Ask Jacob Burnley where St. Petersburg, Russia, is and he can do more than just tell you, he can draw you a map – from memory.
This Russian city has been on the mind of the Grade 10 Dover Bay Secondary School student lately, ever since he learned two weeks ago that he would be attending an international geography championship there alongside students from about 20 other countries.
Burnley, who in the last three years has placed second, fourth and seventh out of hundreds of competitors in the annual Great Canadian Geography Challenge, is one of three students selected to represent Canada at the National Geographic World Championships in St. Petersburg this July.
His interest in maps started at a young age – so young he can’t remember a time when he didn’t like them.
His father Chris remembers his son taking a keen interest in signs as a baby, and that fascination soon led to maps – his parents gave him his first atlas when he was six and while he couldn’t read all of the words at first, he spent hours looking through the book.
“Maps are my thing,” said Burnley, who estimates he spends four or five hours a week drawing out both real and made-up places. “I can picture a map in my mind and draw it.”
When he started writing geography quizzes in elementary school, his interest broadened to other areas of the discipline – he knows countless facts about the inhabitants, weather and geological features of different countries.
While he said his photographic memory doesn’t seem to extend beyond maps and geography facts, it is a skill that impresses all who know him – as a party trick, Burnley can name the capital city of almost any country friends and relatives throw at him.
He has already been in contact with the other two members of Team Canada, both of whom live in Ontario, and the three of them have divided up the world. Burnley is cramming his brain full of facts about the flora and fauna, geology and peoples in Asia and Oceania and he plans to study every day from now until the contest.
“I’m nervous now; I’ll be nervous then,” he said. “But it’s totally worth it.”
While his son’s trip to St. Petersburg is paid for, Chris said the family hummed and hawed a little before deciding to spend the money to join him.
“It was one of those things … your child doesn’t represent Canada very often,” he said.
The family plans to do a little travelling after the competition, including Finland, Estonia and Iceland.
Not one to let a geographic fact go unacknowledged, Burnley said once he goes to Russia he will have travelled to both the largest country by area as well as the smallest country by area – the family visited Vatican City last year.
Ellen Curtis, educational programs manager with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the group that organizes the Great Canadian Geography Challenge through its education committee, said making it onto Team Canada is quite a feat – students must win at the classroom, school, provincial and national levels and then the society picks the team based on winners from the past two years of the competition.
“Upwards of 100,000 students participate every year,” she said. “These are by far the best of the best in Canada.”