By Tom Bell
KRASNY YAR – Svetlana’s Aunt Mia and Uncle Edik live upriver in the forest by themselves. They travel to Krasny Yar only a few times a year to pick up supplies. On my last visit to Krasny Yar, I finally got my chance to meet them. They came by Svetlana’s house for tea. Aunt Mia, a tough, big-boned Nanai woman chatted constantly. Her Russian husband, Uncle Edik, squatted on the floor. They spoke in Russian too fast for me to understand. I didn’t have much interest in following the conversation until Svetlana told me that they had invited me to live with them in the forest for a few days.
I had my worries about getting along with them. Still, I’d been eager to see more of the Bikin River watershed. Every other river basin in the Russian Far East has been logged to some extent, and only the Bikin has remained intact and truly wild. So I agreed to go.
We departed early the next morning. Wearing Svetlana’s winter parka (which I wore at her insistence), I laid down on a deer skin rug in the middle of a long, flat-bottomed boat. Mia sat up front with an oar and a long wooden pole at her side. Edik sat in the rear with his hand on the outboard motor. The boat traveled at about 8 m.p.h. It didn’t take me long to figure out why Svetlana had made me wear her parka. Although the temperature was mild, a steady 8 m.p.h. breeze gets chilly after a while, and this was going to be a 12-hour trip. I pulled a canvas blanket over me, covering everything but my head.
Viewed on a map, the Bikin is a tangled mess. The mud-brown river darts back and forth, forming so many islands and fingers that it seems like three or four rivers twisted together. It’s so spread out that its average depth sometimes is less than a foot. The river drops 3,700 feet during it’s a 375-mile-long journey to the Ussuri River yet rarely breaks into rapids. Its current is steady and swift, about the speed of someone jogging.
My role during our trip was to sit down and not do anything foolish, like try to help. When we reached a shallow section, 59-year-old Mia jumped into the water and pulled the boat with a chain, while I sat in the boat like an English aristocrat. When the motor later failed and the current pushed us downstream, Edik struggled to control our descent by shoving his pole against the river bottom. I took out my camera.
“Now you want to take pictures?” Edik shouted. He gave me such a nasty look I put my camera away.
Our mishap occurred near a summer fishing camp, so we were able to borrow a motor and continue on our trip without much delay. I fell asleep. When I woke up I noticed the trees had grown taller, and the forest thicker and wilder. Rounded, 3,000-foot mountains surrounded us, and ahead I could see the rugged peaks of Sikhote-Alin Range, the source of the Bikin.
The river was clearer here. The sun reached through the surface and touched the small stones on the bottom. A new landscape had opened up, with clouds of fish darting across moss-covered valleys and through forests of bowed, swaying reeds.
By late afternoon, the sun had slipped below the treetops, and long shadows extended across the river. Edik guided the boat into the mouth of a narrow stream and pulled up alongside another boat. Our journey had come to an end. The breeze that had been with us all day had stopped. The sound of the motor was replaced by the whine of a million mosquitoes.
“Tom, run down that path, ” Mia shouted.
I threw my coat over my head, forming a peep-hole through which to see my way. The mosquitoes still managed to fly into my eyes and face. I sucked a few down with every breath until I learned to breathe only through my nose. I arrived at the cabin gagging. The door was locked. I tried the doors of several other buildings before finding sanctuary in the sauna.
I counted how many mosquitoes were sitting on me at one time. I counted more than 50 on my left leg alone. Avoiding mosquitoes soon became a way of life. Mosquito netting draped our beds, and we covered our head and faces with hats made with this netting whenever we went outside. Edik and Mia also carried buckets bellowing white smoke, which they swung about themselves when outside or around a room when they entered the house. When working outside, Edik strapped to his back a small canister filled with smoldering wood.
Mosquitoes may be annoying, but they aren’t dangerous, not like the ticks, the true menace in this wilderness. They can carry encephalitis, which can kill or paralyze a person. The ticks wait in the trees and bushes for warm-blooded hosts to stroll by, and then they grab on for a meal. But they don’t start digging right away. They usually wait until late at night when the host is asleep. If not removed, the ticks can stay as long as a week. It’s routine here to check your entire body for ticks every night and every time you return from the forest.
