Circumnavigating the world through Human Power while connecting different societies, civilizations and landscapes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Слаутное - Enjoying a slice of life in Northern Kamchatka!

Slautnoye: circled in Kamchtaka northwest corner
Green Line: Planned route
Slautnoye-Kamenskoye-Manily-Virny Paren-Evensk

34th Day, Tuesday April 15th 2010
Location: N 63° 10.201'; E 167° 58.416'
Slautnoye, Kamchatkan Oblast, Russian Federation

2010 Total: 306kms

Before I forget, I want to send my deepest regards to all of my American procrastinating friends, frantically filing up their taxes on this fatidic April 15th, you got til midnight!
I have been there and I feel your pain!
From where I stand though, I must say that this luckily really feels thousand and thousand miles away....

In my last post on April 8th, (our 27th day), I mentioned that we were taking off with all our gear to cover the 40-50 remaining kilometers that separated us from Slautnoye, our first village in Kamchatka...
Well, so we did!

We left in the afternoon of Thursday April 8th and were only able to cover 7kms on that first day.

Pulling our sleds through a hilly section once again deprived of much snow!

We spent a final night in our makeshift tent and woke up to the sound of a growing and menacing wind, making it very difficult to make our water and cook our meals in a partly exposed ½ tent.. It rapidly started to feel as if we were seating on a very tiny sinking raft in the middle of the ocean, after a shipwreck...

"Le Radeau de la Méduse" by Géricault

Not quite as dramatic as the painting "Le Radeau de la Méduse" by Théodore Géricault but you get the picture!
Needless to say, we were both eager to get going and try to get to Slautnoye as quickly as we could, as the wind strength was continuing to grow!

Luckily our path was starting to be covered with more and more hard packed snow which tremendously facilitated our skiing and trekking!

After having covered 15 kms in a few hours, we finally came across Vitte's snowmobile prints, who came a few days earlier to look for us and our gear...
I finally found out upon meeting him in Slautnoye, that he was not able to find us because of the different set of Russian maps he was using, which has strangely different coordinates from the one we had...

This still puzzles me but as I have experienced before in Russia (and elsewhere...), they are some matters that are better left unexplained...

In any event, his snowmobile prints leading back to the "stable" in Slautnoye were going to be a great help, allowing us to move even faster...
As we were getting closer to Slautnoye, we thankfully started to come across more and more snow, despite still a few exposed barren sections.

Not travelling at the same speed, and believing at the time that the remaining 25 kms were going to be somewhat of a "straightforward" section following snowmobile prints, I recommended Nyurgun to go ahead so that at least one of us would not have to spend another night tentless...

So, now alone, pushing on, I was progressing at my own rhythm, allowing me to find the time to adjust myself since my back was starting to feel the stretch. I stopped and extended the length of my pulling ropes, and put on a stretching back brace that was recommended to me back in Seattle by my friend Gary McGuire, my ex PT who has been looking after my abused body for years..

Both of these modifications worked, allowing me to reduce the pressure on my back and therefore allowing me to proceed further happily in the wind and now falling snow while enjoying the tunes of Ratatat and a great medley of dub reggae for the next set of 10 hours, stopping once long enough to munch on yet another great dehydrated meal by Mountain House rehydrated with the help of one of my faithful thermos bottles!

Around midnight, the snow falling started to turn into a strong storm/purga but this was not going to stop me...
Tentless, I was determined to push on before I would lose sight of the snowmobile prints, following them carefully every step of the way with the help of my headlamp...

At around 4am, ~5kms from what I was believing to be the location of Slautnoye, (according to my old mid 1980’s American aerial map) in now  a very forceful storm hitting me right in the face, I finally lost regrettably completely track of the snowmobile trail...

At that point, I pulled out my Garmin eTrex Legend GPS for the 100th time, (which do not always cooperate very well in -20C's temperatures, when the screen display starts to disappear), aimed at "my" Slautnoye location, lined it with my compasss and start aiming as straight as the wind woul allow me to,
 referring to my handy compas from time to time...

Having a difficulty to see anything further than the tip of my skis with my headlamp in the "moonless" night, and concerned that I might not be able to see a sheer drop in front of me, I made the mistake to remove 1/4 way off my face my furry protective hood in -35c stormy weather conditions to increase my vision, feeling the wind burning my skin on my right temple and on my nose.

A large amount of mucus (resulting from eating dehydrated meals for a month which contains a lot of dehydrated milk) turning into thick ice was also starting to form underneath my nose.

