To Do: Hang Out at Mall, Torture Little Brother, Save World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, October 1997

To Do: Hang Out at Mall, Torture Little Brother, Save World

A few young go-getters who'll soon be making headlines
By Brad Wetzler

Don't worry, we know your type. sure, you're interested in what happened during the last 20 years — but what you really want to know is what's going to happen 20 years from now. What can we expect from the next generation? Who will be front and center in the outdoor zeitgeist come 2017? Well, since you asked ...

Los Alamos, New Mexico

"Do you want the long version or the short?" asks astronomy prodigy Alex Wurden. "OK, here's the short. I took photos of the Hale-Bopp comet and compared its movement to the stars behind it. Then I entered that data into a series of equations called Gauss's method — you know, the triangulation of the Sun, Earth, and comet, combined with Newton's gravitational law and Kepler's second law. Turned out I was right on target. I had described Hale-Bopp's orbit with just a 1 percent error." The number-crunching earned this Boy Scout fourth place in last summer's International Science and Engineering Fair, an expo that crawls with brainy, MIT-bound 18-year-olds. Still, the accolades didn't come as a complete surprise: Wurden, whose father is a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been a scientist-in-training for most of his short life. "In sixth grade I calculated the power of the sun," Wurden says, nonchalantly. "In seventh I built a shoebox spectrometer, and in eighth I created light from sonic implosions." Oh.

Heimaey, Iceland

It's not easy coming of age as a puffin on the craggy, subarctic island of Heimaey. But life could be worse for the black-and-white seabirds: Their tiny rock-pile of a home could, for instance, lack its Puffin Patrol — the motley squadron of kids who've taken it upon themselves to care for the island's famous fowl. Each August, young puffins are supposed to leap from the volcanic cliffs where they're born and land with a gentle splash in the ocean below. But for some reason, scores of puffins have instead been leaping toward the bustle and fray of town, landing with a thud on Main Street, where they're targeted by slobbering dogs, crafty cats, and fast-approaching car bumpers. Enter the mighty Puffin Patrol. Every night during the leaping season, these tots kiss their parents good-night and march into the streets, picking up fallen birds and packing them into cozy cardboard boxes. When morning arrives, the patrol carts the birds down to the shore and hurls the plump, feathery softballs into the ocean, where they touch down with a kerplunk and begin life anew as fish-catching adults. "Bless-bless," the kids shout in unison — an Icelandic colloquialism that means "good-bye."

Park City, Utah

"I don't really care if they're boys or girls," says Lindsey Van, the top female ski jumper on the world's junior circuit. "I like beating both." Good thing, because if she's ever to win an Olympic gold medal — which she says is her life's ambition — she'll have to continue out-leaping the boys, since women's ski jumping is not an Olympic sport. "OK, then I'll just qualify as a man," says the four-foot-eight, 85-pound seventh-grader, whose personal best jump of 318 feet was good enough to nab first place in the 90-meter event at last year's Nordic Junior Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. But why, you may ask, when her contemporaries are obsessed with such low-risk pursuits as soccer and softball, does she willingly hurl herself off a 290-foot tower and soar the length of a football field? "I've tried a lot of other sports," says Van, "but big-fun-wise, none compare to ski jumping."

Nashville, Tennessee

"He made me really mad," says high school senior Melissa Poe, arguably the world's most powerful organizer of young environmental activists. "That's when it all started for me." Poe, founder of Kids for a Clean Environment (Kids FACE), is recalling the time eight years ago when President George Bush snubbed her inquisitive, fourth-grade brand of activism. "I wrote him a letter asking him to do something about the environment," she says, making no attempt to hide her disgust. "There was no reply for three months, and then he sent me a form letter encouraging me to stay off drugs and stay in school." Poe, then nine, responded by taking out ads on 250 billboards across the nation — the space donated by their owners — challenging Bush to make good on his campaign rhetoric. After her precocious statement became an international media event, Poe kept the momentum going by starting Kids FACE. So far she's started a newsletter that reaches two-million-plus homes, raised more than $300,000, and toured the world giving talks to students. "We try to tell kids that it's not OK to be a slacker," she explains. "You need to start being a responsible, environmentally friendly person now, pronto, before you become a resource-sucking adult."

Photograph by Rex Rystedt

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