You can receive inoculation shots for the disease, but that has to be done before April. I had neglected to get my shots, and now it was too late in the season. Instead, I had brought an antidote, a clear liquid which needs to be injected. To keep the remedy cool, Edik stored it in their version of a refrigerator — a milk jug sitting in a cool-water stream that runs into the Bikin.
Before we had dinner that first night, we washed our bodies thoroughly in a wood-fueled sauna and checked each other for ticks. Then I made a mistake. Although I change my underwear, I put on the same pair of pants. While I was eating my fish soup, a large tick jumped off my pants and on to my leg. When Edik and Mia left to the river to check their nets, I stayed behind to do some writing, and while I worked, the tick was climbing. It didn’t stop until it found its way to some soft skin. I discovered the tick when I was in the outhouse. It had dug into the head of my penis and was drinking blood. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t let go. I killed it with a match and pulled again, and this time it came out. After Edik came home, I called him into my room and explained the situation. I pulled down my pants, bent over a chair and grimaced while he gave me a shot of the antidote.
“That will be a lesson for you,” Aunt Mia said.
The next morning I ventured into the outside world and take a look around the sprawling homestead. There was the original house, now decaying and abandoned, a new one-room log cabin, a half-enclosed kitchen, two workshops, three storage sheds, a tractor, a rusted-out trailer, four yapping dogs, eight cats, a bicycle with two flat tires, a motorcycle, several large garden plots, 85 box-shaped beehives, a cleared-out field for an airstrip, another smaller field intended for a helicopter landing pad. The landscape here was surprisingly level. I couldn’t see any mountains, only some small hills in the distance. How strange it was to travel so far upriver to arrive at a place at flat as Ohio.
In the workshop, I studied a topographical map to get my bearings. We were on a forested plateau, which stretched eastward for several miles, rose to another plateau of 1,750 feet, and then continued eastward until interrupted by the jagged peaks of 4,000- to 5,500-foot-tall mountains. On the other side of those mountains, 80 miles away, was the Sea of Japan.
The map explained the area’s extreme climate and rich biodiversity. In summer, the wind carries warm moisture from the sea over the mountains and unleashes monsoon rains. It’s so warm and lush here, and so rich in fauna and wildlife, that the Bikin River basin is sometimes called “Russia’s Amazon.” In winter, though, when the prevailing wind blows from Siberia, the mountains block the ocean’s moderating influence, and temperatures routinely drop to more than 30 degrees below zero. That’s why the animals here, like mink and sable, dress themselves with such luxuriant fur.
On this June morning, frost coated the grass, and the mosquitoes mercifully stayed in bed. After breakfast, Edik and I took the boat down the river. We drifted silently with the current, Edik holding his rifle in one hand in case he stumbled upon something worth killing.
The game here: elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and a type of pheasant. It’s illegal to hunt game from Jan. 15 to Oct. 15., but Edik and Mia were tired of eating fish and salted meat, and they don’t hold much regard for legal technicalities. We didn’t find any animals, only fresh deer footprints on the moss-covered floor of a lagoon. We had more luck when we checked a set net. There were two lenoks (a trout-sized fish covered with black, leopard-like spots) and a 10-pound taimen (a sharped-tooth predator that swallows its prey whole). Taimen can weigh as much 60 pounds. Edik said the largest he’d caught weighed nearly 40 pounds. I later measured the dried head of this monster, which he had kept as a souvenir. It was almost eight inches in diameter.
After we came home with our catch, we put on our mosquito nets and rubber boots and took a walk in the neighborhood to check the watering holes and salt licks for signs of visitors. Joining us were two small hunting dogs, Dollar and Yena. Everywhere we traveled Edik saw the ghosts of animals. A bear had trampled here, an elk had slept there, a deer had stepped in the mud here. We found some fresh deer prints in the mud around a small pond about a half mile east of the house. Here, Edik would return later that night, and with a flashlight strapped to his rifle, hide in a platform he had built in a tree.
