Travel

69° North, 33° East: Running from the Russians – by Scott Diel

April 30, 2014

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A Soviet-made helicopter is a grinding, oily beast which announces itself long before visual contact. The Mi-8s, the cargo and passenger transport machines, can be heard at great distance. But there are the small, agile Mi-2s, which can conceal themselves in a leeward valley and pop up over a ridge, catching you fully erect, fishing rod in hand. It hovers close by, and you see the pilot with his over-sized, mirrored sunglasses, lips pursed in an almost-smile behind the Plexiglas bubble, an inspector on his right, glassing you like a trophy buck. The engine changes pitch, a landing to come. And you know you are going to somehow pay.

But if you don’t happen to be standing, if you happen to have heard the rotors’ whine a few kilometers off, then you have time to take cover. Spotting a man from a moving helicopter in over 55,000 square miles of arctic tundra and taiga isn’t easy. Cut banks are good for hiding, relief in a snow bank carved by a stream. You can have a cigarette there if you want. Big rocks are friends, too. Covered with mosses and lichens and fortified on the South side by crowberry bushes, these rocks provide natural camouflage. Or you can take a dive on the soft ground under dwarf arctic birch. Hide your face. Watch your gear. Sunglasses and fishing reels are mirrors, and you’re not out to signal anyone.

 

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Volodya comes to the river to forget.It is said that no witch can cross moving water, that water molecules striking one another produce a pitch that practitioners of the black craft cannot bear. Hemingway took this counsel and lived near moving water all his life after Moroccan mounted soldiers slaughtered five thousand troops, because an order he gave was disobeyed[i]. Every fisherman knows water soothes, even if not why. Volodya, former spetznaz, Russian Special Forces, doesn’t talk about his Spanish Civil War; he simply says there are regrets.

Volodya is polite but silent with me. In Russian, he addresses me using the formal Vy, avoiding the intimate. I am not a friend, but a new acquaintance. Volodya has his son and six friends in our party, many of them former Soviet soldiers, and they give me marching orders. Throw out the fork; a spoon will suffice. Take one pair of pants; go in your underwear while they dry. Chuck the bright clothing; wear only camouflage. Transfer vodka to plastic soft-drink bottles; glass weighs too much. And if you see a helicopter, get the hell down.

Volodya’s friends promise me no forty-kilometer days as were common in years past. The year prior they covered 260 kilometers over ten days: two days in and two days out. That made forty kilometers per day in full pack—two full marathons in two full days—six days left for fishing. Nobody minded the walk, but they minded the loss of fishing time, so this year they arranged for a helicopter.

We cannot fly out of Murmansk; it is too closely watched. Wealthy Englishmen who control the fishing camps also have influence with the authorities. When the Soviet Union fell, celebrity fly fishermen came to the Kola Peninsula. One wrote that it was the world’s greatest Atlantic Salmon fishery. Camps were set up, and the wealthy poured in.Both the camp owners and the local authorities want every dollar which comes to the peninsula to pass through their hands. If your destination isn’t a fishing camp, Volodya’s friends tell me, then you’re not flying out of Murmansk. We drive south and east to Lovozero, where some more of Volodya’s friends have a helicopter we can use.

There are plenty of helicopters, but they’re not easy to get. The Englishmen have most of them sewn up, leased from the kolkhozes, May through September. They book them for three- to four-hundred dollars per flight hour and resell them to fishermen for eight- to nine-hundred. The Mi-8s burn seven hundred and fifty kilograms of fuel per hour. If you want to take one, you either need a lot of money or some very good friends. Volodya seems to have an endless supply of the latter.

Spray painted red on the corrugated metal flight shack is ЛОВОЗЭРО—The Best (the Cyrillic the name of the town, Lovozero). It’s a surprising mix of Russian and English, something one might see in a bustling city with a professional soccer club and enthusiastic teenage fans. But in Lovozero, it’s a difficult promise. The airport is tiny, quiet, littered with rotting, rusting aircraft fuselages, only one working plane in view.

