7. Back to Chodotka Autonomous Okrug
Journal, July 28, 1994, Puoten, 65.857, -170.53
Great day. We had rounded the peninsula, well past Mys Peek. Had been paddling steady for 8 hours. Heading east, the afternoon sun in our eyes, couldn’t make out what looked like a fuzzy rock. We were tired. So we pulled in. Straight in. Louise and I hit the beach first and then we saw what it was: a dead, beached whale with a huge Kodiak bear on top. It seemed to have eaten out a cavity in the whale, gorged itself, and then dozed off.
Startled, the bear heard us, stood on its hind legs, front paws up in the air and roared at us. It was massive. We had been so dumb, and now so vulnerable, maybe 20 feet away. We back-paddled as fast as we could.
The bear went back down on all four legs, turned, jumped off the whale and ran away. Tom managed to shoot a photo of the back of the bear heading over the nearest ridge. Wow.
We got out of there. Oh yah. Earlier we had seen a mother brown bear and three cubs scurrying up the ridge. We should have been more alert. We didn’t camp there.
We ended up at a place that to our untrained eyes looked like an old homestead. But Gennady knew it for what it had been: an old military post. There were trenches for practice, and a sunken bomb shelter. A most beautiful place, with a lagoon out back and a nice stream. My topo map says it is, or was, Puoten.
I was just getting the cooking fire started when we heard a rifle shot, loud, close by. Men coming up the beach. Two close, two following. With the glasses I could see that they were not military, all had rifles. So, what next? Turned out they were Chuckchi locals, out fishing. They net migrating fish on the rivers to feed a fox farm out of Uelen. Yikes.
Out of view they had a tracked vehicle. The rifles were for the bears. Did they fire the shot to announce their arrival? Some had on skin jackets with fur lining. Asian faces. Good looking men. We served them tea. They talked in Russian to Gennady. The youngest, about 15, eyed us suspiciously. The other three were more relaxed. The youngest one was most interested in our gear and our kayaks. When they left we cooked up some pasta over a few bricks and a grate. And went to bed content. 37 nautical miles.
July 29, 1994, 65.627, -170.847
Headwind, misty, rain, a tough slog. We kept rounding point after point. Confusion as to our location. No visibility. Up to now I hadn’t been involved in navigation because Dick was doing that. But he didn’t know where we were. I started checking our headings. When we managed to get ashore through some surf at lunch, I borrowed Dick’s parallels and calipers and from our headings determined that we were not nearly as far along as we had thought. Now we are going to work out our times and headings each day in advance. We are dealing with a topo map that covers a huge region, including a good chunk of the Alaskan coast, Saint Lawrence Island, all of our route. No details. Further south we have better charts. (Of Arakamchechen) Camped just west of Mys Nunyamo, another abandoned military place.
July 30, 1994, Lavrentiya, 65.587, -171.0
Fog cleared, with glasses you could make out Lavrentiya.
The town seemed a little nicer than Provideniya, though it is smaller. Gennady looked in all four shops for things that we couldn’t get in Provideniya.
The shopkeepers were mostly Chinese. He bought a soldering gun. The kids were a lot of fun, they swarmed us. A little girl gave Louise a leather bracelet with beads that she had made. Her brother, Sasha, gave me one, which I will pass on to Evan. The kids made up their own games.
Of course, when we landed on the beach two military types drove up to check our passports. The stores were very sparse. Whole cupboards bare. The town again has big chunks of concrete and steel lying around, junk everywhere, dirt, no pavement. Large apartment buildings, plain, a bust of Lenin.
Yesterday at Nunyamo I had luck. Walking around the deserted village I felt a rusty nail go through the sole of my boots and right between my toes. Not a scratch!
Journal: July 31, 1994, Akani, 65.492, -171.176
We left Lavrentiya, still on the 30th about 6:15 PM, arrived here at Akani at 10 P.M. Another long day.
As we approached the beach of what we thought was another deserted village a couple of people came down near shore and waved us around the point to a more sheltered beach. We were invited to stay in a little portable cabin with a coal fire last night, had tea and dinner and talked until 1:30 am.
Alexander, an old man, and Nina, an old woman, live here full time. Alexander told us that a storm is coming and that we will be here for three days.
The whole village of 50 families had been moved to Lorino about a decade ago. Displacement has been government policy. Alexander and Nina couldn’t stand city life and moved back here three years ago. Their two children are here for the summer. Tatiana went to high school in Leningrad. Rusylan attends school in Lorino, has worked for a while in Provideniya. She teaches school somewhere. Maybe she said Vladivostok. Mom looks wonderful, has a big broad face. They look handsome in their leather and fur. The portable cabin we are in is sometimes hauled overland and used by reindeer herders.