As we returned home, we walked through a field of ferns that reached to my armpits. Everything here, from the ancient oaks trees to the towering pines, was oversized. One towering pine measured nearly 12 feet in circumference, and the circumference of a chosenia, a soft-wood popular tree, measured 18 feet. The variety of trees was spectacular — a mixture of coniferous and broad-leafed deciduous. Nowhere else in the world does a temperate rain-forest and a coniferous forest (taiga) come together like this. There’s Korean pine, Manchurian nut, oaks, larch, cedar, maple, aspen, elm. More than 200 varieties of medicinal plants are found here, such as vitamin-rich lemonica berries, Eleutherococcus roots and ginseng.
But as exotic as this forest was, it also struck me as familiar. Some of the same trees are found in the woods of my native New England, roughly located on the same latitude and, to a lesser extent, also serving as a meeting ground for southern and northern species. The only old-growth areas in New England today are small bushes and dwarfed trees on tops of some mountains. New Englanders have lost forever the sense of what the landscape looked like in its natural condition.
Because of its distance from Europe and the years of economic stagnation and isolation under communism, the botanical ecosystem of the Bikin basin has remained unchanged for thousands of years. In the last few years, the basin has been protected mainly because of the political savvy of the Udegeh people. Every time a company proposes to log the area, the Udegeh appeal for help from the international environmental community. So far they’ve been able to garner enough support to make it politically embarrassing for the Russian government to permit the logging. The recent expansion of lumber exports in exchange for hard currency has increased the risk that the Bikin may someday be opened for logging. Because the forest sits on a plateau, I now realized, logging would be especially devastating; with few steep slopes to worry about, the lumber companies could quickly and easily strip the whole area
For 25 years Edik and Mia Nekracov have lived on this 99-square-mile plot of land. In the summer, they fish, tend their vegetable gardens, keep bees, hunt for meat and gather edible plants in the forest — mushrooms, cedar nuts, hazelnuts, cowberries, blueberries, ferns.
During winter months, they work as staff hunter/trappers for the state hunting cooperative based in Krasny Yar. They have 170 traps and five cabins. It takes four days for both of them to check all the traps. They work separately, always carrying a rifle with them in case they should see a bear (which they would kill for its valuable liver) or game. They travel by foot until after the New Year, when deeper snow requires skis. They bury their traps a few inches under the snow in areas where they’ve seen several sets of tracks, on the assumption that the animal is likely to travel that way again. They use a variety of trap sizes. The smallest, for sable, is the size of a tea saucer. The largest, for wolf, has five-inch-long blades. They usually bait a trap with fish or rabbit meat, which is laid next to the trap in a tiny teepee-shaped shelter made from branches.
The purpose of a trap is not to injure an animal nor even to hold it in place. If a trap was staked to the ground, the animal might chew its leg off to free itself. Instead, traps are attached by a chain to a large branch, which lays freely on the ground. Once caught, the animal drags the branch until it’s too tired to move any further. It freezes to death. If a trapper finds a sable of mink still alive, he places his hand over the animal’s heart and squeezes until the beat stops. When Aunt Mia first began hunting 25 years ago and encountered her first live sable, a “beautiful little thing,” she couldn’t bring herself to kill it. She carried it home alive and gave it to her husband. He was furious. If she wanted to live in the forest with him, she would have to learn how to kill her own animals, he told her. Today, Aunt Mia kills sables as cold and quickly as any professional trapper.
In the fall, the government gave Nekrasovs a quota: Deliver by the following spring 30 sable pelts, 20 mink, 5 Russian mink, 1 otter, 150 squirrel and 120 kilograms of deer meat. In return, they would receive 281,000 rubles, about $180. However, due to the declining wildlife population caused by over-hunting, the couple failed to bring in the required number of pelts and meat. They ended up receiving 140,000 rubles, about $90.
