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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Making sloooooow progress in the trenches towards Kamchatka!

20th Day, Thursday April 1st 2010
In a small river bed, still in Chukotka, close to the border with Kamchatka.

Location: N 63° 17.033'; E 169° 18.266'

Total: 208kms, 70 kms since Brigade #6

First of all, I want to wish you all a great Poisson d'Avril!
God only knows how much I usually love to celebrate April's fools day by playing tricks on some of my closer friends, but this time, I am going to have to contend myself with "stenciling" this report from the bottom of my sleeping bag in -25c weather, waiting for this latest storm/purga to pass before being able to make any "real" progress.

I say "real", because it is all relative...We are going through a ~50-70 kms section where we can only progress very sloooowly, partly because paradoxically, there is not much snow on this entire plateau, leaving its bumpy grassy "bogs" exposed and therefore making it extremely difficult to traverse while pulling heavy fully loaded sleds. The alternative which we have chosen is going through connecting frozen river beds, where more snow has been amassed , as the result of consequent storms...

So here we are, progressing with thankfully our detailed russian maps, through a labyrinth of meandering rivers, which adds a subsequent amount of mileage to cover.... But at least we are moving FORWARD a foot at a time!

We are 68 kms away in a straight line, from the village of Slautnoye which is probably going to mean for us something closer to 90+ kms, while progressing through our river beds and a mountain pass where hopefully we will find more snow!

Not quite...
This is a satellite photo of the region we were traversing on April 1st 2010, North East of Slautnoye. Not much snow as one can see!

At this stage, we have no way of guestimate how many days this section is going to take, because we are neither being able to predict the weather, nor the quantity / quality of snow that lays in front of us between now and slautnoye...

The landscape, aka river beds, has changed.
At first, we were progressing on the nice and wide Mayn river where we were able to move "faster" while sliding on top of its beautiful thick blue ice. Although after my experience in the Bering Strait, I must say that I always find it a bit unnerving to sleep on top of crackling thick ice! We had no other alternative place to sleep on since the river beds were inaccessable, either too bushy or too high to climb and pitch our tents...

The smaller river bed where we are progressing through now is much narrower, tortuous, with serious walls to climb and pull our sleds through every 400 meters or so.

I often feel like I am a "Poilu", a French combattant back in 1917 somewhere near Verdun, finding refuge from the elements (and thankfully not bomb shells!) while living and moving through deep trenches ... Not able to see the light much!

Purga time! And after the Purga has passed!

But before going back to the bottom of my sleeping bag, I want to share a few more notes on my last day at brigade #6 and what happened on day 16th and 17th as we departed accompanied by brothers Sergey and Sasha from the brigade!

Back at the brigade, during my last day, while watching and taking in every bit of information I could on what the life in the brigade entails, I noticed the following:

- Sergey and Sasha come from a traditional brigade family of 7 brothers and 1 sister, almost all working and living in brigades in southern chukotka.

- Reindeers... Interesting playful characters to say the least... Reminded me a little of the playfulness I have observed in goats...

- I was intrigued to watch and film the brigade herders and their dogs "walked" their partially obedient reindeers for hours and hours in circles on the nearby hills...and I am still trying to understand the complete reason why...

- I was also amused to notice how the reindeers at the same time curious by nature, want to approach you but then get quickly scared, moving immediately back as soon as you get too close in their "comfort zone", happy to keep a safe distance from humans... Which I do understand after all since humans eventually want to use them to either pull heavy loads and sleds and/or make a few meals out of them!

-Which brings me to the topic of food... I must say that I was amazed at the quantity of reindeer meat, brothers Sergey and Sasha eat on a daily basis... copious and copious amount of reindeer in soups, meatballs, stews with pasta or rice and of course huge chunks simply by themselves either boiled, dried, semi-dried, roasted or even cut in smaller pieces, raw and frozen...
My first experience at reindeer sashimi!

Sasha and Sergey also told me how they thought that chicken meat was rather tasteless but love to eat bears, ducks, geese, fishes and mushrooms which they have access to in ample quantity during summer months.

I quite enjoyed as well the flat fried bread that they prepare on site in the brigade and will surely miss it on the trail!

In exchange, I was trying to introduce them to my delicious dehydrated mountain house meals but they could not have any since all of them contain dehydrated cow milk to which S & S told me they were allergic to, except to of course rich reindeer milk which they drink in the summer months.

They enjoyed some of my nutritious larabars and of course really savored the Seattle made turkey jerkey that I brought as well as some of the "southern comfort"...

The night before we departed the brigade, Sergey approached us and asked us, if he and his brother could escort us for a day or two and help us with our cargo! We were delighted and responded a sounding YES!

So this is how we departed Brigade #6 on Sunday March 28th, Nyurgun and I happily able to ski and walk sled-less for 1.5 days, which my injured feet were grateful to, while being accompanied side by side by Sergey, Sasha, and 5 reindeers pulling 5 sleds! An impressive convoy in the tundra, I must say.

This of course was our short lucky break which allowed us to travel swiftly together 44kms in 1.5 days!
We covered together a frozen valley, a mountain pass, the beginning of our long monotonous plateau and a few frozen river crossings where I surprisingly found out how inadequately reindeers move on ice, having their hooves comically sliding all over the ice.

We camped together one night "à la chukchi" in the middle of an old reindeer brigade corral, outside, where we built a fire, foregoing our loyful stoves and white gas, eating more chunks of frozen reindeers, fried bread while sipping tea...
We spent a bit of time discussing the bear prints we could see nearby, all rather concerned...
As we all observed, an angry and potentially hungry bear already out of hibernation in March might not have been the friendliest encounter we could have... Sergey kept his ever present rifle nearby!

The time around the fire spent with friends was great but after a few hours in -30c, one misses the comfort of his -40F sleeping bag, unless you happened to be wearing multiple layers of reindeer fur such as Sasha & Sergey, proudly displaying their beautiful attire for us in the subsequent morning.

Having said that, I was not completely surprised to see arctic man sergey slipped into my tent around 3-4am looking for a little bit of extra heat, mostly having problems with his cold hands...

On the 2d and last day of travel together, the weather turned awry and as we were travelling through a previously burned plateau, Sergey became very concerned for his reindeers, not being able to find food
as they traditionally grab and munch on while moving. Not willing to see anyone of them starved themselves and potentially drop dead, he told us it was time for him and his brother to leave us with our cargo and return quickly to their safe and nutritious grounds, near the brigade.
We shared a few larabars, one last cup of tea and one last toast of Southern Comfort, took a few pictures together and parted our ways...

I am not sure if I would ever have the pleasure to spend time with Sergey and Sasha again, but at least I will have beautiful memories of the time well spent together and with other members of brigade #6!

I recall telling Sasha that I thought his tent/settlement in the brigade was a 5 stars hotel, to which he responded:
"Well, of course it is! Especially since there is nothing else a hundred kilometers around!"

Well, here it is... now saying "paka" from the trenches where I surely miss the comfort and joyful company of my hosts from 5 stars brigade #6!


1 comment:

Unknown said...

stay warm brother and keep the updates coming!