Sunday, June 24, 2007

Day 329: Permafrost

To start things off right, a photo! Of the wicked thunder storm we had a few days after I got here:

Look for more photos at the bottom of the post!

The day after Tank Adventures we got ready for another boat ride, a much longer one this time. As it turns out, I don’t live precisely on the Kolyma river – well, it is the Kolyma, but it’s a branch of the river rather than the proper thing that travels in front of the town of Cherskii.

When I originally flew in on the helicopter, I thought we were passing over a huge lake. As a LAKE, it would have been one of the biggest lakes I’ve ever seen. As a river it was unimaginable for me. The thing is about 4 km (ehh…2 miles) across. I realize there’re plenty big lakes and rivers out there, but they don’t enter my world too often.

But a river it was, and after an hour or so of traveling through side branches we entered the main channel. Another gorgeous day – just enough clouds to give the sky some texture, and the place is so incredibly flat that every time we jumped a wave it seemed like you could see to Moscow. After the half hour or so that it took to just cross to the other side of the river, we traveled close to the banks out of the main current (which we were going against) and tried to peer into the heavy willow-covered bog to look for moose.

This time we had another little boat following us with some of Sergei’s neighbors. They came along as a sort of safety net in case our engine stopped working (hm…) and because we planned to visit a few of the little settlements along the way. While Cherskii is the major center for the region, there are a number of families scattered around the nearby wilderness that periodically visit town by boat, but otherwise nearly exclusively live off the land. A majority of the people living in and around Cherskii are Yakutian natives.

Cherskii used to be a thriving city of over 10,000 people, with prosperous gold and diamond mines and fishing exports. Sergei and Galina have lived here for nearly 30 years, and recall a time when the city had a first-rate school, with guest professors from all over the Soviet Union. As I mentioned before, the town is now in shambles. Over half the city has been abandoned, with all utilities shut off to converse money for the town. From a distance, the huge cranes in the port suggest a significant market, but now all but one or two are shut down. In the hills behind the town (near where I live) a field of 50 or so enormous cylindrical tanks used to hold oil and fuel for the airport, which supported multiple flight every day to Yakutsk, Moscow, and even Alaska. Now the tanks are empty, and the highest travel seasons only bring 2 helicopters a week from an equally small settlement halfway between Cherskii and Yakutsk.

Despite the obvious and unabated decay of the region, which clearly correlates with the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of government financial support, there seems to be very little yearning for the old days, among the people I’ve been able to communicate with. Once again I desperately wish I spoke Russian well enough to explore this issue further. I’ve gotten past “hello”, “thank you” and “good health” which isn’t really enough to support a good political discussion.

Our first stop was what Sergei optimistically called a “village”, which proved to be a small water-logged plot of land with 4-5 buildings in various states of repair. Here we found a small herd of cattle, roaming freely through the buildings. Literally through the buildings. Sergei explained that the village was something of a historical artifact. It had been established nearly 300 years ago, and the cattle were the continuation of the herd that had supported the 2-3 families that had lived there ever since.

While BBC guy and Sergei went off for a little interview, I put on some rubber boots and unsuccessfully tried to cross a small stream to a Russian monument. Instead I mingled with the cows and omnipresent mosquitoes, watching an extremely old man slowly cross back and forth from a brightly painted house to a telephone pole, clutching a worn string that seemed to have been strung up for that exact purpose.

Further down the river in another side branch, our next stop was a much smaller settlement – only two buildings tucked away in the willows, the home of a single fisherman and his family and a pack of mangy dogs, their enormous fur coats reducing them in the summer heat to sitting in various corners worrying at pieces of fish head. The buildings were on a small spit of land, fronted by the river and backed by a small lake fed by other branches of the river. The collection of random junk everywhere is astounding – things that would have been trashed are kept, necessary for random eternal reuse.

While the main house was further back from the river, we hung out around the shabbier building that was used for work and “quick food and quick drinking.” Part of the building appeared to be held up by the interior of an old semi-truck. Fish were everywhere – drying in cages out in the sun, shredded pieces rotting under the little sidewalk made out of old snowmobile tread, and their scales splattered all over everything. As Sergei and the others conversed with the fisherman and his wife (old friends, apparently), I stood around and looked extremely awkward taking photos of everything. As much as I try to look normal and only wear practical clothes, it feels blatantly obvious that I’m some kind of rich foreigner eyeballing the natives. The ginormous camera doesn’t help.

Eventually I was ushered into the shed by the tattooed fisherman, with a cheerful “SIT DOWN!” half-way completing his English repertoire. Crammed in on a bed and some dragged-in tree stumps, we packed 8 people around a tiny table for a small meal. To eat was fish, fish, fish, alcohol, and some bread. The first fish was dried in a way I’ve never seen before – thin strips of skin with long rows of meat that had been sliced into sections and totally dried. The next fish was an entire half of a semi-dried fish, which was slammed down and vigorously chopped into sections to be passed out. This fish had to be dipped in salt, which was poured onto a little piece of old newspaper for communal dipping. They weren’t too bad, if you completely ignore everything you know about hygiene. After the group quickly exhausted the vodka, the fisherman went to a back room and pulled out a huge recycled jug of something yellow – homemade sake.

Eventually we got back in our boat and continued upriver. After two hours, we came up along side a small cliff on the east side of the river. As we got closer, you could see a series of undercuts going along the bottom edge of the cliff – the melting permafrost. This section of the river is one of the famous grounds for witnessing the dramatic action of the permafrost, and the mountains of fossils it throws up.