This income was fairly typical for the other 38 staff hunters, although some of the hunters also sold some of their pelts on the black market where they fetch a higher price. I know this practice goes on because I bought some of these black market pelts myself last winter. The transaction took place in a hunter’s home. During our negotiations, after someone abruptly came into the house, the hunter quickly stashed the furs in a drawer. A hunter caught selling furs on the black market may have his hunting land taken away from him. Hunters lease their land free-of-charge from the state hunting cooperative.
Just a couple of years ago hunters were considered well paid. At the end of the season, Edik and Mia could afford to buy a car with their combined earnings. In those days, when the economy was structured on the idea of providing full employment even in remote areas, the cooperative was heavily subsidized. Now market efficiency rules, and most subsidies have been taken away. Meanwhile, price controls on commodities such as gasoline have been lifted, and the cost of most things have risen to world market levels.
How far has the hunters’ purchasing power fallen? Five years ago, a hunter could sell two sable skins and earn enough money to rent an airplane for an hour to ship a ton of goods. Today, a hunter would have to sell 40 skins for the same service.
The Udegeh use to sing a song:
Peristroika, Peristroika, assasa, assasa
Gorbechev, Gorbechev, assasa, assasa
“Assasa” is the Udegeh word for “Thank you.”
Today, they’d use a different word, “seminyeh,” which means lies.
The Nekracovs, like most of the hunters, are despondent over the changes. I tried to explain to them that the old days were kak v’skasky, like in a fairy tale. The country’s inefficient economic system was propped up by a reckless plundering of its natural resources. The fairy tale couldn’t last forever. When the price of oil fell in the 1980s, the economy was destined to crash, with or without peristroika’s help. The Nekracovs didn’t agree with my reasoning.
Next month the cooperative will be privatized. Its 120 workers will become shareholders, owning 51 percent of the shares, the government will keep 20 percent, and the remaining shares will sold on the open market.
Leases for the hunting lands will be auctioned off on a competitive basis, with the first two years rent-free. Current lease-holders will have a priority, and lease-holders who are members of “national minorities,” such as the Udegeh, won’t have to pay taxes on the land.
Besides furs and meat, the cooperative also handles other forest products such as ginseng, pine nuts and fiddleheads, an edible fern popular with the Japanese. Until a year ago, the cooperative also owned a number of beehives. During summer months, Edik had worked as a bee-keeper for the cooperative. Last fall, when he heard the cooperative was getting rid of its hives, he decided to buy the 100-or-so hives on the property as well as the honey-processing equipment, paying a million rubles, about $750 at the time. It turned out to be a mistake. The price of honey is so depressed he feeds his bees honey instead of sugar. Meanwhile, the rise in fuel prices has made air transport too expensive, so he has to make the 200-mile round-trip to Krasny Yar by boat. His honey, made by bees working in a pure environment, is of the best quality, but unless he finds some affluent buyers willing to pay a premium price, it doesn’t make economic sense to make honey so deep in the forest.
His solution is to buy his own airplane or helicopter so he can transport his honey to markets. He doesn’t have a pilots license, and his life savings of $75 won’t even buy him fuel for one plane trip. When I tell him that his plan is unrealistic, he says he’ll settle for an ultra-light plane, the kind with fabric wings and an open cockpit. He’s read several magazine articles about it. We’ve spent hours together going over the articles and discussing his idea of flying honey and supplies over the forest. He thinks if he had a plane then everything would turn out all right.
Every afternoon with binoculars in hand, Edik stands guard over his bees. That’s the time of day they’re most likely to swarm and search for new hives. He follows them until they rest on a tree branch, and he sprays them with water to keep them from flying again. He then shakes the bees into a box and puts them into a cool cellar, where they wait until the next day before being put into a new hive.
Although he has more honey now than he knows what to do with, he must stand watch every day over his bees and keep them employed — or risk losing them all to the forest. About once a day, a jetliner flies high overhead, and Edik runs out of the cabin and turns his binoculars upward. He can identify the aircraft by the sound of the engine. “That’s a Boeing engine,” he’d say. “Can’t you hear how quiet it is? It’s flying to Khabarovsk from Tokyo.”
