A primary archetype in literature illustrates that when a character enters the woods, said character emerges a changed person. I think 11 lives emerged changed from the forest thanks to the magic, knowledge, and genius of Vadim and Irina.
When I first approached Vadim about the possibility of hosting a student trip, he was in favor of the idea. Of course, he hadn't led a trip with students in high school before, especially for a multi-day trip. He was a bit uncertain about some things. We discussed logistics over a few months and made sure sleeping arrangements, itineraries, behavior expectations, and general safety were all addressed.
In all, 9 students, ages 14 to 18, and 2 chaperones packed their backpacks and slipped into their shiny, new rubber boots and embarked on a short trip of a lifetime. Upon our arrival at the field station, Vadim and Irina would begin their work, which would include hosting, cooking, and guiding us each day. We would be there for a total of 4 days, but it felt like many weeks due to the vast variety of experiences we had in that short period of time. Immersion into a titillating five days of sensory delights would be our lot.
I want to add a pertinent note: as a seasoned African safari participant, this trip rivaled some of the best safaris I've witnessed. The sheer volume and diversity of experiences and knowledge we received were unrivaled. We are forever indebted to Vadim and Irina and the rest of his wonderful family for providing an education and experience unlike any other. Our students will never forget; I will never forget.
Day 1: arrival of the city folk
We arrived on a Wednesday evening after an arduous day of school work and daily routines and travel into the forest. Our bright red and unsightly shuttle finally found its way to Vadim's field station--GPS coordinates, or Vadim's instructions, are necessary as even the local people living nearby don't know where our final destination might be located. It was our driver’s first trek out to Vadim and Irina's paradise.
At last, the parking break set into place, our feet met the hallowed ground of the Naliboki forest, and we met the warm embrace of Vadim and Irina. For the students, there were introductions, settling into sleeping arrangements, basic orientation of the field station, and then dinner. The food provided by Irina was healthy, tasty, and filling. It's simple, and it's exactly what people need for their treks into the forest. During dinner, Vadim provided a safety briefing for the students. Their eyes popped in sudden fear at the thought of adders roaming the premises. After a harrowing story from Vadim, they worked to hold in their newfound trepidation of falling off a log and impaling themselves. As their fears subsided as a result of rationally working through probabilities of accidents and their own efficacy to mitigate such events, Vadim announced the wake up time for the next morning. It would be 4:45am. The icing on the cake. I think our students were in shock. While I had prepared the students for "early" wake up times, 4:45 was a bit of a shock for them.
As one might predict, all that nervousness mixed with a cocktail of excitement and exhaustion and you've got students still up chatting at 11pm. This is the definition of a recipe for disaster. Alas, everyone finally slept and Day 2 would be upon us very early.
Day 2: initial bliss
To the students’ credit, everyone was on time for breakfast at 4:45am. In fact, for every 4am-5am start during the week, every student arrived on time. They were resilient. Many had never been to a forest or had any experience similar to this before. Vadim's field station and his passion and the general excitement of being there can inspire almost anyone to rise to the occasion and achieve otherwise superhuman feats.
Off we traversed into the dark, misty morning as a caravan of three. We took the two, trusty Ladas and a Subaru. We began ranging by vehicles through the forest. We saw two capercaillie lekking in the forest. We were able to drive quite close and capture some beautiful photos and video. We saw many deer as well. Then, we stopped and walked approximately 8 kilometers through the forest. We accompanied Vadim as he checked two camera traps. He shared with us snippets of his vast knowledge on so many subjects related to the ecology of the forest and the animals. The students enjoyed the quiet walks, the sunrise, the wolf toys (the plastic or rubber items they find and turn into markings or play things for pups or as a sign of accomplishment). The students had their first introductions to walking through some marsh. They enjoyed it thoroughly. Some said the difficulty of navigating the thick mud and water was a highlight of the trip; such is the child-like joys and preferences we all need to revisit in our “adult” lives.
