BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A month in ancient, sub-Arctic peat bogs among
the seals and grizzlies of Kamchatka's outer banks is not for the
out-of-shape or faint-of-heart.
Fortunately, Claude Larson is neither. An intrepid,
Montreal-born and exceptionally fit middle-school science teacher
from Oak Ridge, N.J., Larson has climbed mountains, jumped from
planes and trawled the North Atlantic to survey the sea scallop
But her month-long trip to Kamchatka's sub-arctic northeastern
shore last July with an expeditionary force of archaeologists,
volcanologists, ecologists and geologists let by University at
Buffalo anthropologist Ezra Zubrow certainly takes the cake.
Larson was participating in a project sponsored by PolarTREC
(Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating), a program
in which K-12 teachers spend 2-6 weeks participating in hands-on
field research experiences in the polar regions. They then bring
their experiences back to the classroom and to other educators.
"The goal is to invigorate polar science education and
understanding by bringing K-12 educators and polar researchers
together," says Zubrow, whose expedition is part of the
International Circumpolar Archaeological Project or ICAP, funded by
the National Science Foundation.
In connection with the project, Zubrow and his team have been
conducting geological surveys, excavations and ecological climate
analyses of Siberia's remote Kamchatka peninsula, a rough and
extremely volcanic wilderness region the size of California.
It is sparsely populated, littered with deserted villages,
derelict industrial sites and former Soviet military installations,
most long abandoned. A sad and forlorn place in some ways. Getting
to the field site required, among other trials, a 10-hour plane
flight from Moscow to the Kamchatka city of Petropavlovsk followed
by endless miles of travel by bus and car, then a four-hour barge
trip across a lake, followed by a seven-hour drive across wooded
wilderness in a Cold War-era tank to arrive at the base camp on the
"Yes, I hung off a tank," Larson says, "and I ate dinner in the
field, while ash from an erupting volcano dropped all over me; I
hiked many miles a day over rough terrain, and wandered in a field
so full of excavated depressions (the local ancients lived in
underground dugouts) that it was like being on the moon -- if the
moon was covered with deep summer grass.
"I saw a grizzly bear," she says, "and seals that kept popping
up in the water around me and, although I'm a vegetarian, I ate
fresh salmon roe. Hey, I eat eggs. I even stood accidentally on a
couple of flounders, who took off in opposite directions and
knocked me into the Bering Sea. The water temperature was just
above 30 degrees."
Not only that, but Zubrow says, "On her first day out, it was
the novice Larson who found the first cluster of circular
depressions that indicated the site of ancient round underground
houses, including the oldest one we found during the entire season.
It was 6,500 years old."
Each community being surveyed, mapped and excavated during the
project's several field expeditions once numbered about 500
reindeer hunters and fishermen and a few may be up to 10,000 years
old, Zubrow says.
"I'm always aware," he says, "that here in what are to us such
remote and distant places, real people lived and loved and died;
had children -- and now they've totally disappeared. But in my work
I get to bring them into present-day consciousness. I consider this
to be such a privilege."
It is an undertaking that involves digging deep into ash, earth
and peat bogs, sifting tons of soil, analyzing often tiny and
frequently eroded bits of stone and other materials, using a GPS to
map their location and later, placing them in a context that
describes their meaning or use.
"It was an amazing experience to slowly trowel out sections of
earth or sift through layers of volcanic ash and suddenly see
things appear: a knife or a bone, a chip or flake -- in the end
they comprise a 'magic bag' of precious objects," Larson says.
"It was such an awakening for me. Twelve people traveled to the
ends of the earth to come back with a little plastic bag that can
tell us so much about a people, their communities and way of life
that existed thousands of years ago," she says.
"I've seen items like this in museums," she says, "but I had no
idea what it took, what it meant. I do now, because now I've found
"And no matter where I go or what I do," she says, "the people I
was with on this trip will be with me because no one else I ever
meet for the rest of my life will have done this work."
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