Wetlands Centre welcomes Russian visitors

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Igor Egorov, Rinda Ferguson, Elena Kim and Scott Boylen stand in front of the MFL MarMac McGregor Center, which was one of Igor and Elena’s stops when they visited the area last week from Khakassky State Nature Reserve in Russia. The visit was part of the Russia-USA Wetland Center Exchange Program: Linking People and Wetlands project. Representatives from the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette, including Boylen, visited Russia in June. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Last week, Marquette’s Driftless Area Wetlands Centre hosted two representatives from Russia’s Khakassky State Nature Reserve, as part of the Russia-USA Wetland Center Exchange Program: Linking People and Wetlands project.

The Wetlands Centre was one of three wetlands centers in the United States chosen to participate in the project, which seeks to identify shared challenges organizations in the U.S. and Russia face in regard to wetlands education and outreach.

For the exchange program, the Wetlands Centre and the two other participating centers, The Wetlands Institute from Stone Harbor, N.J., and John Bunker Sands Wetland Center from Seagoville, Texas, were each paired with a Russian wetlands center. Representatives from each U.S. wetlands center visited a partner center in Russia earlier this year. This fall, Russian representatives, in turn, visited their partner wetlands centers in the U.S.

Funding for the project is provided by a grant to The Wetlands Institute by the U.S. Embassy, Moscow, Public Affairs Section as part of the U.S.-Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program. The Wetlands Institute is teaming with Wetland Link International (based in the United Kingdom) and Wetlands International Russia (a program of World Wildlife Fund Russia) to generate a better international dialogue between wetlands centers in the U.S. and Russia to share best practices in environmental education.

Wetlands Centre Director Katrina Moyna and Wetlands Center board member and MFL MarMac teacher Scott Boylen visited Khakassky, located in Abakan, Republic of Khakasia, Russia, in June.

Khakassky representatives Igor Egorov and Elena Kim arrived on Sunday, Oct. 11, in Marquette, where they stayed at the Cobblestone Inn and Suites. Igor and Elena began their experience Monday morning with a tour of the Wetlands Centre. They were led by Wetlands Centre board member Rinda Ferguson, who accompanied them on their journey throughout the week. Following the tour, the group headed to Elkader, where they visited Osborne Nature Center and Big Spring Trout Hatchery.

On Tuesday, they toured La Riviere Park, in Prairie du Chien, with Dennis Kirschbaum. They also visited Cabela’s. That afternoon, captain Robert Vavra highlighted the Mississippi River on a Maiden Voyage boat tour.

The Mississippi is similar to rivers they’ve seen in Russia, but that didn’t make it unimpressive, Igor said. 

“Nature is always diverse and outstanding,” he said. “It was very beautiful.”

While the Mississippi was impressive in a natural sense, Igor said its folklore is even more intriguing to Russians.

“In our schools, all kids read Mark Twain,” he said. “I read that 20 years ago, so the fact that I’m here now, seeing the river and places I read about, is amazing.”

Wednesday included another boat tour, this time with Rich King, McGregor District Manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The afternoon included a trip to Pikes Peak State Park, where local geology enthusiast Phil Burgess led them on a geology hike. He also invited them to his home in Prairie du Chien, where he showed off his extensive rock and mineral collection. That evening, Igor and Elena attended a meet and greet at The Barn Restaurant, in Prairie du Chien, where they met with other Wetlands Centre board members, Marquette officials and their local tour guides.

Thursday featured a visit to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the morning, followed by a trip to Baraboo, Wis., in the afternoon, to tour the International Crane Foundation.

Visiting the Crane Foundation was the highlight of the trip for Elena. As a biologist, she was interested in the information about and natural processes of cranes, and was also able to understand the significance of the work.

Igor most enjoyed the stop at Effigy Mounds. The burial mounds at Effigy Mounds are similar to those located in Khakassky, he said, in that they’re thousands of years old.

“But where yours are a heap of land, ours have a certain structure,” he explained, noting that each mound is surrounded by a pyramid-style cabin.

Effigy Mounds also appealed to work he’s currently conducting in Russia.

“I work more with human science than biology, and right now we’re doing a project about local history and heritage,” he said. “Like you had here, where there were indigenous tribes and settlers came in, Russian settlers also came in [to indigenous land].”

On Friday, the group spent the morning in Dubuque, touring the Mississippi River Museum. 

That afternoon, they visited MFL MarMac Middle School and spoke with the eighth grade class. Boylen showed photos from his trip to Russia, while Igor spoke about Khakassky. He also fielded questions from students about life in Russia. They were curious about topics like farming methods, occupations, holidays, popular foods and sports.

Despite some cultural variations, Igor told the students he hoped the information inspired them to see that Russia is different from what they might hear about in the news.

“There are different circumstances, but we are generally the same,” he said. “There are ordinary people in Russia who go to school, have families and friends, and have Facebook.”

Following Friday’s busy day, the group had one more adventure planned, traveling to Horicon Marsh, in Wisconsin, on Saturday. Igor and Elena began their journey home Sunday.

Reflecting on the week, Igor and Elena said one thing that stood out to them was the amount of pleasing and open people wherever they went. They also enjoyed the programs provided for them.

“I like how you make programs simple, expressive and easy to understand,” he said. “That’s important for eco-education. It should be very people- or children-oriented.”

Volunteerism, especially by older, retired adults, is one thing Igor said they would like to implement at Khakassky State Nature Reserve. Attracting that age group is not something they focus on there, but rather try to bring in families and kids, he said.

“Here, older people are integrated into social life. That’s a very good practice,” he said, mentioning that, in Russia, it’s uncommon for adults 68 and older to participate in volunteerism and activities.

Harkening to a goal of the exchange program, which hopes to bring wetlands centers together to further education and outreach, Igor said: “This journey will let me consider volunteering not as free labor, but in bringing people together toward a positive aim.”

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