At 6 AM two guards came and demanded passports. Gennady is now walking back to Lavrentiya to pay some fee for passing through this area. Passing through fiefdoms. Three hours each way. It’s blowing south and we are comfortable (except for Gennady) and can use some rest. We are four in the cabin right now. Tom, who, like a predatory animal, is either full on or off, is asleep. I feel I’m more like an herbivore. I need to forage. Dick is writing, Louise cutting off some of the neck of her dry suit (it ripped, was repaired in Lavrentiya by a guy with a motorcycle, but the patch material was too heavy, and it tore again beside the patch).
Tom and Louise spar quite a bit. It turns out that maybe they have some history. Now he wants her to paddle harder. Says she’s lily-dipping. She claims she needs to conserve some energy for the next day. Perhaps her racing skills with light weight crafts did not prepare her for our heavily loaded doubles. I’m paddling very hard. As far as I’m concerned, though, she’s my paddling partner, we’re at least keeping up with Gennady and she’s good company. No problem.
Everyone has aches and pains. Dick: quite a blister on his palm, Tom: a swollen wrist from impact during Gennady’s rescue, Louise aches all over. My arms are good. My fingers are tired. They feel aflame, especially in the morning. On my right wrist are several open pus sores. No Band-Aid is possible, so they are not healing. I’m not sure but maybe the dry suit neoprene cuff wore into it. The pain in my neck and shoulder blades stops as soon as the paddling stops. The right wet suit boot has worn off the skin on my foot, so now I wear a sock on that foot. I cut off the end of the other sock and wear the rest of it over my wrist, to cover it and keep the cuff off it. Considering how hard I am paddling, and for how long each day, I think that my body is holding up well. I am in good spirits. Because I am a little faster, I am doing the cooking, morning, and evening. Tom takes down the tent and often washes dishes, as does Dick. Louise takes down the other tent. She’s good at that now. I don’t think that she had tented from kayaks before. Dick and I handle the cooking tarp it if is required. Gennady does fire.
Aug. 1, 1994: 3 PM and still wind-bound at Akani
Blowing 30–40 knots from north. Walked today. You cannot see the wind much because there are no trees or large plants to bend over. Just short grass and flowers. If you kneel, you notice that there is much less wind. In this country it is windier if you are a human than if you are a ground squirrel. Most of the land is soggy but some of the higher ground dries well. This is ground squirrel country — light brown, quite large animals with a call like a squirrel, except louder, and more aggressive. The tops of most of the hills are rocky.
Through the mist I could sometimes make out the hook extending out around the next bay. Sometimes I could see no more than 10 meters. This encourages you to observe close in. There is a surprising variety of small flowers. My favorite is a small cupped blue flower, like a hooded face. Camas? The most common flower is dark pink, five petals, open like a daisy. There is a stem with a white fluff puff on the top. An interesting purple snap-dragon-style flower with fern-like leaves alternating down the stock (many flowers per stalk). Small yellow daisies, some with blue stamens. Tiny pink, 6-petal flowers. More. Very common: stocks with many pink parts.
Down in the valleys you can watch water ooze out of the moss and head downhill; the beginnings of creeks and rivers. Further down the creek spreads out, reeds indicate more depth than my gumboots can handle. A short distance later the river has become swollen, the water, now brown, flows very quickly. A pile of rocks offers me shelter from the wind. I crouch down and ponder this land and my own ignorance of it. Lots of caribou poo and antlers. Spongy footing. Small flowers. How do the huge brown bears survive? Rusylan says ground squirrels, any dead animals, fish. Those bears looked enormous, healthy, successful. The caribou antlers were old but the droppings fairly fresh. There were a few small kill deer-like birds with brown back, yellow belly, black line above eye, white line below, forked black/white tail feathers.
On a hill were three coffins lying on the land with sides filled in with rocks. A beautifully preserved skull lay beside one. At another, just some bones and an Orthodox cross, written: 1923–1962. I couldn’t read the Russian, of course. Yesterday on another hill I came across several mounds. Curved bones and wood curved up over pits dug about 1 ½ to 2 meters deep. Up to 2 meters in length, maybe 1 meter across. I asked Rusylan- these were used by his Chuchchi people to store meat on the permafrost. They covered these pits with sod during summer, dug them up for food in winter. The bones supported the sod.