On our way back to the field station for lunch, we turned a corner and spotted two wolves. Yes, there were two wolves on the road waiting like gift-wrapped figurines in a tourist shop. I should clarify the "our" and "we" I keep using: only the first car saw the wolves and no one was able to capture the moment on any camera. The wolves of the Naliboki forest are lightning rods and ghosts all in one package. Good luck finding them. Indeed, we had luck. Unfortunately, we couldn't move quickly enough to capture it. Two students, Vadim, and a teacher all saw their first wild wolves. The students were charged up and hungry for lunch.
After lunch, we had the opportunity to relax in the forest and be on the lookout for beavers or otters at particular look out points. Our team was split into two groups. One group looked for animals closer to the field station and walked back in the evening before dinner when they were done. The other group was further away and was picked up around 9pm. Essential to our success was absolute, unadulterated silence. For students and groups, this is no small feat. Indeed, it was a colossal achievement that our students could remain silent, absolutely muted, for many hours. I convinced some to do as I had and capture the audio of the bird's choruses on their phones. It's like capturing a bottle of the forest and taking it home with you. Often, I go about my work listening to background sounds of the jungles or forests of my safaris in India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Tanzania. Now Belarus is added to my mixes.
The group that was further out from the field station and looking for beaver decided to break up the sitting and watching with a self-guided tour along the river. They stumbled upon a beaver leaping into the river. The beaver exploded into the air off the bank and shot into the river not to be seen again. Moments such as these, helped the students become increasingly aware of the shyness of the animals and unpredictability of any moment in this enchanted forest.
After all the excitement of day 1, students were ready for dinner and sleep. It would be another early rise the next day.
Day 3: big things and small things
Early rise, breakfast, students becoming accustomed to the routine, and the rumble of the Lada engines all greeted the morning.
We began the day by driving for about an hour to find bison. It was a beautiful, misty, crisp morning. We arrived at a spot to find 5 bison bulls grazing in a bright green field. We remained there for about a half hour observing the bison and their interactions with each other. We even saw them cross a canal, so there was some action and interesting behavior to see. It's incredible to see truly wild bison; there are so few remaining in the world. Big things to be seen and big things were in store for the students.
Then, we drove for nearly two hours across continuous and glorious forest. While there seemed to be more liter than in previous visits, this is still a vast and mostly-unscarred landscape of beauty and transcendence. If our students return next year, we may include a cleanup day where we devote most or all of that day to clearing as any liter we find; if only more people respected the most precious gifts we've been given. Vadim is the champion of this forest and his very life's purpose is in full devotion to its immutable state as an untouched and protected landscape.
We concluded this drive at an old hamlet where a stork colony resides. We saw many old oak trees (at least 300 years old) and many stork nests. Instead, we observed the storks interact with each other, playing, toying, mating, talking (or better described as manic chattering). It was otherworldly. It was like a movie set for a surreal Tim Burton film. The curves of the oaks, the overgrown lawns, the abandoned hamlet homes, the weary, leaning fences, deep shadows in abandoned doorways, the enormous nests.
We then visited a second stork colony and ended with lunch along a wetland where a myriad of birds thrive. Several students cited that lunch as a highlight. There was something about the warmth of the sun, the delicious food, the indelible stories from Vadim, and the solidarity of being together in nature and resting were all elements of this moment that percolated to the forefront of our memories.
The page wasn't closed on the day just yet. We then visited the old growth. This forest is 300 years old and contains many multi-hundred-year-old oak trees. Some of these trees require 5-6 students stretched out at arm's length to reach around the base of the tree. The garlic grass so rich and thick, the gentle rain softly pitter-pattering above in the canopy of the trees, the litany of wild flowers littering the floor. The history, the dugouts, the beauty of the flora were an overwhelming, collective sensation throughout our time in the old growth.
We returned to the field station to offer rest to the students. After dinner, we went out under a nearly-full moon to make wolf calls with Vadim. Forget the fiction tales you've read; the real thing is an all-consuming sensory experience. A moon, in the dead of night, and the recorded cries of wolves echoing for kilometers on end. It was a glorious day 2.
