Sunday, June 17, 2007

Day 322: Pleistocene Park


I give you the Northeast Science Station!

My cabin is the second from the right, with the light-green roof.

Well this is incredible. Transfering photos from one computer to another is quite a process, and I didn't plan on it working so I only have a few photos on my jump drive now. But now that I know it works, more will come soon!

Until then, the update I prepared earlier:

I know I’ve had some amazing photo opportunities this year, but the ones from this last week have just blown me away. After some pretty secluded days to myself, a radio reporter from the BBC came to visit the station. In the few days of his visit, Sergei (the station director) took us out on some expeditions around the Kolyma river. The results were, in my favorite word, ridiculous.

On Wednesday Sergei took us up the Kolyma in his little 2-seater aluminum boat, where I adopted a seat perched on top a pile of life vests (unworn) and the satellite phone. We drove about an hour upriver through the curves of an off-branch of the Kolyma. There’re no roads in the region, but water is so plentiful that the land is more accurately sets of islands, rather than land with rivers. Sergei’s been given control over a plot of taiga that has been deemed the Pleistocene Park, a sort of nature preserve where he is working on a variety of projects relating to the flora and fauna of the Pleistocene era, particularly what would have existed roughly 10-15,000 years ago. For the less paleontologically inclined, think approximately the age of the mammoths, the end of the ice age, and beginnings of homo sapiens.

The weather was just about perfect, and racing along the river was incredibly fun in our rickety old boat. It’s rather startling how this place often reminds me of California – the summer smell of the plants and heat on the water is nearly identical to a place I used to visit in the summer near Merced. As we approached the park, we came across three moose! Who ran before I could get photos. Moose have been nearly completely hunted out of the local region, and only a few exist in and near the Pleistocene park now.

As we crossed the boundary of the park, we had to ram the boat over a sort of floating-log fence, which unconvincingly was meant to keep the monitored animals within view of the observational tower. I should give a bit of background on Sergei’s project. Essentially, he plans to introduce a number of large animals to the area in an effort to manipulate the local ecology to mimic the conditions of the Pleistocene era. Right now they have a few moose, a herd of horses, and a herd of reindeer in the park, and are working on bringing in bison and musk ox from Canada. Right now, the land is largely forested, covered in somewhat unfavorable tussocks and difficult vegetation. The plan is that the movement and behavior of a certain saturation of large animals (approximately 20 individuals per square km) will rebuild the landscape into grassland savannah, as it would have existed to support the fauna of the Pleistocene era. Once the park builds up stable populations of large herbivores, they plan to introduce bears, wolves, and eventually tigers.

While there is a sort of fence around the park, which is about 50 square km, it is hardly what I would call contained. The water level changes drastically within a year – we actually boated in through a slight valley that is usually dry. The observational tower is a sort of terrifying 35m high ladder, with what might generously be called a platform on top. (I didn’t touch it.)

My thoughts on the project are conflicted. It’s a fascinating, long-term idea, but everything about changing an ecosystem on that level seems…extremely questionable. True, the moose, horses, and reindeer are native to the region, although all have been imported from other parts of Siberia. The bears and wolves would be the same. The bison, musk ox, and tigers might technically be called native, but none have existed in this area for quite some time. So, while we might say that the “introductory” species issue here might not be so much of an issue, we certainly are talking about drastically manipulating the local ecosystem – essentially eliminating a good part of the vegetation and altering the physical landscape. All this would be achieved by the animals, from their movements plowing up the land and their feeding encouraging a certain set of vegetation. In the Pleistocene Era, and in theory at the end of this experiment in a number of years, the land would look something like the African savannah, except with different animals. And maybe greener.

One of the big missing pieces from the Siberian Pleistocene ecosystem is mammoth. Sergei would LOVE to have a mammoth. Or a herd of them. What with the remarkably intact mammoth (and rhinoceros) remains found around the park, cloning a mammoth (or prehistoric rhinoceros) isn’t completely out of the question, although entirely good genetic material hasn’t been found yet.

While Sergei doesn’t have a mammoth, what he does have is a 12-ton Soviet era tank.

This scientist has a TANK. We stopped the boat for a walk around the southern edge of the park, looking at some of the forested land that Sergei hopes to change. Then we returned to the northern edge, where he keeps his equipment and two Yakutian workers camp out with some dogs. Here we got to check out his snowmobile collection: one that looked like it was from the 1950’s, and one brand-new one that had been mauled to shreds by a bear before ever being driven. To my private amusement, the bear had left muddy pawprints on the handle bars, as if when frustrated at driving he had erupted in rage and ripped the thing apart. And then we got to see the tank.

The thing was – obviously – enormous. The gun turret had been replaced by a crane. As we paced to keep from sinking in the boggy, bug-invested mud, Sergei climbed into the monstrosity, hauling up with him our boat’s battery, which doubled as the tank’s battery (what feat of engineering masterminded that exchange, I have no idea). Once the engine began churning, the BBC guy, me, and the Yakutian workers (who were coming along to fix a section of fence) climbed on top and found somewhere to hang on for dear life. I don’t know what lapse of judgment convinced me that clinging to the top of a tank, fingers ensnared in the engine ventilation mesh, was in any way a good idea, but with Sergei stoically entrenched in the cramped interior, off we lurched.

