Girls on Ice: Joanna Young and a new movement in Leadership & Adventure

Interview by Dr Rachael Marshall

Girls on Ice is a unique, FREE, wilderness science education program for high school girls. Each year two teams of 9 teenage girls and 3 instructors spend 12 days exploring and learning about mountain glaciers and the alpine landscape through scientific field studies with professional glaciologists, ecologists, artists, and mountaineers. One team explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in the North Cascades of Washington State. The other team sleeps under the midnight sun exploring an Alaskan glacier.

I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with one of the Directors and expedition leaders of the Alaskan division of the Girls on Ice, Joanna Young, through the Homeward Bound Antarctic program, and was convinced that The Mermaid Society had to hear about this rockin chick and the Girls on Ice program!

Joanna Young - Girls on Ice MEET JOANNA YOUNG…

Where do you call home? I currently live in Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, a small town of about 100,000 people that sits in the middle of Alaska, just above the gorgeous and huge mountains of the Alaska Range. I moved here to start my graduate studies on glaciers, so this location is perfect for me – at 64.8 degrees latitude north, our wonderfully long, cold winters make for big, stunning glaciers! I’ve now been here 5 years, and have no plans to be anywhere else but this wild place for the foreseeable future!

That being said, I am a proud Canadian, who was born and raised outside Toronto, Canada, and spent lots of time living in Vancouver, Canada, too. So when I go ‘home’ to visit family and enjoy down time, I find myself in one of those two places. They are both great cities that help me get the urban fix I sometimes crave after a long stint in the Alaskan woods!

If you could sum up 3 defining things about what makes you ….you, what would they be? What a great question! And a tough one!

First and foremost, I am a naturalist and environmentalist, who is personally driven to explore the gorgeous natural corners of our planet, and who is professionally motivated to understand them. I am a geophysicist who studies how glaciers are changing in a warming climate, and I also spend a great deal of my time on outreach and communication, so that I can share my love, fascination, and concern about the consequences of climate change with a broader audience outside the scientific community.

Second, I am an optimist! This is true in my professional and personal lives. While many people feel that melting glaciers signal inevitable doom and gloom for the planet, I don’t subscribe to that. Instead, while I certainly believe in the strong warning message that glaciers are delivering about climate change, I subscribe to the great potential of humans to be creative and motivated in the face of a challenge. So I expect big, global movements towards sustainable development very soon. Similarly, in my personal life, I’m usually too busy seeing the positive and enjoying life’s adventures to let too much negativity permeate all of the good.

Finally, I try to be a ‘daily adventurer!’ It doesn’t have to be big, and ‘adventure’ will mean something different for everyone, but I think the most growth and the greatest depth of experience come from doing things that are outside of your comfort zone, that feel hard, or that are kind of terrifying, every day.

Joanna Young - Girls on Ice

Where did the concept of Girls on Ice originate from, and what motivates you? An incredible mentor of mine came up with Girls on Ice. The program was created in 1999 by a glaciologist named Erin Pettit, who is also at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), where I am a student. She started Girls on Ice in Washington state, with the idea of providing a single-gender and tuition-free program where young women could freely explore traditionally male-dominated fields like field science and mountaineering.

I interned with the program in 2011, and was so inspired by Erin, her vision, and the young women who signed up for the experience, that along with two other graduate students at UAF, we decided to launch a second Girls on Ice program in Alaska. Under Erin’s amazing mentorship, we had our first Girls on Ice Alaska expedition in 2012, and I have been acting as co-director and co-instructor ever since.

I think what motivates the Girls on Ice team is different for every instructor, as each of us brings something unique to the table. For me as a science instructor, I am driven to show young women how fascinating and precious our environment is, and how many neat things you can learn when you see the world through a scientist’s lens. How did this glacier form? Why does the river take a right-hand turn there? How will this landscape change as the glacier continues to retreat in a warming climate? I grew up asking questions like these, and now that I have the background to answer many of them, I am even more in love with our fascinating, intricate, delicate planet. I hope I can pass some of that on.

Joanna Young - Girls on Ice

How is Girls on Ice funded? We have a diverse group of financial backers for Girls on Ice. Our biggest supporters are the US National Science Foundation and the Alaska Climate Science Centre, which provide the greatest portions of our operating budgets, as part of their outreach & education initiatives. We also have support from the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Natural Science and Mathematics, who provide funding and help with administration. Girls on Ice has also received grants from corporate sponsors like the North Face, and equipment donations from companies like REI (a US outdoor gear store). Finally, we are lucky to have a number of private donors, whose generous support helps us make sure all of the girls’ needs are taken care of, from camp food to educational supplies. We are so grateful to the agencies and individuals who believe in our mission!

