Situated on the same latitude as the northern tip of Maine, the landscape here would seem familiar to anybody from the East Coast of the United States. The Sik-Alan mountains roll across the horizon and have the same rounded, tree-covered peaks as the mountains in New England.
The forest is largely a mix of familiar broadleaf trees, like oak, hemlock, elm, birch and maple. There’s also Korean pine and cedar.
Yet the forest is so different, in both its richness and diversity, and also in its wildness and vast size. This is not the tundra of the north, or the deserts of Asia and Africa, which are thinly populated because they are inhospitable places with few resources.
This is beautiful and rich country. If this were in the United States, with the great efficiency of its free-market economic system and its footloose and ambitious population, this forest would have long ago been subdivided, first for logging and then ski resorts and vacation homes.
If it was still part of upper Manchuria, as it was before Russians claimed this territory in the mid-1800s, imagine what the Chinese would have done here. You would be seeing these cedar trees stacked in the lumberyards at The Home Depot.
That is why this forest is amazing. That it exists at all.
The forest is lusher than the woods of New England. While the winters here are colder than in Maine’s North Woods, the summers are more like those of the American South, like Georgia or maybe even Louisiana.
Shifting wind patterns have created a strange climate.
In the winter, the prevailing winds came from the west, across all of Europe , over the arid steppes of Mongolia and the mountains of eastern Manchuria before reaching these mountains, wrung dry of moisture and warmth. From November to March, temperatures stay below freezing and can reach 30 to 40 degrees below zero.
I don’t have a climate chart before me, but I can say with experience that winters here are colder than in Anchorage, Alaska, where I had lived for several years.
This cold weather is why the sable and other fur-bearing animals here are so prized. They need their plush fur coats to stay alive.
In the summer, though, the prevailing winds shift and come from the east. The monsoon winds bring heavy rains — including typhoons — from the Sea of Japan.
Three-quarters of the region’s annual precipitation falls in the summer.
The extreme climate allows for a greatest diversity of wildlife and plant life found anywhere in the world at this northern altitude. The region also escaped the last Great Ice Age, during which became a biological refuge from the glaciers.
The summers here are warm and wet enough for opium poppies, ginseng plants, lotus flowers, wild grapes, cork, and bamboo trees. Giant ladybugs cling to the ceilings and windows in village homes. The crickets are bigger than any crickets I’ve ever seen. Ferns grow high enough to almost bury a person standing up.
The forest is home to both the black bear and brown bear, raccoon dogs, wolverines, leopards, deer and elk. There would be timber wolves, if the tigers weren’t here to kill them.
During a short walk in this boreal jungle, just a few miles upriver from Krasny Yar, we saw boar dung, bear tracks, and foot-tall anthills. A hungry bear had recently demolished one of the hills. A Eurasian vulture circled above the towering tree canopy. The forest floor was covered with a deep, wet blanket of spongy moss. It was like stepping on a waterbed.
We also saw cedar trees, the most important tree species here because cedar nuts feed the wild boar, which in turn are prey for the Amur tiger.
“It’s a lot like Maine, except bigger, and more dense, more bugs, more of everything,” my 16-year-old daughter, Ihila, said during our walk. “I feel like an ant here, really small. I’m waiting for a dinosaur to come crashing through these trees.”
Tom Bell, Aug. 28, 2012