Sunday, May 20, 2007

Kids’ Expedition to Popov Island (May 8-9, 2007)

For the second year in a row this year the education specialists at the Institute of Marine Biology (IMB), Liliya and Natasha, organized a city-wide environmental education competition in Vladivostok schools. This year’s competition was called “A City by the Sea” and focused on the sustainable development of Vladivostok. There were well over 100 participants, and on May 7-9 the 15 first-prize winners got to go on an expedition to Popov Island, located about 90 minutes south of Vladivostok (on the cutter or ferry). Liliya and Natasha invited me to come and help out and particularly to have a “press conference” with the kids about environmental issues and life in general in the United States. Of course I said yes! Unfortunately, I got stuck in Vladivostok for a day in order to register after coming back from China, so I only went for May 8-9.

I knew it was going to be a great trip, and it was. When I got on the boat to leave Vladivostok I was so psyched I just could not stop smiling. I can just stand on the deck of a boat for hours and watch the water, shore and islands go by. I think I get this from my travels on Lake Baikal. This trip was quite chilly with the winds on the ocean, especially since it was fairly cloudy out – I still got cold bundled up in my coat, scarf and hat, and I even had to go below, where almost all the other passengers were, for about 10 minutes.

From Vladivostok the cutter spends a long time passing Russian Island, a big island south of Vlad, and then you get to Popov. One of IMB’s staff met me at the dock and we hopped on a car to the Ecocenter maintained by the Far Eastern Marine Reserve, where all the kids were staying. The Far Eastern Marine Reserve conducts environmental education activities at this Ecocenter, which also houses a museum, and offers walking tours. Part of Popov Island is protected as part of the Far Eastern Marine Reserve.

The kids were just getting ready for a hike to Pogranichnaya Bay. There they would be met by a botanist, Vladimir Dmitrievich, from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Botanical Gardens, which has a little station on Popov Island. Vladimir Dmitrievich did a great tour for the kids around the cape near Pogranichnaya Bay. Throughout the whole hike the kids were supposed to continue to make observations about Popov Island and define what they would need to live here. (Currently there is a small population on Popov Island, and there is even a school here – but, of course, there are not many of the comforts of city life.)

All of the kids on the trip were 7th-10th graders, although more than half of them were in 7th grade. Although I had only met 2 of the kids before, all of them already knew who I was, and before I arrived they had already prepared a whole folder’s worth of questions for me about the United States. As we headed out on the hike I started meeting most of the kids pretty quickly, and I realized that there was no need to fear that I would be wandering alone – I had almost constant companions who asked me all kinds of questions about me, my life in Russia and in the United States, and also told me about themselves.

These kids were really fantastic. Liliya informed me that almost all of them were very much “city kids” – some of them had only left Vladivostok once or twice in their whole lives, and only 2 of them had been to Popov Island before, even though it is only a short, $1 ride away. Some of them had never even seen a live crab, although they live in a city right on the ocean. All of the kids were incredibly interested in their surroundings, checking out plants, shells and more. It was clear they had already fallen in love with the island. Some of them knew each other before the trip, but certainly not all. They didn’t fight with each other, and I think even by their second day together all of them were already feeling a little bond with all the other members of their group. And they were so well-behaved! Later that evening they had an hour-long museum tour and they all listened with great attention – some even took notes, which was totally not required.

Pogranichnaya Bay is a very picturesque spot. The hike there was beautiful, and we took our time enjoying it. Right on the bay there is actually a popular paid beach with little cottages for tourists in the summer. (We didn’t go there – we saw it from a distance.) A huge number of shells wash up on the beach here, from snail shells to large oyster and scallop shells to sea urchin skeletons and sand dollars. A few of the kids gave me shells as gifts.

