By Nita Losoponkul, Earthwatch Volunteer
As an Earthwatch volunteer, Nita Losoponkul has traveled to Andorra three times to participate on the expedition Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees. She shares what makes this place so special and why she has chosen to return each time.
“Again? Didn’t you go there last year?” Well yes. And I LOVED every minute of it!
While most people can’t find Andorra on the map, it is now one of my favorite places and I hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be able to visit again in the future. I’ve been lucky enough to go on five Earthwatch expeditions and chose to do three of the five on the Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees, where scientists are studying how climate change is impacting this Alpine environment.
When asked about why I’m a three-timer, it’s hard to choose just one reason, but here’s my best attempt to explain:
1. My inner science geek is set free. I’ve always loved science. As a child, I begged my parents to go to “nerd camp,” to spend summers digging for fossils and to be excused from curfew to stay out late to view constellations. But as I got older, it became harder to stick with what I loved, and I eventually walked away from science and into business school.
Earthwatch is my avenue to stay in touch with that inner science geek that I had pushed aside as I began adulting.
The Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees project, in particular, has been amazing at satisfying my nerdiness as the team has continued to innovate each year. Even as a third-timer, there were new sub-projects underway that I needed to learn about. There are 12 different study sites and numerous activities at each site that volunteers self-select to do involving small mammals, bird banding, tree measurements, nest boxes, soil decomposition, insects, and permafrost flower and plant species. It would take many more trips for me to do every sub-project at every site. And then there are new ones added each year! (We started setting up a new sub-project for next year on this last trip, but I’ll leave it to the research team to spill the beans on this.)
2. I’m inspired by the passion and dedication of the team to do more. I’ve never seen a team that works as hard as the research staff on this project. While we are enjoying our desserts and wine (see #4, below) after dinner, they are back out in the field, in the dark, doing a nighttime check of the small mammal traps. On our “day off,” they are hauling supplies up the mountain so there was less for us volunteers to carry. On the hikes, they have the heaviest packs, loaded down with stacks of wood, hammers, mallets, and anything else you could possibly think of.
They are out with us every step of the way, and then some more after we’ve called it a day.
The crew members are also some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. I’m language challenged, and I consider it a personal victory that I say basic things like wine, cheese and bathroom in a few different languages. But to be able to converse, and know less commonly used words like dendrometer and know that a group of crows is called a murder in Catalan, Spanish, French, Latin (the scientific names of things) and English is awe-inspiring (I didn’t really know these myself until I did this project, and English is my native tongue).
3. “Stretch assignments” that “push the limits” build character. This is not an easy project from a physical standpoint. Except for those who have natural abilities to run both on and off trails with ease (i.e. “mountain goats”), it’s definitely an expedition that requires some training in advance. But it’s pushed me to work harder and train harder and believe that if I try, I can conquer the hills! And in case I’m wrong, I have a supportive team to catch me when I fall! That being said, the team also believes in “no volunteer left behind.” They have done an amazing job on each of my three expeditions with finding skill and strength-appropriate tasks for volunteers, no matter where they are at physically.
If you are thinking of doing this project (which I highly recommend), I do encourage you to train for it. The views are spectacular (see evidence of this in the photos on this blog post and on the project Facebook page) and worth the challenging hikes to get there. (Well, except site 11, which I’ll let other volunteers and the team share more about some other time).
4. It’s still my vacation and I come home rejuvenated. I’m at the age where if given the option, I’m going to select an actual bed, a flushing toilet, and a hot shower over “roughing it” like I did in my younger years with bucket rinses, pit toilets, and sleeping bags. Hotel Bringue definitely meets that requirement, and then some. (There is also wifi and cable TV.) Many of the volunteers (myself included) have had a number of dietary restrictions and the hotel staff does a fabulous job ensuring there is something for everyone to eat. After a day booking it up the mountain and sometimes, on rainy days, sloshing in the mud, it’s amazing to come back to a hot shower, a glass (or three) of wine at dinner, and a three-course meal. (There’s also a cash bar for those who want something other than wine.)
And that’s my long-winded attempt to explain my three-peat on this project, so I’ll stop here. But please feel free to reach out to Earthwatch to connect us. I’m happy to answer questions about the trip and to help in any way that I can. And I hope to see you in Andorra in the future! (You can bet I’ll be back for more.)
To learn more about this project, visit the Earthwatch website: Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.