Finally, my fingers were also starting to burn as a result of minuscule holes formed in my 1st layer thermal wool Ibex gloves and 2d layer Polartec gloves resulting from a few weeks of wear and tear. I was wearing a 3d layer thick down mittens but that was apparently not enough to prevent the penetrating cold to come after my fingers!

No time to stop and replace any of this clothing, by fear of potentially losting some of them in the forceful wind on what I "believed"  was an exposed hill top...

All I could do, was to open a pack of Grabber hand warmers and stuff them down my gloves the best way I could. knowing that there was not much they could do to warm up the exposed tips of my fingers which were starting to harden. 

I just needed to grind my teeth and push on !

6am: The morning light was starting to come out in the middle of this storm, helping me to somewhat increase my vision.

Progressing slowly but “surely”… I came across a few frozen river arms where my sled pushed by the wind, started to slide ahead of me very quickly, yanking me from behind by the ropes of my attached harness, while I was trying to avoid as many falls as I could on this hurtful exposed blue ice.

7am: I finally came across snowmobile tracks across a riverbed, allowing me to start my search for Slautnoye which according to my GPS was still located 1.5 kms away…

7:30am: I came across a first dumpsite, then a second one and finally a third one, which really started to comfort me, leading me to believe that I was getting very close to a town!

But not quite!

After 1 more hour of further research in all directions I finally came across at the bottom of a hill, the view of the old faithful coal smelter chimney spurting out its black smoke, at a vertical angle thanks to the purga which was continuing to blow fierce fully.
Home, sweet home!I was finally physically close to slautnoye!

I found out a few hours later that the village of Slautnoye, which was constituted in 1932 as a center for the reindeer breeding farms/brigades in the region had been moved in the 1950’s a few kilometers away from its old location, after it had been completely flooded and destroyed by the Slautnoye river.

My old American aerial map of course still points to the old location, near the dumpsites which led to my confusion in the middle of the storm!

Saturday April 10th at 9am, feeling as if I was going through an odd steeple chase race, I managed to pull my sled through several final snow banks and heroically entered town afyter having marched 43kms in the last 22.5 hours!

I proceeded straight to the coal smelter where I was sure to be able to find someone 24/7.
I presented to the first soul I met the handwritten note that Gennady Penichin had given me in Vayegi a month earlier, explaining that Nyurgun and I had a place for us to stay in the home of his friend Andrei Kazanko, with whom we had been in touch by satellite phone ever since we lost our tents to the wind a week earlier…
Offered a cup of tea, I started to remove my clothes and attached layers of frost and ice in the middle of the coal smelter office…

Tired and annoyed with the chunk of ice hanging of my chin, not willing to wait for it to melt, I stupidly decided to yank it, tearing a good chunk of my beard hair with it.
It actually felt like I was skinning part of my freshly newly frostbitten chin!
Not the smartest thing to do, I must say! But then again, I had just been pulling my sled for 22.5 hours with 10 of them in a forceful purga, not necessarily having “it” all together, obviously!

At that time, I also realized that my left hand middle finger was suffering from a new case of frost bite as well, as I have predicted could happen during the night when I noticed the minuscule holes in the glove…

This is the finger that I called “Darky” in 2006, as some of you may recall, during my crossing of the Bering Srait, when I first frost bit it upon departing from Nome, Alaska, leading at the time to its shortening and darkening level 3 frostbite…
And yes, here he was, BACK in full force!

At that point, I was introduced to infamous Vitte, the snowmobile rider, who after a warm greeting proceeded to take me and my sled to the house of Andrei Kazanko…

10am: Here, I was seating in the kitchen of Andrei, surrounded by friendly gawkers, greeted with a beautiful bowl of hearty borsch, lard, homemade bread, a bowl of Okrochka, garlic cloves, pickled tomatoes, Easter eggs and eve some left over Easter cakes that I was glad to get my hands on!

In addition, I was able to sip on a nice cup of tea and of course some of Andrei “whiskey’ as he likes to call it!
The “whiskey” is nothing else than his homemade samagon, slightly amber colored, which some of you would call homemade “bathtub vodka”!
This is when, I was very surprised to find out that Nyurgun had not yet arrived, originally thinking that he would have arrived a few hours ahead of me!

Nyurgun had chosen indeed along the way to stop and bury himself inside his sled during the night, escaping partially the purga and arriving in town around 5pm on Saturday night. I was amazed to find out that, thanks to his smaller corpulence, he was able to not only sleep but especially able to manage to boil himself some water while lying inside his sled fully zipped and cook himself a meal between his legs!
Quite an athletic contortionist feat, I must say!