Where do the participants come from? The participants for the Girls on Ice Washington program come from all over the world – that program is open to any and all girls between the ages of 16-18. In a typical year, most of the girls come from all corners of the United States, but there are often one or two girls from abroad whose applications ‘wow’ the reviewers, and who bring some international flavour to the team!

The participants for Girls on Ice Alaska are primarily from Alaska, and from the Pacific Northwest region of the US and Canada (so, all the states and provinces that border the Pacific Ocean).

For either program, our goal is to build a diverse team of girls from all corners of the region, representing a mix of geographic locations, environments/landscapes, and rural/urban upbringings. That way, the girls have the opportunity to learn as much from each other as they do from the instructor team


Joanna Young - Girls on Ice

How do you narrow it down to the lucky few? What do you look for? Narrowing down the teams is always a very hard process, but a very rewarding one. Our main goal is to build a diverse team of girls who come from a variety of geographic, cultural, economic, and academic backgrounds, so that we have a broad range of experiences to draw and learn from. We like to have a mix of quiet and outgoing girls, scientifically-minded and artistic girls, outdoorsy and urban girls, and peer leaders and supportive team members! It is always wonderful to have such a mix of interests and personalities. It really teaches us how different and how similar we can all be, while still achieving great things together, like performing field science experiments, doing art in the cold, and even summiting mountains!

More than anything, Girls on Ice is not a reward for past academic or extra-curricular success, but as a totally tuition-free program, it is designed for girls who may not have had such an opportunity otherwise. So we encourage all kinds of girls with all kinds of backgrounds to apply.

What are some of the most memorable moments you have experienced on these expeditions? Every year, on a day when the mountain weather cooperates, we embark on a summit day. We choose one of the nearby peaks that we have been staring up at for the past 6 or 7 days, and using the mountaineering skills learned during the program, we climb to the top! This day is always such a mixed bag of emotions.

Joanna Young - Girls on Ice Physically, it is a very challenging day – the girls walk on a rope team for up to 8 hours in clunky mountaineering boots, with all of their heavy glacier travel gear on. Mentally, it is also very tough – by then, we’ve been out on the glacier for a week, and the excitement of going back to civilization is starting to sound more appealing than walking miles and miles in the cold and the snow.

But every year, something amazing happens when the girls get to the top of the mountain – it’s like a new burst of energy comes out of nowhere! First, they get to reap the rewards of seeing a new and spectacular view from above, and of looking back down at their footsteps way below, showing how far they’ve come. But more important are the internal changes that those visual rewards represent – standing on a summit is a chance to reflect on how much their internal view has changed over the week, and on how far they’ve come in learning new skills and overcoming challenges since we started out together. It is a really amazing thing to witness, and the energy and pride and sisterhood and support at the summit is completely contagious. And, for me as an instructor, completely rewarding. It is definitely one of the most memorable moments for me every year!


Joanna Young - Girls on Ice

Why is it so important to you that young women are encouraged to become leaders? Because I have no doubt that young women CAN be leaders, if they want to, I will focus instead on the part of the question of why it is important to ENCOURAGE. In my experience working with 16-18 year-olds – who are at a critical age where they are navigating difficult challenges like social and family pressures, fitting in, and trying to figure out what drives them – it seems that even just a small bit of encouragement can go a very long way in instilling confidence.

The teenage years are tough ones! So I think a program like Girls on Ice, where young women have an opportunity to face and overcome some serious challenges in science and mountaineering, is a great opportunity to remind young women of how much they are capable of. When that is supported by an encouraging team of peers and mentors, I believe it can really help solidify a path towards accomplishing great things – whether in academics, in serving a community, in environmental stewardship, or in taking on leadership roles.

Whatever a particular girl chooses to be ‘great’ and/or a ‘leader’ at is up to her, but our support network at Girls on Ice is here to show her some of the options, and to provide some positive encouragement to take on those challenges.

Got you interested?

Anyone interested in finding out more about Girls on Ice can check out our website, Or, they can contact me at [email protected]. “I would be happy to answer more questions!”

Post a Comment