Chuckhi meat stored under curved bones
This family is special. Rusylan is living here full time over the summer. He attended school in Lorene and Anadir. Tatyana graduated from high school in Leningrad, will be staying here only one more week. Lina and Alexander must have lived through some very difficult times. But what I see in Lina’s broad creased face is radiance and laughter. She makes you feel good.
Alexander is the patriarch. One of his jobs is to count whales for a centre in Barrow, Alaska. You can see him often looking through his glasses. He is also a hunter. This winter he shot a polar bear. One bullet. The skin is now draped over a large, Russian-made skidoo. I wondered how he paid for it. Then, oh yes. We saw a dead walrus on a beach. It was huge, whale-like. Tusks cut off. The bear skin. China close by. He is very handsome. White hair, sparkle in his eyes, a little shy, but he is warming up to us. When we arrived, he invited us up right away.
Gennady has learned that they knew we were coming down the coast. They have a radio telephone and heard the news from the four hunters we met. News travels.
There was a genuine respect amongst all the family members. It was good, spacious. We were their second visitors this year. I hope that we didn’t eat all their bread. It is not the custom there to bake your own. I tried whale meat. It was good, like bland cold cuts.
Alexander loves this place, couldn’t stand being in a town. Lina calls it home too. Last year she flew to Resolute and Pond Inlet for a native language conference. This September Alexander will be flying to Barrow, Alaska. Tatyana is teaching. Full lives.
I wonder how Rusylan will do? I can’t see the direction yet. He showed me photos of his stay in Provideniya and in the army. His companions were white. He is not like his dad and the other four hunters, his education comes from books, not from the land. I don’t see him staying there.
The wind was still howling. When I returned from my hike my four fellow travelers were asleep. Gennady, Rusylan and Louise are now playing a card game called “Polish Fool”. Dick returned from a walk. Tom hadn’t budged from his bag. He is not a hiker. He was “saving energy, getting ready for tonight’s paddle.” Tom has less interest in the land, keeps his sight on the goal. When we were at Cap Chaplino and hiked into the hills, a fog bank enveloped us. He was very nervous about getting back, even with a compass. All we had to do was walk against the wind and turn left when we hit the water. Perhaps he was more worried about our schedule and missing our pickup.
Aug. 2, 1994
Still stormed in. 20–30 knots. We were starting to be concerned about our schedule. Someone has some pressing engagement, I guess. I was enjoying this stay and getting a glimpse of these people’s lives, and of the land.
Birds on the sea cliffs: gulls, black and/or red-legged kittiwakes, mew gulls, northern fulmar, arctic tern, common eider, pelagic cormorant, double-crested cormorants, common murres (big colonies), pigeon guillemot, crested auklet (I think), horned puffin, tufted puffin, bufflehead. Birds on tundra: semi-palmate plover, sharp-tailed sandpiper. I’m no expert birder, have a bird book with me.
August 3, 1994
We woke to a bright foggy day, no wind. Said good-bye to the family. Many farewells. Rusylan was attracted to Louise, Nina gave her seal mitts.
Last night was amazing. Alexander and Gennady worked hard to wire up a gas generator. At 9:30 they got it going. The lights in the house went on. Alexander sat down and started shaving with an electric razor. Rusylan fired up his reel-to-reel tape deck and we had salty Russian pop music. Rusylan took photos of the group with an old SLR camera with electric flash. Tea, whale meat, crackers. Quite a time. They asked us to stay on.
The next morning, as above, we left in fog towards Lorina, but then decided to set out for a direct, 33 nm crossing to Mys Kalyustkina. As usual, Louise was the only one who didn’t want to go the extra distance, and it was Tom who was pushing for it. As usual, we went anyway.
We projected 11 hours in the boats, but did it in 10, which was decent. Towards the end the wind picked up and we were again concerned for Gennady’s safety. I must admit, that after about 8 hours I started to resent Louise. She was so tired, wasn’t pulling at all and I had to work even harder. And she was whining. I resented it because this was a long slog, I was tired too and hadn’t peed all crossing. But, O.K., when I joined up, I expected some tough days. I joined willingly and have no reason to resent her.
August 4, 1994
Today we paddled only 12 miles into a strong headwind. Gennady finally could take no more of the strong seas. He usually says nothing, but after a number of questions when he was falling far behind, he finally admitted he would rather be on the beach.
