Perceptions of a newcomer to Kotkajärve Metsaülikool

MÜ Estonian language group - Photo by Tauno Mölder (2019)MÜ Estonian language group - Photo by Tauno Mölder (2019)
Sirje Kiin, my wife, has been attending Kotkajärve for quite a few years, so I have heard many good things about it. I believe that she considers it the best week of every year. I have not been able to attend until this year, for work reasons.

My experience was excellent, confirming many expectations and adding other experiences that I did not expect. Confirmed were the wonderful food and fellowship. People were just so darned nice – kind, understanding, and helpful. As expected, the level and quality of presentations was high. Considering that, perhaps I should not have been surprised that the level of engagement by attendees was higher than I have witnessed in many years. Great respect to presenters and performers was shown by all. Rather refreshing in our scattered times.


I am not fluent in Estonian. One of my main goals was to go deeper into the language, and that goal was truly achieved. In hearing Sirje’s descriptions of activities over the years, I had not caught on to the idea that several of the interest groups are intended to help attendees build their skills in Estonian. They are set at levels, from beginner to higher levels of expertise. I participated in the beginner group, though I have taken Estonian lessons before. Katrin Kütti-Otsa, my instructor, happily adapted to students at every level, from those who have not studied Estonian at all to those who have significant fluency. For me, it was a tipping point. I left the forest believing that I can build my fluency during the remainder of 2019 and begin conversation at a basic level in 2020 – all from one week of instruction at Kotkajärve! Other interest groups engage speakers one level up from where I am and some are designed for established Estonian readers and speakers. I encourage spouses, children, and other relatives to join “your Estonian” at next year’s event.



Then, there was the forest itself. Sirje had made it clear that it was a true, natural forest, but I had not fully embraced the meaning of that. After just one of the three guided hikes I participated in, I decided to travel only on roads and major paths when walking alone. Yes, Google Maps exists and in fact has Kotkajärve on it, but one can still do quite a bit of wandering in the deep woods unless you are expert at dead reckoning, map-reading, and exploring by compass. Not to worry, though, because the roads and major paths offer magnificent views of a healthy, endless hardwood forest. A painting at every turn. And the lakes, being situated in a hilly area, are often viewable from above. Such beauty eludes proper description.

Several events stood out for many. One evening, many attendees trekked to a special spot in the forest to honor ancestors and bond with nature. Very moving and spiritual. A political discussion had five attendees play the roles of current political leaders in Estonia, including the Prime Minister and leaders of the opposition. They participated in a panel discussion with a moderator. What a fantastic job they did!! As a long-time teacher, I can say with confidence that making complicated issues both funny and informative is challenging, but they managed it quite effectively. The humor was enhanced by anarchist interlopers who stormed in during the discussion. After the panel, all attendees voted for the party they chose to follow.

Of course, the final evening’s events were the highlight of the week. A group that had spent the entire week learning with an experienced choreographer performed Estonian folk dances and another group that spent the week with an experienced choir director sang beautiful Estonian songs. Skits and individual performances were delivered and the new “Estonian Cabinet”, resultant from the afternoon’s “election”, was introduced. An Estonian feast, featuring many traditional dishes, was enjoyed by all.

I’m not a youngster and have had two full careers, both of which involved attending and organizing events like Kotkajärve. Rarely have I experienced an event as well-organized as this one. The entire week was positive. It was especially gratifying to see such a wide range of ages, from young children to people in their 80s, and it was encouraging to see a large group of young professionals, many of whom showed impressive artistic abilities in addition to educational and professional accomplishments.

What a great week! Thanks to the superb work of the organizers and to the many kind people who attended.



Jack Walters