Some moments, I think, are made only in Russia. On this trip to Kamchatka I accepted an invitation from a colleague, Sergei, to attend a chamber music concert beginning exactly 2 hours after my plane landed from Moscow, and which was taking place in Petropavlovsk, 45 minutes from the airport in Elizovo. My chauffeur to the concert, it turned out, was not Sergei himself, but his teenage son and his son’s friend, with whom I agreeably got into the car, despite having almost no idea of who they were supposed to be. Since after having waited for my luggage and resolution of various other issues, we were running quite late, my drivers quite logically calculated that we would need to travel at about 200 km/hr to reach the concert on time, which is in fact possible on the road from Elizovo to Petropavlovsk, and which they did with great enthusiasm, to the sound of Russian pop music blaring from the radio and text messages ringing from their cell phones. And as we flew (literally) over a bump in the road, I looked out the window at the sun setting over the volcanoes, peaks of white against a pink sky, with a Soviet military helicopter flying low in the foreground, and I thought – this is strange.
The concert was good, by the way.
I really enjoyed myself on this 11-day trip to Kamchatka, mostly because I realized how many people I have gotten to know here over the last year and a half, and how many people here know me, and how much I enjoy the opportunity to talk to them and work with many of them; and I also got to have a few new experiences, as well as meet some new, very knowledgeable and interesting people.
On my first Saturday on Kamchatka I was invited to the Institute for Teacher Qualifications, where two teachers and two education specialists whom I hosted for the Wild Salmon Center in October surprised me with a фуршет (like a little spread at a party, champagne included), pictures and a slide slow about their trip to Oregon. (I realized as I watched the slideshow that now I was reminiscing about Oregon, too, just like they were.) We ended up spending 5 hours talking – and these were teachers who were so shy in Oregon in the fall! It was great to see how much they had loved the opportunity WSC had given them, and to hear about all their plans for further developing environmental and salmon education programs on Kamchatka. They also gave me a collection of quotes from 7- and 8-year-olds about salmon, which I am reading with much enjoyment.
On Sunday (Feb 4) I had my first ever cross country skiing experience. After skiing downhill for 16 years, I have to say I felt fairly stupid sloshing along on inch-wide cross country rentals, especially in the midst of the expert Russians, but even though it took me an hour to go 3 kilometers and I fell about 8 times (you’d think that would be hard to do when the slope is flat!), I still had a great time. Russia is cool because you can go cross country skiing for a couple of hours for $6 at a little resort located literally 10 minutes from the city. Although, I have to say that when you take off your cross country skis and don’t feel the pain of having worn downhill ski boots for the whole day, the feeling of accomplishment is somewhat diminished.
I spent Monday through Wednesday (Feb 5-7) at a seminar on protected area (PA) management. This gave me the chance to get to know some awesome out-of-towners, some of whom I had known of for quite awhile and was really looking forward to meeting, such as Olga Krever (head of the Protected Areas Regulations Department, Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, Moscow – who is SUPER sharp and nice, really ready to talk enthusiastically to anyone, as few начальники (bosses) and officials anywhere are) and Aleksandr Laptev (director of Lazovsky Zapovednik (zapovednik = strictly protected nature reserve), which is considered one of the most successful protected areas in Russia). I also got acquainted with some people I did not know of earlier but am really glad to have met, such as a whole delegation of successful and innovative PA directors and related stakeholders from the Altai-Sayan region (known as one of the most scenic places in Russia), including Aleksandr Rassolov (director of Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve) and Valery Dorovskikh, who owns a tourism company and works with the biosphere reserve to conduct subsistence hunting activities and monitor their effect.
Lazovsky Zapovednik is located about 200 km from Vladivostok, and Laptev says he believes that I could be involved in some of the reserve’s work while I am on the Fulbright. This would be a dream, and although I am trying not to get my hopes up, I am also going to do my best to try to make it come true. (Lazovsky, by the way, is home to 10-12 Siberian tigers.) Moreover Rassolov and Dorovskikh also invited me to Altai-Sayan over the summer for a tour of the nature reserves there and their operations – another incredible offer I am going to try to make happen (while also not hoping too hard, of course). I feel like there are so many potential opportunities out there, and if they end up being real – perhaps a big if – then it will be amazing.
This trip to Kamchatka also held for me one more new event – dog sledding, a true Russian experience. It was really cool (-15 C temperatures included). How does dog sledding on Kamchatka work? We went sledding together with snowmobiles on a big loop track not far from the city, through the woods and with a view of the volcanoes in the background. We had one snowmobile in front, followed by a sled with a team of 8 dogs (the dogs chase the snowmobile), then another snowmobile, then another sled with 6 dogs (for the girls – it’s easier to stop 6 dogs), and then another snowmobile bringing up the rear. The first snowmobile takes off, and then the dogs go chase it, and so on. If you’re not sledding, you’re riding the snowmobile (a real diesel fume experience). When you go dog sledding on Kamchatka, they give you an intro speech much like the safety intros for something like white water rafting, after which you would think you will surely fall out of the raft 10 times, be tugged along by rope and buoy, and eventually drown. Except that in contrast to white water rafting, I had never been dog sledding before, so I really thought my chances of falling, the sled landing on top of me, and the dogs dragging me over long distances through the snow were about 99.9%. This feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that I know very well from childhood sledding and amusement park car rides that I cannot steer. But I didn’t fall, it turned out, and it ended up that I only wished I could have been sledded for longer. After we sledded we also had dinner and all received certificates pronouncing us true «каюры» (“mushers”).
And then on Saturday, February 10, after collecting some thoughtful gifts and new memories, I left Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky for another city on a bay on the Pacific – Vladivostok.
1. Avacha volcano steaming on Kamchatka (visible from Petropalovsk – picture taken at hotel 2. me and Tatyana Oborskaya (UNDP Protected Areas project), 3. Kamchatka teachers seining in Washington last October, 4. me and Yuliya cross country skiing near Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, 5. working groups developing action plans at PA seminar, 6. presenting an action plan for Nalychevo Nature Park, 7. preparing for an interview on the seminar, 8. Svetlana Kopylova (Ecocenter “Zapovedniki”, Moscow), Lara Peterson (US Forest Service International Programs) and me (in two down coats) getting ready to go dog sledding, 9. translating dog sledding instructions, 10. dog sledding! with Koryaksky volcano in the background