Digging Adventure in Kamchatka

Moscow July 5 2010
Moscow July 5 2010

I challenge you to think about what your amazing adventure would be. Even better, I challenge you to make a part of each day have just a little bit of adventure. It’s sure to make you look forward to something every day. And that would be amazing.—Claude Larson

Claude Larson is no stranger to adventure. For one, she teaches 8th grade Physical Science at the Jefferson Township Middle School in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. She’s a mixed media artist. She jumps out of airplanes (for fun!).  Now, she’s a globe-trotting, NSF-grant-funded, PolarTREC teacher.

PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) matches K-12 teachers with polar scientists for hands-on research in the Polar Regions. Teachers spend between 2-6 weeks in the field working alongside scientists while reporting on their experience with their students and community via online and satellite technologies.

PolarTREC paired Larson with Greg Korosec and Dustin Keeler (both at  SUNY Buffalo), PhD students involved with the International Circumpolar Collaborative Archaeological Project. For this multi-year, internationally collaborative project researchers study the archaeology and paleoenvironment at three locations including Northern Finland, northern Canada, and 2010’s destination, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.

Larson’s induction into Arctic science was a whirlwind. On April 16, she accepted the position. On May 5, she attended PolarTREC teacher training in Fairbanks where she learned how to use a satellite phone—this allowed her to update an online journal from her remote field location—and two months later, she was the first of the teachers to leave for the field. Before she left, Larson learned about the project in a pre-field logistics phone conference, watched videos on bear safety, tested gear and clothing, and brushed up on useful Russian phrases. She gave talks to each grade at her school, fit in a trip to Manhattan with her sister, and her daughter’s college freshman orientation.  On July 3, she left North America for the first time.


“One of the previous years’ teachers told us at the training that our lives wouldn’t get crazy until about two months before we left. It was then that I realized I had exactly two months before I was to leave. She was right—it was a crazy time, but really fun!”

After spending two days exploring Moscow and meeting up with the research team, including several Russian scientists and students, the real adventure began. From Moscow, they flew to Petropovlosk-Kamchatsky, a bustling outpost on the southeastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula and their base for final errands before the long ride to their remote field location.

First, the team loads luggage and supplies on a bus for a dreadfully bouncy 81/2 hour ride on a gravel road. Next, the bus backs onto a small ferry for a short trip across a river and the bumpy ride continues to Ushki just as nightfall (and the mosquitoes) descends. Luggage offloaded, sleep. The next day, they load luggage onto another bus and meet up with a Vesdehod, a vintage Soviet transporter with tank-like wheels. On the Vesdehod, they ferry on a barge across a lake to Kultuk (this plan interrupted by a windstorm that forces the group to set up camp at an abandoned house) then travel overland to Stolbevaya.

Larson reports in her July 14 journal entry:

“The vehicle starts off with a loud clatter and settles into a bone-rattling roar. It whines as it takes on hills and accelerates on straight-aways – which are rare. The machine seems to eat tall grass, shrubs and even small trees. I decided to start the trip on the top of the vesdehod . . . With a death grip on the small railing that is atop the beast, I clung on through pitches and dives that had us leaving our seats on several occasions. Along with holding on to the rail and trying to stay in a somewhat seated position, you must also watch out for branches that hang over the road. The basic procedure is to drop forward as low as possible to let the branch pass over you... This was for the most part, pretty effective; however there were times when you just got beat.”

At last, after traveling eleven days, through sixteen time zones, five airports, two ferries, two busses, and a Vesdehod, the research team finally reached their destination on the Bering Sea coast. The next step was to set up a camp with access to fresh water and high enough to be safe from tsunamis (Kamchatka is the most volcanically active place in the world).  A cooking area, tent city, lab tent, and latrine came next.

For the next two weeks, Larson’s daily commute was an hour hike through the tundra looking for clusters of circular depressions that are the foundations of 3000 year-old houses. Once found, the team logged locations on a GPS, and took a sample soil core.  Larson had the honor of being the first to locate one of the pit houses.


Next, the team measured out a meter squared for a controlled excavation where they cleaned the soil in 10 cm increments by scooping it up and putting it through a screen, gathering artifacts.

‘Once we found a cluster, the best part was the digging and finding things. It was a treasure hunt. My first projectile point, I was dancing around this depression – everyone was looking at me like oh-kay, but I was SO happy!”

Larson also worked with geologists from the University of Washington digging soil pits to date tephra layers—layers of volcanic ash—which will help them date the settlements more precisely. Artifacts come from two distinct time periods, one about 6000 years ago and the other, about 3000 thousand years ago.


“It’s interesting that there are two sets of artifacts because the scientists can compare them to see how the two cultures differed and how the technology changed between cultures. These people lived along the coast and now their settlement has been uplifted 40 meters so it’s interesting that people lived in the area through earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.”

During her three-week trip, Larson saw six erupting volcanoes and learned a lot about group decision-making and collaboration. Her experience also gave her a new appreciation for what she sees in museums because, she says, “I know now how much time and effort and planning it takes to get all those things we see in a museum.”

On August 3, Larson returned home, enjoyed her first hot shower and fresh produce in quite a while, but nostalgic for her tent home on the tundra. When we asked her if she would apply to be a PolarTREC teacher again she replied with an enthusiastic ‘YES!”—Marcy Davis

PolarTREC is managed by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States. Visit their incredible website to meet more PolarTREC teachers: http://www.polartrec.com/