To Mongolia and Back Again

A group of people sat in assorted chairs around the multipurpose room in the campus center. Some were family, friends and colleagues. Others were simply there to listen. They were all present to learn more about one undergrad’s incredible experience and what’s known locally as a journey of a lifetime. Bits of conversation could be heard for several moments, everyone settling in. Eventually a gradual silence fell as Dave Putnam took a stand, addressing the audience from the front of the room. He began to introduce the student, explaining that who he had chosen to accompany him on his trip to Mongolia was an easy candidate. “He is someone to rely on,” Putnam said, speaking to the crowd. The person to whom he was referring was Caleb Ward.

Ward is a senior at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, with a major in environmental science and sustainability. He has worked closely with Putnam during his college career, starting when he first took Putnam’s anthropology class. While Putnam had many kind things to say about Ward, Ward had just as many to say about Putnam. “He’s been a good colleague of mine,” Ward said. “I really respect him and we work really well together.” Considering the mutual respect they have for each other, it makes sense that Ward was chosen to join him on this journey. It was not just the two of them: there were also Putnam’s two sons, other students (Mongolian and American) and some others as well.

The trip started with some flights that lasted over 13 hours one way. “We flew over the North Pole,” Ward said, remarking that this was a place he had never been before. Already, this trip marked the promise of adventure. They traveled from the States to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. This was still rather far from their destination. Staying in a few hotels and pitching tents along the way, they proceeded onward. The team of researchers headed through rough terrain. The weather along the way ranged from severe heat to temperatures calling for snow in the middle of July. With that said, the roads did not always produce easy travels. Sometimes they were paved, and others they weren’t much more than trails. Considering Mongolians tend to be expert horsemen, riding along for them wouldn’t have been much of an issue. This team, however, was not just traveling by horse. Their belongings consisted of some personal possessions as well as research equipment and all that they needed to survive in this harsh terrain. They used a couple of horses (all nicknamed “Bill” by Ward) as well as a few vehicles. This proved to be both an advantage and a disadvantage. When coming across areas of severe flooding, it was iffy in some situations. A vehicle actually got stuck once and had to be pulled out. But even with a few setbacks here and there, the team still managed to stay positive and continue on.

There were unfamiliar animals that some of the team weren’t used to seeing out in the open, such as a pit viper. Luckily for the team, they didn’t know they were poisonous until after the encounter. Another time, they were in an area that was known to be inhabited by snow leopards. Even though there were no leopards in sight, they did come across a marmot in a valley. They later discovered that the area they were occupying was named “Marmot Valley.”

The trip lasted 42 days. Being around a select number of people, those who saw one another every day, Ward explained that he learned a few things. “You have to rely on people. They are the only people you interact with. You’ve got to focus on the main goal. Mongolians or Americans, it didn’t matter at all. We were all brotherly.” Even though this trip was primarily in the name of research, there were moments when this concept truly shined through. “I brought a three-quarters, child-sized guitar and played it frequently,” Ward said. There were a few others who played instruments as well. They often played together, demonstrating the universality of music. He said genuinely, “Music can get you out of some rough spots.”

The research being done consisted of a few different elements. One important aspect involved cosmogenic dating. “It’s a new process, only about 10 years old,” Ward said. To most, it is rather complicated. The main objective is to figure out how long certain types of rocks have been exposed. This is done by extracting small pieces and testing them. Since the team wasn’t legally allowed to bring any sort of explosives into the country, they stuck to the old method of using quarry wedges. They did this with tools used to build pressure within the boulders and bedrock. Eventually the build-up would cause a piece to break off. A portion of that piece is what would have been tested. This process took hours, though the results were worth it in the end.

After days of venturing from road to trail and valley to dessert, it was time to head back. Sincere drive and determination are what pushed this team forward. They were the same things that sent them back again. Days of travel one way while roughing the elements proved to be difficult. It did not prove impossible, however. These people stuck together. Sometimes it wasn’t always easy for them to keep their spirits up, but with one another’s companionship and hard work it was able to happen. They met kind people, several free-range livestock and many challenges with every step. Eventually, they made their way back to the capital where testing was done on their samples that had been sent back. This was done at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. After that they did end up with some time to be tourists rather than researchers.

This adventure has left Ward with several positive outlooks. “Experiencing things is very important,” he said. He went on to say that he encouraged those who were interested to take advantage of the phenomenal science department at UMPI. His experience over the summer to most is considered a journey of a lifetime. But for Caleb Ward, a lifetime is a journey and it’s one with a very important goal in mind. “Do what makes you happy”–plain and simple.