Riding a tank through a forest is insane. It’s just insane. Sergei drove like a man with a vendetta against trees. Oblivious to old pathways in front of us, he chose instead to verve off and pulverize everything in our path. The entire purpose of the tank is to mimic the damage that a mammoth would cause, so, in Sergei’s words, “the mammoth is not careful, we are not careful”. The muddy taiga is littered with potholes and little lakes, and while not exactly mountainous the Park is hilly. The tank just…took it all at full speed, threatening to throw its terrified passengers in every direction.

This whole time, while trying not to fall off, I kept thinking: where did this man get a tank? Turns out it’s the sort of thing you can buy as easily as a car once the guns are taken out, he says. But jesus, its not like the Russian military hands out instruction booklets, “You and Your Tank”. Or maybe they’re just in Russian and I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet.

The first 20 minutes or so were very exciting. It’s like riding an incredibly destructive rollercoaster without a seatbelt. Excitement, however, slowly turned into mild terror and an ever-growing undercurrent of horror. As we snapped through trees, sometimes the older ones would explode into a hail of branches – I got a pretty good blow to the skull and whipped in the face a few times from springing branches.

Also, those trees, as it turns out, are filled with bugs. To the brim. I cannot express how many bugs are in those forests. In all my life, even living on a farm, I have never been so literally covered in bugs. Some of you squeamish people might not want to hear this, but it was mostly spiders. Thousands of them raining on us. Luckily, spiders really don’t faze me, and I didn’t recognize any poisonous ones. So I tried to ignore the ones in my hair and blew the more annoying ones off my camera. We were going fast enough that there was a decent breeze to keep the dark clouds of mosquitoes off us. The one thing that made me squeal like a little girl, though, was when I saw a tick crawl down the neck of the BBC guy. I HATE ticks. One of the few bugs I really can’t handle having on me. Luckily I didn’t find any on me later at home.

The horror wasn’t from the bugs. As our trip across the park got longer, our whoops of excitement were silenced as we crashed through endless trees, leaving a 3 meter wide wake of destruction behind us. I felt a bird’s nest crash next to my hand, the little brown-speckled eggs cracked open to expose the half-developed chicks inside. The Siberian taiga supports a hardened population of relatively small trees – this sort of environment can’t support the kinds of giants like the California redwoods. After a while, it was merely heartbreaking to plow through the struggling trees and their inhabitants.

Well, while we took our tank tour, we did come across the herd of horses. Actually the first wild horses I’ve seen…a fairly motley dirty lot. After we dropped the workers off at the fence, we headed back into the thick of the forest.

A few kilometers from the boat, the tank stopped working.

We sat on top of the tank in the middle of a swampy area, completely beset by mosquitoes, as Sergei muttered Russian at the engine and tried to figure out what was going on. A few km isn’t so far to walk, unless its covered in thick vegetation and a few meters of mud and water, and you have to carry an enormous battery to start your boat up again. After climbing inside the boiling hot engine (the thing’s so huge you can climb around the engine compartment) Sergei, wonderful man, managed to pull apart the fuel filter, clean it out, and replace it. As we waited, a young moose came up near the tank to watch us – apparently it remembered Sergei, who used to talk to it when he first delivered it to the park. About an hour and a bazillion mosquitoes later, the tank was running again.

The boat ride home was gorgeous on the perfectly smooth water.

And that was only Wednesday. My narrative of Thursday will have to wait a bit.

Sergei is a crazy old Russian with incredibly thick curly hair that seems to block all the mosquitoes from his head. He’s rather brilliant in his way, and given to such grandiose statements as “I only publish in Science or Nature” (if you’re not a frequent reader of scientific journals, those are two of the most highly-regarded places to publish) and some more questionable quips – such as, during our boating outing, when he asked me to prepare what his wife had packed for lunch, saying “If there’s a woman around, I don’t touch food.” His wife (Galina) seems to do an enormous amount of work, from all domestic duties to taking dictation for his science papers, in addition to helping to run a number of the science experiments. When I asked what she does around the station, Sergei interrupted, saying in his very Russian way, “She is a scientist’s wife! No – she is wife of a GOOD scientist! This is very important.”

All the same, I like them both very much, and they seem to have taken a shine to me and are very kind. Galina found some eggs in town today and brought me some. Speaking of food, I’ve become a genius at the fried canned beans/sausage/corn medley. Also, being short on fruits, Galina gave me a bag of cranberries harvested from the forest last season, and along with some old apples I got in town I’ve mastered cran-apple jam. They have something around here called kasha that they eat for breakfast, which is like super-delicious cream of wheat. I got a bag full (“bag” meaning old shopping bag unceremoniously filled with a shovel of raw kasha) and it’s SO DELICIOUS.

I am seriously not into the culinary scene. These small accomplishments are stunning. I got a whole froze chicken out for dinner tonight, and after it defrosted I realized I have absolutely no clue what to do with it.

A few hours later

Whoa! I stuck it in the oven for a few hours, and out came roast chicken!


Unknown said...

If these are just the descriptives, I can't wait to see the actual photos. And congratulations on the chicken...

Anonymous said...

Woa! I have to tell you that the "russian" posts are to date the best you have ever post... it is a pity for the photos, but the things you expain are, how to say it, ridiculous!

Take care!