White Nights at the White Sea

In mid and late July, the sun doesn’t really set at a latitude of 66 degrees north. It just briefly dips below the horizon around midnight and then pops back up a couple of hours later.

Thus, our Paul Smith’s College team of two faculty (Celia Evans and Melanie Johnson) and two students (Claire Atkinson and Erin Regan) found it difficult to get to bed early during our very recent stay at Moscow State University’s White Sea Biological Station.

I met Andrey Kitashov, deputy dean in the biology department, in October 2012 when during my three-month stay in the Altai Republic, I was invited to travel to Moscow State to participate in the Moscow Science Festival.

During our short meeting, we discussed the mutual value of student and faculty interaction and the possibility of a future visit. And so, after a year and a half of becoming colleagues via Skype and e-mail, our team headed over to meet students, faculty and field station administrators in a visit to learn about their academic programs, build trust, make friends and broadly explore the shape of future opportunities for both parties.

On July 15, the team left Burlington, Vermont, got stranded due to weather in Washington, D.C.,and arrived 24 hours later than planned at Domodedevo International Airport in Moscow.

We were greeted by Kitashov, after emerging from an easy trip through Russian immigration. Because we were a day late, our train to the north left in three hours rather than 27 hours. So, instead of a much needed rest and a day in Moscow, the original plan, we headed to the metro, travelled to the train station, and began our 30-hour journey north to the Arctic Circle and the White Sea Biological Station on the shores of Kandalaksha Bay.

Our companions for our entire time in Russia were Kitashov, his 12- year-old nephew and godson, Leosha, and Irina Kondratieva, also a professor at Moscow State in the department of immunology.

They were our guides, our interpreters -?and very quickly -?our friends. The train stopped at every small and large village going north. Our accommodation was an approximately 6-foot-by-8-foot sleeping car fitted with four narrow but comfortable bunks, a small table attached to the wall and curtains that could be drawn across the windows when we need to shut out the increasing daylight.

Each train stop was for a different length of time and we took advantage of the longer stops to stretch our legs with Andrey and Irina while they shared history and anecdotes with us, and decided whether or not to buy the ice cream, berries, meat pies or smoked fish. These were offered by the people from each town or village as they walked along the platform and called out what they had for sale.

We disembarked at 3:30 a.m. (Russia time) at Poiakanda, a two-minute stop with no platform, and barely a station building. After being hustled off the train by the conductor lady in our car, we were met by a driver, in an Uazik, who took us several kilometers to a house on the edge of the bay where those who could, slept in the rows of beds until the morning officially came. Then the boat came to take us for the 1.5-hour trip to the Biological Station.

And so began our seven-night visit full of unusually beautiful weather, Marine Ecology education, hiking and exploration, science conversations, great food and camaraderie.

In total, there were about 150 people living and studying at the station. Second and third year MSU students spend time working on research for different lengths of time. We had a comfortable cabin to stay in and we had a laboratory in one of the main buildings dedicated for our use. Each day we had a different short course offered by a Ph.D. specialist in each area of marine ecology.

We were introduced to Tidal zonation, zooplankton, algal ecology, the meiofauna (animals that live in the interstitial spaces in the sediment) and more. Each topic involved an excursion into the field to see habitats and collect samples. We brought these back to the lab where we used dissecting scopes (mostly) to examine, identify and sometimes draw what we had found.

I had no idea that we were in for such a considered educational opportunity. Our students dissected starfish and studied jellyfish and other creatures from the sea.

One of the highlights was watching Claire and Erin, each present their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) group research from the pastyear at Paul Smith’s College to their new Russian friends and professors. They were amazing -?well-spoken and well received.

As for our ‘social/cultural’ program,” we dipped in the White Sea each morning, we took long walks, participated in English and Irish country dance, swam in the freshwater ponds, ate fresh cloudberries on the bogs and fresh caught and smoked smelt, cod and zubatka from the campfire in the evenings after dinner. Of course, we had banya (traditional Russian bathing experience).

Leaving the station, we shared gifts and hugs, exchanged e-mails and gratitude with at least 40 new friends who had come to give us the traditional WSBS send off. As our boat pulled away from the dock, Andrey and Irina initiated first our long “hoot” from the boat to our friends on shore. Then after a short pause, they “hooted” back for as long as their voices would hold out. We did this back and forth until we couldn’t hear each other anymore. No one could have made us feel more welcome and at home, even as we left.

Our last two nights were spent in the dorms of the largest academic building in the world on the MSU campus. We shopped for souvenirs with Irina, and took a boat tour at dusk on the Moscow River. We had one more excellent day at Zvenigorod Biological Station about 60 kilometers from Moscow, where we met more ecologists and toured the facilities. Our final dinner at a restaurant called ‘Durdeen’ was fun and the food was delicious. We toasted the future and left for the airport at 3 a.m., exhausted and extremely full.