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Volodya is inspecting gear flanked by a laika, its tail high and curled back around to rest on its back. “Sputnik,” says Volodya, noticing my interest and nodding toward the animal. I don’t know if he’s telling me the dog is our traveling companion—the direct translation—or if he’s referencing the spacecraft which carried the laikas, Byelka and Strelka, into orbit. It’s not a comfortable reference as the helicopter is old and Byelka and Strelka baked alive upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. A mechanic in a blue flight suit is climbing on the propeller housing, inspecting the silver medusa network of hydraulics under the rotors. Our gear is loaded and Volodya orders us on the chopper. Fortunately, the laika does not follow.

There is a flight clock above the open door to the cockpit and it remains static during the engine’s warm-up. There is deafening noise. The pilot puts on his headset and has an animated conversation with the co-pilot whom I can’t see from the starboard side. I wonder if medusa is giving us problems. I am tapped on the shoulder. It’s Agu, pointing to the console of dials and gauges in front of the pilot.

“That one broke,” he says, gesturing to a missing instrument which has been replaced by a five-digit number, printed on white paper and taped over the glass. “So they replaced it with their favorite reading.” Agu is our cook, a catering chef in the real world, and he is a happy blonde boy with excessive baby fat and a sore on his ear which has been bleeding since Helsinki. I try not to think that he will be touching our food. I also begin to wonder how this young man, overweight as he is, covered forty kilometers in a single day. It gives me confidence, as I think I should have no trouble with the twenty or so I’m told will make our longest day.

Of Volodya’s six friends, there are only two who did not serve in the Soviet army. Agu is too young. He looks about thirty, and the Soviet army would have lost its claim on young Estonians before his time. The other non-veteran is an Estonian dissident who spent much of his life under the Soviet regime on a remote Baltic island. It was a self-imposed exile. “I had to disappear,” he’s told me. But he has avoided the issue of what he did to earn this distinction. My plan is to ask him directly, if I can build some trust and get him talking.

Together we are nine. There are two more Russians with us: Sasha, Volodya’s sidekick and assistant, and Andrusha, Volodya’s youngest son, an engineering student at a university. Sasha wears a silver-blue badge inside his unbuttoned field jacket that can be seen whenever he extends his arm. He is some sort of inspector, and while there is likely little police work to be done on the tundra, it lends a feeling of security to have him aboard.

We’re airborne, the flight clock ticking. Agu is bouncing in his seat, shouting something at Volodya across the aisle. Volodya smiles and waves a dismissing hand. The other faces are pressed to the windows. A few open them and fire their cameras.

The air is cloud-free, and we would see great distances were it not for our low altitude due to headwind. The last building of Lovozero disappears from view, replaced by vast numbers of small pines and fir trees. There is a road below, where there should be no road, where there is at least no road on the map. In a treeless meadow, the road turns into a network of muddy ruts running in every direction. I point this out to Agu. “Lasketiir,” he shouts. A playground for tanks. A Russian army firing range.

Soon it is all a treeless meadow, true tundra, the polar desert: mosses, lichens, dwarf arctic birch. In summertime, the top meter of permafrost melts to become the world’s largest sponge. There is snow, too. Large patches everywhere melt into the drainage to become lakes which empty through river and rill to other lakes to other rivers to eventually the sea. Below us, there is as much water as land.

There are no witches here

There are reindeer below visible on snow patches on this 570 million year-old ground. There are galyetz, too, or artic char, one object of our trip, a fish that survived the ice ages. In Sami, the language of the peninsula’s indigenous people, Murman, from which comes Murmansk, means edge of the earth. We are 250 kilometers and gaining from the earth’s edge, our helicopter’s shadow skipping across tundra and snow.

The flight clock reads forty minutes, and Volodya signals to prepare to unload. Cameras are stowed. Hats are removed and shoved in pockets. Volodya points at men and bags and somehow makes it absolutely clear who he wants to do what. My job is to stay out of the way, which he communicates with military clarity by pointing at me once and then out the door three times.

We are two meters from the ground, then one. The door is open and the co-pilot out. He’s in front of the plexiglass windshield, standing fully erect, blond hair dancing in the prop wash. He signals the pilot where to put the wheels down. We’re down and then we’re up again, the pilot making corrections. Volodya is out the door followed by the two bags closest him, then me. The props are still spinning. I move cautiously, staying as low as possible. The prop wash blows my sunglasses off and pushes them over my shoulder as far as their tether allows. The ground farther away from the helicopter is slightly higher, and I am reluctant to move there. So I crawl and turn to watch the pile of gear grow, Agu tossing bags out the door, Volodya catching, and men throwing themselves on top of the pile to keep lighter items, tents and tarps, from blowing across the tundra.