Day 4: are you kidding me?
This day felt like an African safari, only with an added wealth of information that comes from traversing the forest with Vadim. A seemingly endless parade of animal encounters would be our fate this day.
There was one moment where all three vehicles, all within ear-shot of each other, had a different wildlife sighting. Truly unbelievable.
The plan for the day was to range through the forest by vehicle and foot to see a wolf home, camera traps, and anything interesting roaming the intermittent open fields.
We began by seeing many deer (Roe and Red). Then, we saw a fox. It sat there in the road, calmly, staring at us and warming in the morning sun. It was a most pleasant sighting. You could nearly hear the fox say, "Good morning, everyone. I wish you well today. If you don't mind, I'll get back to my sun bathing." Indeed, we left the fine fox to his business and went about ours.
A few minutes later, Vadim spotted it far away in the distance--a wolf! It was our third sighting of a wolf in three days! This time, however, instead of it being a few seconds and then gone, escaping into the woods, the wolf remained in the open for about 10 minutes. It was a black wolf (dark brown in the morning light) and it was curious about us. We stopped for some photos and then Vadim decided to try and approach closer to see how it might react. We were approximately 1 kilometer away. As we approached, the wolf decided to approach us as well, significantly closing the gap between us. It was such odd behavior from the wolf. Its curiosity superseded its instinct to run. At least, for a while.
Finally, we stopped and a couple of us gently opened the vehicle doors to quietly get out for photos. Eventually, it decided we were not the kind of company he should associate with and danced off into the woods.
We were in awe! My students, having not experienced any such trip or wildlife photography excursion before, didn't realize the extreme rarity of our sighting. They were excited to be sure; I was breathless. This was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Someday, I think the students will realize just how unfathomable this sighting was for 3 vehicles and 13 people. To have such a long and intimate encounter with a wild wolf is unprecedented.
As fate would have it, this was only the beginning to a glorious day. We went on to see a female capercaillie within 5 meters of our vehicle, moose, two more foxes, many eagles, countless deer, and so much more. There was a moment, where one car was seeing an eagle, another car was driving alongside two separate greater spotted eagles, and a third car was viewing one species of eagle fight another. We felt so blessed to voluminous experiences of this kind.
Later, we visited the dugouts for the Jewish partisans in the forest--one such place upon which the movie “Defiance” is predicated. We learned more about setting a camera trap and why and where. We visited a wolf resting place where a large moose leg had been brought to the pregnant mother as a gift. It wasn’t a spiritual experience but it was surreal to be, for a short time, within the home of these mystical creatures without disrupting their lives.
We ended the day with a self-directed walk, banyas, showers, and dinner. Vadim joked of being able to offer a bear and lynx sighting the next morning. Given our fortunes, nothing seemed impossible. I found myself reflecting in bed before passing out in exhaustion. I recall whispering over and over, "Are you kidding me? How was today even possible?"
Day 5: all good things...
All good things come to an end. We had only a half day remaining. Vadim took us out on a beautiful walk in the morning sunrise. We were greeted by the usual melodic symphony of the birds and the fresh air. Along the way, we saw a beaver, some deer and moose. We ended the day by doing one last drive that included deer and eagle sightings.
Then, as many who have visited Vadim have come to understand, we enjoyed a lecture permeated in intriguing facts and visceral details about the Belorussian people and the forest's history. He has conducted extensive research and possesses extensive knowledge of the Belarusian way of life in the past and the flora and fauna of the Naliboki forest in the present. His lectures are a gift, a labor of love given to the listener.
Simply put, as much as a mere human being can be a hero to another, Vadim is a hero of mine. He opened my eyes to Belarus' past, to its people, to its generosity, to its forests, and to its animals. After three years of living in Belarus and after meeting so many wonderful people in and around Minsk, I cherish my relationship with Vadim, Irina, and their family.