you, most of our work is in Canada, but we have projects everywhere.

The Newfoundland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition takes us from the French island of Saint Pierre, along the south coast of Newfoundland, and up the northeast coast of Labrador, until we reach the final destination of Iqaluit, Nunavut. Have you had the chance to explore this region before?

I've always been interested in that part of the world for a wide variety of reasons. We've worked in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon before, we've had projects there, and I've worked in various parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve also worked on a very large program in the Arctic, including on Baffin Island near Iqaluit. I’ve even been on an Arctic expedition once before with Adventure Canada as an ambassador for Queen’s University.

John Smol Arctic expedition July 2007

© Photo courtesy of John Smol

John Smol on an expedition in the Arctic in 2007.

One part of this region I personally have not set foot on is the Labrador part. I could see Labrador from the north end of Newfoundland when I was there, and I've had students who work there, but I physically have never set foot on Labrador, which remains one of the few places left in the Arctic where I've not been. So that will be new for me!

As a leading expert in paleolimnology and environmental change, what are some of the key factors that make this region particularly interesting for you?

There are many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, as well as the Arctic that I'm excited about visiting.

What often happens with my research is I'm dropped off in a helicopter and we work in a certain area for about two weeks and then we're picked up by a helicopter from a tent camp. That’s very different than an expedition like this, in that you get to see a very large part of the country in a relatively short period of time.

As a scientist, I am interested in how environmental gradients change. For example, we're going through quite a big climate gradient as we go from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon through Newfoundland and Labrador and all the way up to Baffin Island.

If I look at this gradient through a scientific lens, I am interested in how ecological factors are going to be changing around us, and how the ecosystems are going to be changing. But there's another side which I'm always excited about because I don't do that much work in that area. That's the more social or human perspective. We will be going through a whole spectrum of different cultures and different groups of people, as we travel north. These different groups of people have very different concerns, very different interests, and very different cultures in many ways.

Nain town view

© Dennis Minty

Meaning “our beautiful land,” Nunatsiavut encompasses most of Labrador north of Lake Melville—an area the size of New Brunswick, with 2,600 residents in five communities, the biggest being Nain, population 1,100.

I think that it's always very exciting to see how that matches with the ecosystems we pass through. And this is in large part what the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) is all about—expanding our understanding of Canada, not just physically, but also culturally. To me, I think this is what makes Adventure Canada's expedition cruises, as I say, a perfect handshake with the overall goals of the RCGS.

How does travelling on expedition cruises and visiting different regions contribute to advancing your research?

When I travel on these types of expedition cruises, I always learn lots and I get ideas for my own research program because you almost have to see things with your own eyes before you can think of the right questions.

“I've often said in science, getting answers isn't so hard, it's learning what the real big questions are.”

By visiting these sites and these different ecosystems and cultures, I can get a lot of ideas of where my research and teaching program can go. Similarly, I meet a lot of people who develop an interest in what we do. I've often had people come and talk to me afterwards and say, “maybe you'd be interested in x, y, z.” And they come up with research ideas as well. So, the human aspect of this is very important to me.

John Smol Arctic expedition September 2014

© Photo courtesy of John Smol

John Smol on an expedition through the Northwest Passage in 2014.

How do you interact with guests on an expedition?

Based on my experience travelling as a Canadian Geographic travel ambassador or other types of academic hosts on ships, I've found that my interactions typically go in two directions.

Some of it is a little more formal. I'm a university professor and I know people are not always interested in getting undergraduate lectures on an expedition cruise, but I do try and pass on information that highlights what we're seeing at a local scale and how it might be more important at a global scale. I think that's what one of my main roles is on these ships—transferring information and knowledge. Providing a more global context to what we are seeing.

But a lot of what I do is also one-on-one or with very small groups—just talking and interacting with guests, as they often approach me and ask me specific questions. I always say right off the bat that there are amazing local guides aboard who know a lot about the local communities. I can't compete with their knowledge! I don't have that type of knowledge, but they're very good at telling what this is and the historical context in their local community. I'm sometimes asked the question, “why is it this way from a more regional or global perspective?” And I think I can add that type of perspective to the types of questions many of the guests have on these expeditions.

Paul Dean speaking on land

© Craig Minielly

Geologist and Newfoundlander Paul Dean shares his expertise with guests on an expedition landing in Newfoundland. Adventure Canada always has a team of regionally curated experts aboard each expedition.

I'm a curious person. That's why I'm a professor. That's why I'm a researcher. And the people who join these expeditions are curious people. They've chosen this type of travel because they want to learn. They want to see different communities. They want to see different ecosystems. They want to learn about the problems we have. The RCGS's main motto is showing Canadians what Canada is all about, both in the physical environment and also socially and culturally. And I think that's what guests get on these types of expeditions.

How does your work dovetail with Adventure Canada expeditions?

My work, my research, and my teaching program dovetail very nicely with Adventure Canada expedition cruises.

One way is with my teaching material. I get photographs, I get images, and I learn things about different ecosystems. I teach ecology and biology and this expedition goes through several ecosystems, some of which I've never visited. So, it dovetails very nicely with that.

My research programs also dovetail very closely with northern ecosystems; Arctic ecosystems; and Newfoundland and Labrador ecosystems. We worked on Saint-Pierre and Miquelon as well, so we know a little bit about the French territory too.

I will probably get ideas for my research program. I will certainly get material for teaching. The legacy of the expedition will go on and on in the students' minds. Hopefully!

John Smol lecture 2023

© Photo courtesy of John Smol

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

I think guests who join this expedition should expect a lot.

They're going to have a great time. They're going to see remarkable things. They're probably going to see things they will never see again unless they go on another similar type of expedition cruise. And I think given the educational component, they will also work with the RCGS program to make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world.

We're going to go through a variety of different settlements with very different concerns and very different cultures, but all Canadian—except for Saint-Pierre and Miquelon— and all with very different perspectives. I think an expedition like this will speak to the connection of people to place, which is another major goal of the RCGS. And let’s not forget—we will also see what a beautiful country Canada is!

Travel with John on the Newfoundland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition.

Be sure to include the exclusive reference code when booking to claim all the Canadian Geographic Adventure offers and benefits.

Reference Code: ACCANGEO