The Nekrasovs raised a family here in the wilderness, two girls and a boy. (This is their first summer without any of their children living with them.) The longer I stayed with the couple, the more I became awed by their endurance. They worked constantly, each taking responsibility for specific tasks. Edik takes care of the beehives. Mia washes the clothes. Edik hunts for meat. Mia cooks the food. When they take their boat on the river to check their gill nets, Edik always controls the motor. Mia, who sits up front scanning the water for obstacles, directs the route of travel.
They’ll weed the garden together, although I think Mia is in charge of the garden. There are three gardens, and they contain everything worth growing — potatoes, carrots, corn, beets, cucumbers, cabbages, sunflowers, pumpkins, radishes, white and black beans, tomatoes, horseradish, garlic, dill, pepper, blackberries and raspberries.
I tried to help. I volunteered to weed, but Mia was afraid I’d kill the potatoes by mistake. When I suggested that I cut the grass with a scythe, Edik said they couldn’t afford another one if I broke it. When I tried splitting some wood, Mia said it would be better if I would take a rest. In the end, they gave me the kind of tasks they might have given a visiting four-year-old — pumping the well water and stacking wood.
Every time I made a mistake, my status in the forest dropped further and further. I reached bottom while fishing with Mia. I lost a fish because I didn’t tie the hook right. Mia cursed at me under her breath. Then I climbed in the boat and tried to pole myself upriver to the cabin so I could get a new hook. I stood in the back of the boat as I poled, however, and had a hard time keeping the boat straight in the current. Mia shouted at me to get out of the boat and walk along the bank instead. I realized later that I should have poled from the front of the boat. I must have looked ridiculous.
I feared Mia. She’s a woman of strong opinions, and she doesn’t mind sharing them, especially when they concern the deficiencies of other people. I knew that every mistake I made would be recounted later among her friends in Krasny Yar.
One morning we went fishing with a gill net. While Edik and Mia stretched the net across a section of the river, I waded upstream and smacked the water with a pole. Three lenoks swam into our trap! But such triumphs were rare. With few chores to do, I spent most of my time in the woodshed writing. I only went outdoors to go fishing with the Nekrasovs or for occasional hikes in the woods.
It’s an eery feeling to stroll in a place inhabited by Siberian tigers, the world’s largest cat. I knew tigers were around here because Edik had shown me a fresh paw print in a river bank less than a half mile from the cabin.
I placed my hand over the tiger’s print in the mud. It was about 5 inches by 4 inches.
Edik assured me tigers go to great lengths to avoid people. In the 20 years he’s lived here, he’s seen only four, one of which he shot and killed after it had eaten his dog. Maybe between 30 and 50 tigers live in the river basin, but no one knows for sure. This year hunters say they’ve seen more tigers than usual, and they’re seeing them in places where they’d never seen them before. This might seem like good news, but environmentalist say tigers are coming into the basin from other areas that are being logged.
We ate our meals in the kitchen, a small, unfinished log building with a wood stove and a sheet of clear plastic for one of the walls. Our diet: home-made bread, fried fish, fish cutlets, fish soup, old, heavily-salted deer meat, fish soup, fish soup, fish soup and occasionally some fish soup. Every night Erik had gone hunting, and every morning he had come home empty-handed.
I was only supposed to stay with the Nekrasovs for three or four days. According to the original plan, Mia’s brother, Uncle Serosha, was supposed to bring me back to the village. But where was he? After my eighth day with the Nekracovs, we traveled 10 kilometers upriver to Uncle Serosha’s cabin, but there was no sign of him.
Every October, Uncle Serosha and the other hunters of Krasny Yar travel to their winter cabins in boats loaded down with supplies and snowmobiles. In March, they ride their machines on the frozen river back to Krasny Yar. In the following summer, they must retrieve their boats so they can start the process all over again. This summer, however, the higher price of gasoline means that few hunters can afford to travel this far upriver. In seven days, I hadn’t seen a single person on the river, other than the Nekrasovs. Edik couldn’t take me back because he had to tend to his bees. Mia didn’t know how to operate the boat’s motor. An old man named Ivan Gombovich lived in a cabin 10 kilometers down river. We checked it three times, and he was never home. Evidentially he was visiting family in Krasny Yar.
