A contest essay submission this past Spring was a Westport teen's golden ticket, affording him passage to an arctic adventure and ambassadorship ... and now he's come home enlightened and with tales aplenty.

Brian Hershey, 16, a junior at Staples High School, had been selected by Gault Energy and Polar Bears International (PBI) as the local winner of the alliance's third annual Leadership Camp Competition and appointed Fairfield County teen Arctic Ambassador. He has recently returned from PBI's Canadian Arctic-based camp where he and 18 other students from across the world spent the week of Oct. 10-16.

Gault has collaborated with PBI for the past three years to educate Fairfield County homeowners about how carbon emissions are affecting polar bear habitats and what can be done to reduce output. Each year the alliance offers a deserving teen the opportunity to travel to the arctic, receive onsite education and convey their new knowledge locally.

"I was one of nine area finalists that met with a selection committee," said Hershey. "I think they chose me as I had an idea to connect teens in the arctic to teens at my high school to get cause and effect of what we're doing to create positive environmental change."

Hershey initially flew to Winnipeg, Canada, where he joined the group for an overnight, then they took a chartered plane to the small town of Churchill, historically a trade port on the edge of Hudson Bay.

"The town has a population of around 400, with small houses, only four or five streets in the grid and a rail line going through," Hershey explained. "Very simple and surrounded by Arctic tundra. Polar bears would regularly stroll into town, requiring police patrols to fire blanks to drive them away."

After a two-day stay in Churchill, the group drove far out into the tundra in huge buggies, which Hershey described as a cross between a school bus and a monster truck. "The land was really barren, with the occasional polar bear. We parked at a research station and stayed there in the middle of nowhere for three days and two nights," he said.

Their station stay included workshops to educate them about the bears. They also made daily treks to the intersection of Hudson Bay and Churchill River, where fresh water meets seawater and bears congregate. The latter is the first area to freeze, allowing the bears to better access their seal prey. The group enjoyed guest speakers, like professional nature photographers and rangers from nearby Wapusk National Park, as well.

A highlight for Hershey was meeting an Inuit couple, Betty Settee and her husband Jim, who are trappers that kill and skin coyotes and sell furs to traders. Hershey expected them to be the antithesis of the group's conservation-oriented efforts but was surprised that their attitudes were quite progressive. Their principles include living off the land, caring for Mother Nature and never taking more than is needed.

Settee told the group about how she was hired as young as 8 years old to guide hunters and that, by 12, she was traveling solo for days on end some 40 miles or more to trap and kill animals. Sadly, Settee just passed at age 77, on Oct. 27, just a week after Hershey's return. "I will always remember her stories," he said.

Another highlight was video conferencing over the Internet with elementary and high school students in the U.S. and Canada to speak about what the team was seeing and learning.

Hershey and his group got very close. "My fellow students were great, very smart and from all over. The facilitators, teachers and rangers, who are experts on the local bear population, were also terrific."

He described their quarters as tight, and there were no showers, but he had no complaints about the food.

Hershey played a second role at camp, as a teen reporter for WSHU Connecticut Public Radio. He was given equipment to record a story for the station's "Teenage Diaries" program. He captured five hours of audio, which included observations and interviews with students and experts.

His ambassador term will encompass a year during which time Hershey plans to share what he has learned with the community and help local businesses cut carbon emissions by 5 percent each year.

"It didn't make sense at first that small efforts like turning off a light or planting a tree could make a difference to a polar bear, but now I see it can. As my new PBI friend BJ puts it, `How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.'"