Since our arrival five days ago, Nyurgun and I have been able to enjoy thanks to the incredible generous hospitality of Andrei and his Koryak “daughter” Ania, copious amount of homemade meals, borsch, okrochka, great reindeer stews mixed with buckwheat, smoked fish and lard, homemade blueberry jams and the best ikra I have ever tasted! The tastiest and freshest salmon eggs mixed with a drop of oil and minced garlic!
A delight that I was offered to take in a jar safely secured in my sled and brings home in Seattle to enjoy with my girlfriend and closest friends!

Tasty reindeer stew on a bed of buckwheat and delicious Ikra!

Over the last few days, we spent part of our time, sorting and repairing our gear, trying to source a replacement tent (believe it or not, we may have actually several options to choose from, thanks to the kind and generous local inhabitants in this small village!).

We also spent some time taking care of our “wounds”.
Besides taking antibiotics and using an healing antibiotic cream (that thankfully I brought over since they are not available locally in the depleted local infirmary/pharmacy), I have also been using bear Fat/Oil to heal my frost bites as it has been recommended by the locals.

We were hoping to lighten our load between here and Kamenskoye, entrusting some of our heaviest back up gear and extra stove fuel/white gas in the hands of a wezdehod driver but this has regrettably failed. The wezdehod came into town last night, called us on the phone, got his scheduled cargo, turned around and zoomed back towards Kamenskoye quickly, wanting to avoid the heaviest part of the storm, and forgetting in the process to come and pick up our own cargo…

Well…. if we cannot find another option (i-e: another wezdehod) I guess, I will be to continue to bare my cross along the way!
This should help to remind me once again the crucial benefits to pack lightly in the future sections of the expedition!

Slautnoye is one of the most remote villages in Northern Chukotka and one can usually access it by boat (in summer time), wezdehod (in winter time) and via helicopters in the event of an emergency. Unless of course, one is demented enough to get there by foot…
In Soviet times, Slautnoye population grew up to 800 inhabitants but as in many other parts of Far Eastern Russia, the numbers have tremendously dropped since the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s… Lesser financial support from Moscow meant less jobs and therefore leading to an exodus back to the mainland/ materik.

The village now has 350 inhabitants and still subsists as the center for the surrounding reindeer brigades. Inhabitants enjoy a great amount of reindeer meat, fishes, ikra (succulent salmon eggs!), potatoes and vegetables that they grow in greenhouses very quickly during the intense 24 hrs few but powerful summer days…

3 registered and 2 speakeasy stores carry additional products with astronomical prices because a large amount of these products are brought in from Western Russia, Vladivostok or Magadan by plane to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski where they are then transferred to Kamenskoye on another cargo plane to finally finish their last 200 kms journey by qas guzzling wezdehods… Not a cheap solution here!

48 years old Andrei has tragically lost his wife of more than 20 years due to a cancer in early February. It feels like the whole village takes turn to come and visit him and help him with his sorrow in his spacious 3 bedroom apartment where he is welcoming us. At all hours of the day and night, when he is not working as an electrician at the coal/electric town center, one can see in his kitchen, enjoying copious amount of food, tea and various types of samagons, a wide spectrum of intriguing characters who seem to also very much enjoy the temporary presence of a Yakut and Franco-Yankee… the inquisitive older Koryak shamanka lady, the koryak younger men and girls, the materik “mainland” older Russians, the Ukrainians, etc…
It amuses me to see them so intrigued, inundating us with countless questions and loving to check any of the sport, electronic, medical or food items we brought along.
Thirsty for new music and pictures (no radio in town and only 2 TV channels) they also love to see and/or copy anything we can share…
Home, sweet home in Andrei's wooden apartment building, "downtown" Slautnoye!

Over the last five days we also had the pleasure to spend a large amount of time at the local older school where we were able to slowly but surely access the internet after a month withdrawal, visit the local school historical museum, enjoy a few good meals with the children and especially were able to make a fun presentation in front of the 40 enthused students , mostly Koryak children and a few Materik white Russian children amongst them.
The weather report (for the Kamenskoye/Slautnoye region) predicts that the last strong phase of this cyclone will be tomorrow, Friday 16th, with winds up to 15meters / second and -40c temperatures.
It should be finished by Saturday morning, allowing us to leave, although pending on whether or not we will have a tent by then!

Well, after having pulled our sleds through the Chukotkan and Kamchatkan tundra for a month, I am definitely glad to have the opportunity to be here for a few days and share a slice of Slautnoye inhabitants’ life and maybe, just maybe, being able to contribute a bit to help my new friend Andrei to ease his mourning pain with a welcomed foreign yakut-franco-yankee invasion!

Dimka in Slautnoye

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