On the way back home from the Uncle Serosha’s cabin, we stopped to check a net stretched across a lagoon. There were no fish, but on the algae covering the lagoon floor lay the dark footprints of a deer. The sun had just set and daylight was quickly disappearing. We headed into the river’s main current, and that’s when we saw the deer climbing onto the bank. Edik fired two shots before it escaped in the bush.
“We saw him too late,” Edik said. We moved the boat towards the shore, and he climbed on the bank and ran into the brush. Another shot.
“Tom, come here!” he shouted. I ran towards the direction he was pointing. I saw the deer on the ground, its head moving slowly and silently. I was close enough to touch it. By the time Edik came up to it, it was dead.
Edik disemboweled it quickly while Mia waved leaves about his head to keep the mosquitoes away. Then together Edik and I dragged the deer towards the boat, each pulling on a front leg and ear. It was heavy. We had to use all our strength to pull it through the brush. While I had no skills for the forest, at least I had raw muscle power. I was finally contributing.
When we got home, we dragged the deer to the wooden platform where Mia does her laundry. Edik fired up the generator and butchered the deer under an electric light, while a nearby smoldering bucket kept him wrapped in a shroud of smoke. It was an eerie sight — the white, illuminated smoke, the rumbling generator, the heavy thump of the ax. Edik lifted the deer’s head and threw it to the side, and three cats rushed to inspect it. We placed most of the meat in a shed to be smoked. The rest we stored in milk jugs sitting in the brook.
We had a feast that night. Edik offered me some of the horn, which he claimed was an aphrodisiac, and Mia urged me to eat the bone marrow and raw chopped liver. I declined both and dug into the plate of fried deer meat. We ate without conversation. We ate like wolves.
That night, it rained heavily – a torrential, unrelenting wall of water. The next morning, we discovered that the nearby brook had flooded overnight, and my encephalitis antidote was gone. Edit and I jumped in the boat and motored downriver. After several hundred yards, we found a jumble of branches that had been swept down the river in the flood and but were now trapped by a large tree that had fallen into the river. And from that jumble we snatched up the milk jug containing the antidote.
I had been 11 days in the forest. Where was Uncle Serosha?
Up until two years ago, it wouldn’t have been so difficult to return. Fuel was still cheap then, and small planes ferrying cargo and passengers occasionally flew overhead. If Edik wanted a ride, he’d shoot a flare, and a plane would land in his grass airstrip. Nobody these days can afford a plane, and Edik’s airstrip is overgrown.
I thought about floating down the river in a raft. It would take three days to reach Krasny Yar, but Edik and Mia wouldn’t let me go, explaining that it would be too dangerous.
Barred from performing most chores, I spent most of my time in the woodshed. There,I wrote letters, kept a journal and listened to short-wave radio. My favorite stations were the BBC, Radio Netherlands and Voice of America. I learned that the dollar fell to new lows against the yen and that European bureaucrats were arguing again in Brussels. However, the radio gave me no news on the whereabouts of Uncle Serosha. Krasny Yar, only 60 miles away in a straight line, seemed farther away than any place on earth.
Eventually, the radio’s batteries went dead, leaving me alone with the unceasing buzz of mosquitoes flying around the room. When the weather was humid, their numbers increased so much that I retreated to my screen-covered bed. Their high-pitched drone sounded ghost-like.
About every 30 minutes or so a wasp would start rattling against the window. At first, the noise was an irritation, but then I noticed that the two windows in the shed acted like gravity fields for the wasps. I had an idea for a game. I captured a wasp in a film canister and placed the canister on the other side of the shed. By the time the wasp had worked its way out of the canister, I was positioned directly between the windows. I held a paddle designed for removing snow from traps. The flight-pattern of a wasp is like a knuckle-ball. My goal was to hit it into the mosquito netting over my bed. A home run was fatal for the wasp.