We came in at Mys Nygchigen. Surfed in. The beach wasn’t much but we camped up above on the tundra where it was open and green. It was raining. Saw bear poo.
August 8, 1994
Four days since the last entry. The time flew by. Early start on the 5th, good weather, so we paddled to Yanrakynnot (64.91, -172.493, 18 nautical miles in 5 hours) and then on to the north end of Ostrov Arakanchechen.
Yanrakynnot is a mostly indigenous village. A holiday, lots of drinking. I was offered a ride on the side car of a motorcycle by an obviously inebriated Chuckchi and decided, O.K. We sped off over the dirt and gravel roads and tundra. Fast. The suspension on those things is surprisingly good. It was comfortable.
Near here is the island of Arakamchechen. A huge number of Walrus haul themselves up on the beach. We were looking forward to visit, but authorities allow very few onto the island. Unfortunately for us, the Discovery cruise ship had just been by and we were not allowed to visit.
We visited a family living in a yuranga for the summer: a round home with a frame of wood poles and scavenged tubing covered with reindeer skins. The three winter in Yanrakynnot. Tend reindeer and fish and hunt. Basic inside. The man gave me a beautiful, freshly caught salmon after I asked him how the fishing was.
We camped nearby and fed the small boy (maybe 4) four large bowels of pasta, fillet salmon and broccoli. It was a beautiful spot. A corral for herding reindeer appeared to be in working order. A cousin who lives with the family visited our camp. He had lost his reindeer, was hoping to locate them somewhere. Apparently on the other side of Arakamchechen there is a polar bear wandering around. Missed the sea ice, I guess. Wonder about its future.
Hungry Chukchi Boy
On the 6th we paddled to the north central coast of Ostrov Yttygran, to a place called Whale Alley. (64.635, -172.605) There are several huge whalebones there, from an old village. Only one shack stands now. This site is on the Discovery ship’s itinerary. Some bones standing up, some pits semi-covered where meat was stored. When we arrived at the beach the weather was beautiful and warm. Went for a dip in the dry suits. You float like the Michelin Man.
We decided to paddle farther, to make the next day a short one. Louise wanted to stay put. Tom and Dick were in favor of going on. I could have been persuaded either way.
Going by one lowland the wind was blowing so hard Gennady was forced to go ashore. A very windy place, not too comfortable. We thought about camping. I noticed a fresh bear print. Tom definitely wanted to go on. To relieve Gennady, I paddled his kayak. Damned uncomfortable. Once we had rounded the northern point the wind hit hard. Gennady and Louise wanted to quit. We continued to make for this mountain on the mainland, for protection from the wind. 25–30 knot headwind. Very slow going. Took forever. But we made it and set up a good camp with a cheery fire. Louise started screaming at Tom that she hadn’t gotten her way the whole trip (true). They had a good fight.
(Looking back I wish that I had backed Louise more. For her sake, and, maybe we had no need to hurry so much. I understand that she had a commitment to get back to work at a certain time. But how important was that? We should have talked about that more. We will never go back and could have seen more. I did develop admiration for qualities that Tom brought, though: His single-mindedness, his focus, and his physical strength. And I think that he was O.K. with the ocean experience I brought to the group.)
On the seventh we paddled just 6 miles and got picked up at Pilliken’s base camp at Rumilet. (64.57, -172.97) The truck broke down a lot. The driver would get out, lie on his back underneath and pound on something with a sledgehammer. Something about the clutch, I think. This seemed to work, for awhile. “No parts” he said.
We had quite a good ride on the back deck through the mountains. There were a lot of abandoned stone buildings and fox holes and fortifications: all old Soviet military, long gone. On a hill near Provideniya is a large scratching on the rocks: “Hail to the Soviet military men”.
Yesterday while riding into town I noticed a boat that I am familiar with: the Dagmar Aaen. It’s a 52-foot Norwegian sailing vessel captained by Arverd Fuchs. A couple of months ago this boat was tied up at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver. The crew took a tour of Feathercraft and Arverd bought a K1C Expedition kayak, which is now on deck. Last year they sailed from Norway across the N.W. Passage, then south to Vancouver. This year they hope to sail the N.E. Passage across Russia, back to Norway. But just like us, it seems that they can’t get permission to carry on. Soon they will be too late to start. It’s a beautiful boat. Oak construction hull, steel places reinforced, extra beams inside. 180 hp diesel, 1500 litres of fuel, with full barrels on deck they will have enough for the whole passage. They carry an ultra-light plane on board for ice reconnaissance.