What began with some unimpressive undercuts exponentially increased, along the cliff edge, into an amazing display of a veritable mud-glacier. Huge sections of land were undercut and cracked, separated from the land like a giant handful of dirt viciously thrown into the mud. Unlike most geological phenomenon, this section of permafrost was decaying before our very eyes – tumbling and sloughing off landslides of mud and ice, threatening swaying trees on the upper edge, which crazily swung in every direction as the land beneath them disappeared.

It was certainly the clearest display of permafrost I could imagine. At the top was a layer of about a meter of regular sediment, beneath which was – from our vantage point – up to 30 meters of what appeared to be frozen mud. As Sergei tried to explain, however, its not technically frozen mud but actually ice. Not being well-versed in permafrost studies, I’m not terribly good at describing it – visually, it looks like a mud glacier, with – as Sergei described – ice wedges thrust through that truly are pure ice (although disguised by the constant mud splatters). This section of permafrost, on the edge of the river, melts at a rate of about 3-5 meters a year – as in the river gets 3-5m wider every year as the bank retreats. Having been here for over 30 years, Sergei could point to a far-out section of river, where he remembered the bank used to be.

Although it would be easy to take this dramatic image of the melting bank as alarming, despite the effects of global warming the process is quite natural. As for how much it’s increased in the past decades, it’s hard to say.

One thing this melting does do is constantly expose new bones and bits of prehistoric animals. Sergei estimated that there was a mammoth skeleton every 30 meters. We drove alongside the cliff for a few kilometers, looking for a mammoth skull to fall on us. Despite his estimate, we didn’t see anything obvious. Part of the problem is the amount of money that mammoth bones, and particularly tusks, are worth. Fossil hunting is a major source of income for some people in the area, often cleaning out some areas of anything major as soon as they’re exposed.

However, we eventually stopped the boat against the cliff, and in another stunning lack of judgment we all got out to scamper along the edge of the permafrost overhang. We walked along, one hand brushing the mud-glacier to keep our balance in the pile of mud giving us a few feet of edge to walk along. The overhang was so drastic as to be cave-like – I easily could have walked under the cliff, nearly upright, a dozen meters under the mud ice. Tiny trails of muck hung down from the ice – the remnants of Pleistocene grass. The entire area stank as billions of tons of ancient matter slowly melted and finally began to decompose. Among other things, we were smelling mammoth dung.

Once we got out of the boat, the fossils started showing up. I immediately found the finger bones of a small mammoth (one bone equivalent to the size of my entire hand), while our boat rested on a shattered shoulder blade.

The area, though, was unquestionably perilous. Other than the land-slide mud cliff and threatening over hang, the tiny boundary between the river and the cliff consisted of a thick, deceiving mud – quicksand. Tussocks of harder mud and old grass piles made jumping around not too difficult, but you had to keep moving constantly unless balanced on something firmer. BBC guy, stopping to record the sound of the ice melting, got into a bit of trouble and nearly lost his boots.

SO MUCH FUN. Sergei, once again, is insane. He calmly dragged BBC guy up the cliff, while I kept my distance on another side of the cliff to keep out of BBC guy’s sound recording. There’re bones everywhere! Stunning view, stunning place.

On the way home, we stopped at the fisherman’s place again for dinner. Fish fish fish. Fish (sturgeon) stew, home-canned river salmon, and more dried fish. After dinner one of Sergei’s neighbors went swimming. Although I plan to try at some point, so far the threat of mosquito bites over my entire body has stopped me.

After dinner, we headed home, taking the fisherman’s wife with us so she could get some things in town. With her she carried a big bag…which, it was soon revealed, contained her CAT. I can imagine no greater hell for that cat than being stuffed into the bottom of our aluminum boat in a spraying cold river with a loud motor. So the lady took out the cat and curled it in her jacket. Here it is, I thought. The cat is going to kill someone. Instead, it fell asleep after she smothered it with kisses.

Even though I look ridiculous and can hardly communicate with anyone here, I’ve been struck at how kind the people are to me once it becomes clear that I’m shy and not much of a threat. As we cruised along the river in the cold wind, the fisherman’s wife kept giving me little handfuls of pine nuts out of her dirty pocket, as though I was a lost squirrel.

Despite being nearly a week behind in the news, I’ll stop here and pull together some photos for youuu. I’m sorry they all have to be super small now to upload at all.

Sergei: the man, the legend.

Half-sunk barge outside my cabin:


Exploding some trees...

Cutting up dried fish:

The Kolyma River, around 10pm:

Permafrost mud-glacier!

Awesomest photo ever - Siberian fisherman makes fun of me:

I will say this – it has been unbearably hot the last few days. Like, 35C (90F). Today the temperature finally dropped to a more normal 15C (60F) and I’m no longer dying.

In other news, happy birthday Mom!

Mammoth knuckles.


Anonymous said...

Great birthday blog! Thank you! The fossils are amazing. We go on our own hunt today. How about a picture of you in Siberia for your next blog? For a second I thought that was you stealing someones cat.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurel, Somehow I stumbled on your wonderful blog today. I am sitting at a desk in downtown Chicago, living vicariously through you. Thanks!
p.s. More photos of fossils?

Laurel said...

You know, I honestly think I know more about Siberia than Chicago. Its definitely somewhere I need to visit.

I'll see if I can pull together some more fossil photos for everyone. Glad you're enjoying the blog!