By my 13th day, I noticed some small seasonal changes. The days had grown a little warmer and more humid, with mid-day temperatures climbing into the 80s. A new irritating insect had joined us — the gnat, and Edik’s bees had begun producing honey.
“In another 10 days, you can watch me process it,” Edik said.
One morning during a game of wasp baseball, I heard Mia shout something about the sound of a motor. I raced towards the river with Edik following behind me. We climbed into the boat and headed down to the main channel, and there we saw a boat containing four Udegeh men and a dog. The men said they were going upriver and wouldn’t return for some time. They said there was no sign of Uncle Serosha.
Walking back to the cabin, I heard the sound of a helicopter. I sprinted to an open field and tried to wave it down, but it was too far away.
For the next two days, it rained. On the third day a strong wind blew through, and from the forest came the crackling of tree limbs splitting and crashing to the ground. It sounded just like firecrackers, which was appropriate since the date was July 4th. The wind pushed away the clouds, the rain, the humidity, the mosquitoes, the gnats. For the first time, it was a pleasure to be outdoors.
I sat on the porch with Mia and Edik and the dogs. We didn’t keep a bucket of smoke nearby or wave branches about our heads. We just sat there enjoying the sunlight and dry air.
The local name for their land is Lauxhye (Chinese for “old river”). According to the topographical map I found in the work shed, the ruins of an ancient Udegeh village lie within a few hundred feet of Edik and Mia’s cabin, although Edik and Mia said they’ve never seen the ruins.
In addition to the Udegeh, a group of Old Believers once lived in the area. After the Soviets gained power in 1922, they fled to this forest because it was remote and beyond Soviet control. In 1932, an officer from the defeated White Army came up the Bikin and tried to organize the Old Believers into rebelling against the Soviet authorities. A contingent of Soviet soldiers then came to capture the officer and suppress any potential rebellion. A battle ensued. The White Army officer and many of the Old Believers were killed
In 1936, the government decided that the level terrain of Lauxhye would be suitable for growing wheat. Or perhaps it just wanted to establish its authority in the forest. In any case, many of the now-retired soldiers who had put down the rebellion returned to Lauxhye again, but this time they brought their families. Twenty-six Russian families lived here and labored for the wheat cooperative. The cooperative lasted four years.
Amidst the Russian soldiers, there was also one Udegeh family, headed by an old man named Gombo. In keeping with old Udegeh custom, Gombo had three wives. These three wives gave him three sons. One son was killed by the Japanese in the Great Patriotic War. The second son moved to Kamchatka. The third son, now age 66, lives 10 kilometers down river. His name is Ivan Gombovich.
July 4th was my independence day. That evening we went downriver to see if Ivan Gombovich was home. He was. He was eating dinner with most of his family — his wife, two sons and two grandchildren. We joined them. The main dish was fish soup. Ivan Gombovich said he had grown weary of fish and wanted some fresh deer meat, but he was unable to shoot one. After some small talk, we began negotiations. Ivan Gombovich agreed to take me to Krasny Yar the next morning. In exchange, I would pay 50,000 rubles, and Edik would give him a side of fresh deer.
After dinner, Edik, Mia and I headed back upstream to the cabin. Within five minutes we spotted a deer swimming in the middle of the river. Edik pulled the boat alongside the deer and shot it in the head. We pulled the carcass into the boat and continued on our way.
Ivan Gombovich would have his meat.
Post-script. Several years after I wrote this story, Edik has was attacked by a tiger. He survived the encounter, but his face was badly disfigured. Mia died a few years ago.
In 2015, the Russian government created the Bikin National Park to protect the largest remaining old-growth mixed forest in the Northern Hemisphere, habitat for the Siberian tiger and the forest culture of the 600 indigenous inhabitants living in the river basin. In 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the basin a World Heritage Site.
This is Walt Irrigoo, Anchorage Alaska