In the evening two of the boys, Renat and Viktor (Vitya), decided they wanted to make a bonfire, and they were given permission to go for it. It was a really nice night out. After a slow and smoky start the boys really got the fire going, and we all sat around in a circle and talked, looked at the stars and listened to Liuda, Tanya and Sveta play the guitar – they were quite good (and we sang along, of course, when we knew the words). (By the way, Renat, Viktor, Liuda, Tanya and Sveta were all in 7th grade – talented kids!) This is something I really love about Russia – When people are out in nature it is very common for them to get together around a fire at night, and someone always seems to have a guitar. I always wish I knew how to play, or that I knew more songs – there are so many classic Russian songs that are part of the culture here, and it is so nice to sit around the fire under the stars and sing them, or even just listen.

The next day after clean-up one of the boys, Zhenya, decided to accompany me on a morning walk out to a nearby cape. On the way he told me all about the places he has been in Primorye, from his grandmother’s house in the country, where he is friends with everyone, to Russian Island, where he loves to go diving, to fishing on the sea with his dad. Zhenya is also quite the pro stone-skipper. (Fun fact: In Russian to say “skip stones” you say “to throw frogs” – “puskat’ lyagushek.”) I have tried my hand at skipping stones before, and although I know which ones to pick, I’ve never had much luck. Zhenya started by showing me the right way to hold the stone. Now, either Zhenya is a world-class teacher, or I had great beginner’s luck, because stone skipping actually worked out for me this time. I even got one stone to skip about 10 times, which had Zhenya bragging to all the kids back the Ecocenter when we returned.

Since we were leaving this afternoon we spent some time with the kids having some closing discussions, remembering favorite moments and talking about how to create a sustainable future starting with their own schools. We also got to go on a short hike and see an “ancient people’s site” (стоянка древнего человека), an archeological monument of sorts that a Popov Island resident found while plowing her backyard. Here the kids got to look for artifacts while Natasha told them about the people who used to live on Popov Island, and how we know what we know about them. In addition to being incredibly gifted in working with kids, Natasha and Liliya are also very knowledgeable themselves about a number of topics. I admire them a lot. On this hike I also got to see my first rockslide.

I took the cutter to Popov Island, but we took the ferry back, which was a different experience. They board all the passengers first, and then you spend a lot of time waiting around while they load a lot of cars on deck (with rather little attention paid to whether they might hit a fellow traveler). In the middle of the trip one of the cars started leaking oil all over the deck, too.

I made a lot of new friends on this trip, and I have a feeling I will be seeing these kids around, which I am certainly very glad about – they are really, really fantastic kids, and I liked them all. At the end of our expedition I got lots of requests for my phone number and invitations to visit the kids’ schools. (In fact, I will be making my first school visit on May 23.) They chatted with me almost the whole ferry ride back from Popov Island, and there were plenty of hugs exchanged when we said goodbye after reaching Vladivostok.

Pictures: 1. Kids on the hike to Pogranichnaya Bay: Masha, Nastya, Masha, Zhenya, Arina; Serezha, Tanya, Lyuda, Sveta, Yuliya, Mira (Yuliya and Mira are Far Eastern State University students – helpers J ); 2. pulling into dock at Popov Island; 3. This plant is super cool. Look closely for the purple at the bottom. I can only find the Russian name (связноплодник почколистный) and the Latin (Symplocarpus renifolius), but I think an English translation might be something like “kidney-leaved cabbage.” It’s native to Asia. 4. Masha, Arina, Masha and Nastya and I are checking out shells Pogranichnaya Bay; 5.Shells 6. This rock is called “shtany” (“trousers”); 7. Hiking along the shore with Vladimir Dmitrievich; 8. and 9. views on the Pogranichnaya hike; 10. Lyuda and Tanya playing guitar around the campfire; 11. Zhenya skipping stones; 12. Nastya and Anya digging for artifacts at the ancient peoples’ site; 13. kids playing in the rock slide area; 14. Serezha tells about his “school for the future”; 15. Zhenya and Liliya looking like superstars

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