The gear is out, the co-pilot in, and the chopper away, its tail turning over me as it turns windward for takeoff. I am flat on my back, frightened enough of the tail rotor, but snapping pictures like a tourist all the same.

Like a reluctant morning riser, the helicopter takes its time. But in a few seconds it is a speck, then it is nothing, and we are alone.

I feel like Fitzroy-MacLean in Afghanistan or Shackleton nearing the pole. It isn’t just me; we’re all exuberant, bursting with enthusiasm. Giddy. We shake hands like we’ve summited Everest. A bottle is opened and passed around.

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For all the previous military efficiency, the checking of gear, the choreographed unloading, we quickly degenerate into a tundra cocktail party. Volodya tells stories to the boys while Gennadi, the Estonian dissident with a Russian name, grabs my arm and delivers a lecture on flora and fauna of the tundra. He is a large man with patrician white hair trimmed short. He wears delicate designer glasses with thick corrective lenses.

“Crowberry,” he says, showing me one of last year’s berries. “It’s a delicacy.”

“You eat it raw?” I ask.

“You can,” he says, “it doesn’t taste very good.”

“So, Gennadi,” interrupts Agu, “anything that tastes bad is a delicacy?”

“They make tea from it.” Gennadi is older, in his fifties, and shakes his head.

Agu giggles, pleased that he’s rattled Gennadi.

“I worked in the botanical garden,” Gennadi tells me, as he demonstrates with his cigarette lighter that the crowberry is the only thing that will burn on the tundra. “That’s the only work I ever did for the Soviets. It wasn’t the plants’ fault that they were born in the Soviet Union.” Gennadi passes me a bottle, a local brand of vodka with a gold, double-headed eagle on the label.

“Who’ll get me water?” shouts Agu, holding up two blackened aluminum pots.

“From where?” I ask, volunteering.

“There. There. Or There.” Agu points. “It’s all drinkable. The lake is the closest.”

There is a lake below us. There are lakes all around us. I take the pots and amble down the trail. There is a trail, in fact, and Gennadi does not let it go unnoticed.

“Those are the oldest roads in Europe,” he shouts after me. “Possibly the world.” They are reindeer trails which predate even the Romans.

 

This place they call izbà.

The izbà includes an unnamed lake below a hill covered in granite chunks the size of bathtubs, scattered about like a child’s playthings. The hill is crowned by three boulders larger than horse trailers, and in their shadow rests a tarpaper shack framed in weathered pine. This izbà sits in a gentle relief in the tundra. From the top of the boulders there are grand vistas, yet the entire camp has a protected feel.

We have no fish yet, so Agu makes pancakes. Gennadi sits in the shack wearing his aluminum bowl upside down on his head, the tundra equivalent of pounding knife and fork on the table. Agu ignores him.

Inside the cabin there are three beds, two stacked as bunks, each large enough to sleep two men. Agu wants the water on the table. There are three tables, one for cooking, one for eating, and one which doubles as a cot. There is a stove and a network of wires running throughout the cabin for hanging clothes to dry. Mounted on one wall is a sink without a faucet, which drains into a bucket on the floor. There are two tiny windows, through one of which streams blinding sunlight, giving the impression of the arrival of a deity. Pages from 1970’s English-language porn magazines are pasted to every wall.

“Welcome to the Hilton,” Jaanus says to me in Estonian. Jaanus is the organizer of the trip and comes to the Kola six times each summer.

I ask who built it. He turns to Volodya and asks in Russian.

“One Misha,” says Volodya. “Twenty-five years ago, in winter.” Misha brought the materials in by Buran, the Russian brand of snowmobile. He came back in summertime and built it.

“What’s its use?” I ask. “A holiday cabin?” I try to be a little stupid and a little ironic at the same time. It is unspoken but understood: new travelers should limit their questions.

“It’s a poacher’s cabin,” Volodya says openly. Sixty kilometers from here is a bus stop. He covered that ground in twelve hours, he says matter-of-factly, with sixty kilos of fish in his pack. I convert to miles in my head. That’s thirty-six miles through marshland, almost a marathon and a half. Twelve hours with one hundred and thirty pounds in a primitive, belt-less backpack. I suspect exaggeration, but I keep my mouth shut.

