Education

12-year-old Sacramento student prepares for Antarctic expedition

Aidan Fong practices climbing using ropes at an adventure course last year in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Aidan Fong practices climbing using ropes at an adventure course last year in Flagstaff, Ariz. Ryan Fong

Aidan Fong is only 12. But within 30 days, he and sixth-grade teacher Kim Williams will join an expedition headed to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The trip to the planet’s coldest, driest and most mountainous continent is not one that most preteens are likely to attempt. And it’s not one that most parents of preteens would support. Winter winds regularly climb in excess of 100 mph. Temperatures in the Antarctic summer, which is nearing an end, are close to freezing. The continent’s ice sheet is in constant motion. Crevasses mark the region.

But Aidan’s dad, Ryan Fong, and Williams say the sixth-grader at Leonardo da Vinci K-8 School in Sacramento is physically and intellectually ready for the trip of a lifetime.

“I feel like I kind of need to do something for the environment,” Aidan said Thursday, shortly before lead expedition guide Jason Flesher spoke to his class about the destination. “We’re running low on nonrenewable sources like oil and natural gas. So we need to get it together and do something else.”

The something else, in this case, is joining the 2015 journey organized by 2041, a nonprofit foundation based in Truckee that seeks to spread the word about resource sustainability, climate change and preservation of the Antarctic. The group’s name, 2041, represents the year that nations can begin reviewing a treaty that restricts human and mineral resource activities in the Antarctic.

At Leonardo da Vinci, scores of sixth-graders chimed in delight at the wildlife photos and Flesher’s descriptions of penguins, orcas, seals and albatrosses, the latter with wingspans that can exceed 11 feet. The crabeater seals don’t eat crabs, he told them. (They eat krill.) The leopard seals eat penguins.

Aidan sat rapt in the presentation. He knew about Robert Swan, the 2041 founder who traveled to both the north and south poles and authored the book “Antarctica 2041: My Quest to Save the Earth’s Last Wilderness.” Aidan read the book earlier this winter and noted in particular that Swan had a sense of his own future at age 11.

“Aidan was telling me that when Swan was 11, he decided he wanted to walk to both poles,” recalled his dad, Ryan Fong. The father and son talked about Aidan’s options.

“(Aidan) said, ‘That would be, like, too amazing. I’m only 11. Why would I get the opportunity to do something like that?’” Fong recalled, reciting his own answer: “You never know. But if you’re interested in something like this, take a look and see what it’s all about.” Soon after, he said, Aidan submitted an application to 2041.

Williams, in her first year at Leonardo da Vinci, said she was delighted when she received Swan’s invitation to participate in her second 2041 expedition and soon began thinking about fundraising. The expedition plus round-trip travel to Buenos Aires and then south to Ushuaia at Argentina’s southern tip is expected to run about $26,000 a person.

Swan, at Williams’ invitation, came to the school in January and talked about his own experiences as an explorer. He explained to students why he created the 2041 foundation and announced that he had invited Williams for the March expedition.

That’s when Fong approached Williams about Aidan’s participation.

“I got a crazy idea for you, Kim,” Fong recalled telling her.

“I went home and thought about it a lot,” Williams said. She had gone to Antarctica in 2012, when she taught at the now-closed Washington Elementary in Sacramento.

That trip was underwritten by the Center for Green Schools in Washington, D.C., because of her efforts to teach students about environmental and civic responsibility. So Williams said she knew the stakes. She called Swan and got the green light.

She sees Aidan as a “unique student,” she said. One day she asked students to describe what question they would ask a scientist, and she was moved by Aidan’s response.

She said Aidan wanted to ask scientists if they thought humans are destroying the environment and if the “futile attempt to slow destruction” is the best option to save the planet. He also asked how long it would take to destroy the world at the current rate and whether humans were attempting to get to space faster to “destroy yet another planet.”

That perspective “really struck me as very mature,” Williams said. “He’s a very cerebral kid.”

Once Aidan was accepted, joint fundraising on behalf of Williams and Aidan began in earnest. Aidan has his own Facebook page. Williams’ fundraising site is through gofundme.com.

The two leave California on March 11 and board the Sea Spirit several days later along with expedition members from about 30 countries. The ship will depart Ushuaia and cross Drake Passage to the Antarctic, stopping intermittently for the next 10 days to disembark by inflatable Zodiac rafts at sites along the peninsula. Passengers will spend most nights on board the ship.

Fong, who estimates he has visited about 50 countries, said his son’s trip wouldn’t have been possible without Williams’ support. In general, the 2041 Foundation asks that participants be at least 15 or 16.

And Aidan should be prepared. He has been on hiking treks, Fong said, including a six-day trip through the Grand Canyon.

Fong said he and his wife have talked about the dangers and the upside for Aidan. “The conclusion I came to was it would be really cool if he were able to do that.”

Aidan’s mother “was a little more concerned about it initially,” Fong said. But, he said, as soon as his wife saw the look in Aidan’s eyes, she told Fong she knew “we should do all we can do to make sure it happens for him.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

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