Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Day 339: A Very Siberian 4th of July

Not many fireworks.

The computer and internet are being especially uncooperative today, so I'm afraid its all words on this one.

I was going for a walk yesterday and there’re two things I’d like to share with you. The first: I was walking along through the forest, la-dee-da, when I heard a loud rumbling noise. I froze. What was it – a bear? Thunder? Volcano?? I couldn’t figure it out. Finally I looked straight up, and saw a jet passing far overhead.

It’s been that long since I’ve seen a jet.

(Just so you know, a volcano isn’t completely out of the question – Kamchatka isn’t that far away, and they’ve got all kinds of volcanoes. But no…there’s none around here.)

The second: I hate mosquitoes. I thought I was going to be able to handle them ok, but I’m beginning to understand the tales of men and animals being driven insane from the bugs. The weather here is proving to be properly Siberian – wildly variant. After those days of 32C, this week has hovered around 4C, a ridiculous jump (something like going from daytime high of 95 to 38F). In a weird way, its just about autumn already – winter starts with the first snows in the end of August. Anyway, the colder temperatures slow down the mosquitoes a bit, but without a strong breeze they’re utterly inescapable.

Fortunately, the cold temperatures make it tolerable to wear tons of clothing and gloves, leaving only a bit of my face out, but they’re insatiable! I feel like a vagrant with a nervous disorder in my fingerless gloves, nervously swatting and twitching and pawing at my face. And there’s nothing you can do! They bite your eyelids, lips, fingertips, and heaven forbid you sit around barefoot somewhere, I’ve even got some on the bottom of my feet. What kind of mosquito can hack through foot callous?

Siberian mosquitoes, that’s what. It’s horrible - I’ve gotten to that comfort-zone part of my time here where I know the lay of the land and want to walk around everywhere – it’s not too far into town. But it’s seriously barely worth going near the forest unless it’s windy or raining. This only heartily reinforces rain as my favorite weather. Oh! And another thing! I started jogging to try to make my bad foot less bad, but it’s difficult to breathe because of the amount of bugs going down your gullet at that speed.

I will say this – I was getting fed up with my long hair in the heat, but it’s fantastic for keeping off mosquitoes. Although a bunch of hair hanging in my face significantly contributes to my shambling vagrant image.

Apologies for the tirade. Unfortunately the next story also involves a minor tragedy in my life. The botanists and bird watchers all wanted to get up to the Arctic Ocean, a few hours north on the Kolyma. Up there you can find true and proper tundra terrain. Sergei has a larger boat that’s able to handle ocean conditions, and I was ecstatic that there was enough room for me to go along for a few days camping along the Arctic Ocean.

The winds here control the weather – from the south, it gets warm, from the north, it gets cold. We got a day (this was last Wednesday) with good weather and good wind directions predicted for the next few days, loaded up the boat, and set off – 9 people all told. Traveling along the river-coast, we got an excellent view going past the airport, all of Cherskii, and the nearly-abandoned loading port.

About a half an hour after leaving, about a kilometer beyond the loading port, our engine went KA-CHUNK! And started pouring out smoke. As one of the people sitting on the engine cover, this was fairly exciting. Sergei quickly turned everything off and pulled the engine open. It was dead. Dead dead dead.

At this point we weren’t that far from Cherskii, but sitting in the middle of the 4km-wide Kolyma slowly floating north with the current. Sergei got out his satellite phone and called Sergei #2. And then we waited.

For probably about 2 hours. We made some dinner and enjoyed the scenery, including a distant taiga fire. Unlike the huge forest-fire fiasco that’s been concocted in the US, the taiga out here is allowed to burn naturally to clear out the underbrush and do all the stuff the local ecology is designed to withstand and even require.

Finally Sergei #2 showed up on the other little boat. As we watched, Sergei #1 jumped off the bow into the little boat. Being a man of few words, he hadn’t really informed any of us of the plan, so we were relieved to see him tie a line between the boats rather than taking off into the distance. Then the little boat revved up, and slooooooowly started tugging us back home.

The 11km trip home took about 3 hours. We were all pretty grateful that the boat broke so close to home instead of way out by the ocean. We were given a leisurely tour of the Cherskii coastline – here’s some things I saw:

(NOT! Stupid computer...)

Of course at one point we all had to pee pretty fierce. The Sergei’s pulled up to a loading dock and told us to figure something out around a big pile of coal – males to the north, females (i.e. me) to the south. The Japanese lady stayed on the boat – I don’t know if she had a problem with the situation, or didn’t want to leave the boat unless absolutely necessary because she didn’t know how to swim (for god’s sake people, teach your kids how to swim). Turns out I was one of only a couple who weren’t prudes about peeing outdoors, although semi-abandoned industrial zones are a new one for me. China: teaches you how to pee anywhere, anytime.

I’m sure you all needed to know that.

Well, eventually we got home, and it being pretty late we had dinner #3 and planned to try again the next day. Here comes the tragedy: Sergei determined that the big boat was truly dead, and that they would have to take two smaller boats, both of which hold 4 people max. As the lowest-ranking and least financially-contributing, I got the short stick. And since the second boat needed the neighbor to drive, Sasha the Russian post-doc got kicked out too.

I understood the situation of course, but I was seriously bummed, probably the worst I’ve felt since getting here. No one’s fault in the least and it couldn’t be helped, but I was just so looking forward to seeing the ocean and the true tundra and going camping in an abandoned gulag prisoner’s hut. Aghhh it would have been a phenomenal thing.

In retaliation over the next few days I threw myself into organizing piles of crumpled receipts and completing my financial report for the year. Tons o’ fun. Speaking of which: Norway, curse you for taking all my money.

As it turns out, the small boats can’t handle the ocean waves very well, so they were only gone one night and didn’t even reach the ocean. But they did stay in the abandoned hut.

A few days later the bird guys wanted to go to a special lake where they thought they could find some Ross gulls, a special kind of bird that only breeds in this region and for awhile some people didn’t believe they actually existed. I got to tag along to drop them off and continue to visit the workers in Pleistocene park with Sergei.

Stopping at the lake, we climbed on top of an old smoke house to see if we could find any of the birds in the distance. Sure enough, there was a pair flying around – useless for my camera, but the bird guys decided to spend the next few hours slogging through the marsh with their insane lenses to get some good shots.

So hey, I got to see a Ross gull. They’re very pretty, with a black ring around their neck and a light pink underbelly.

Well there was more but its not really worth saying without the photos to go along, so I guess that's it. Bah.


sam said...

mosquitoes in relatively un-human-inhabited places are the worst for sure. After a trip into Saskatchewan, we decided that this was because they normally feed on like bears and moose and stuff. Compared to them, a person (even one wearing lots of clothes) must seem like a lucky break.

Dataman said...

Hey, Laurel!

p.s. insanely jealous of your trip.
especially the watching sweaty russian men wrestle part

Laurel said...

Hi Sacred Cow! I like my trip too! Do I know who you are?