“Andrusha was five,” Volodya says, perhaps sensing my doubt. “He needed coloring pencils and paper for school. It was the only way.” Jaanus has told me only a little about Volodya, that he was spetznats, and so I am willing, for the present, to suspend my disbelief. I look at Volodya, a short, muscular man with a crew cut and mustache and picture him sprinting across the tundra with fish slowly spoiling in his pack. It occurs to me that we are completely dependent on Volodya. I have covered sixty kilometers only by bicycle. I have toted sixty kilos only in my car. And here we sit at the izbà, movement in any direction burdened by so many kilometers and so many kilos. By almost any measure on the tundra, I am worthless.

The pancakes are ready; Gennadi removes the bowl from his head. We cut them with the edge of our spoons and eat them covered with homemade blueberry jam packaged in a large plastic bag. There is jerky too, if we want it, but most go directly for the beer. “Someone put that beer in the snow,” orders Agu, who has already established himself as lord of the shack. “No reason to drink it warm.” I tote it outside and tear into a patch of snow with my boot heel until I’ve made space for the several cases we’ve brought by helicopter. I imagine this was another reason they eschewed the eighty-kilometer walk. Even vodka packed in plastic can only be carried in limited quantities. But here at the izbà, it’s an open bar.

Agu is shouting down at me to tackle up. Everyone is ready to fish and the camp needs food. Agu stands on a rock and issues orders, partly in Estonian and partly in Russian. Volodya stands at Agu’s side with his arms crossed, laughing at Agu’s newly found military demeanor.

“Gennadi, Toomas, Vallo,” Agu lists the spin fishermen. “I want some big pike from you. And maybe some char. Fly fishermen bring trout.” He switches to Russian, and speaks so fast I don’t understand a word. Gennadi chuckles.

“Did he say something funny?” I ask.

“No,” Gennadi sneers. “But his Russian is horrible.” The others nod in honest confirmation.

“We’ll hit the river,” Jaanus says to me, motioning toward the boulders above the shack. “It’s a short walk to a really good place.” Agu hops off his rock and announces he will join us. He disappears into the shack and returns a few minutes later wearing chest waders and a fishing vest. I have brought neither.

“Don’t worry,” Jaanus says, sensing my concern. “He wears them everywhere.” Jaanus and the rest are dressed like me, hiking boots with neoprene gators as a precaution. The three Russians are wearing simple slip-on, calf-high rubber boots.

Agu leads the way and we crest the hill above the izbà. He stops and takes in the view. “We’re going there,” he points. But “there” could be anywhere, because I don’t see a river. “Watch your landmarks.” Agu shoots off down the hill at a pace I know he cannot maintain. Jaanus wanders behind us, stopping now and again to take pictures of a bird’s nest or a rock formation. To me, the landscape is identical in every direction, one hill indistinguishable from the others. There are lakes in front and behind us and more lakes beyond them. We have a bluebird sky. For the moment, these two men are my only landmarks. I race down the hill and do my best not to stumble.

Bare ground crunches like breakfast cereal under foot and then becomes sponge, wet to the ankle, without any warning. We move through a valley, crest another hill, and see more of the same. We are traversing a moonscape, no river in sight. We cross a slab of granite the size of a small lake: it is shattered like glass, as if dropped by a god, the pieces separate but still holding the shape of the whole, crevasses a meter deep between the shards. There are countless, nameless lakes. I could claim one and plant my flag. There are countless mosquitoes, as well. I wonder how they thrive here, with so little visible life above the water.

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Ahead of me, Agu checks his watch. I examine mine. One full hour and our short walk has not ended.

“How much farther?” I ask the child’s question.

“Another twenty minutes,” says Agu. It is refreshing to see a European from a small country—where distance is always expressed in kilometers—revert to the use of time. In Russia and the United States, where vast tracts of land separate places, distance is expressed in hours. In a way, I feel at home.

At the Hilton, Agu did not eat with the rest of us. He is on a diet. Yet his pace has not slackened. I am out of breath. My cotton t-shirt is soaked with sweat, but the cook with the baby fat and bleeding ear stands, hands on his hips, laughing at me.

“Look,” he yells, excitedly. “CDC!” Cul-de-canard is rare and expensive, and Agu has found a duck’s nest made entirely of this naturally oily, positively buoyant feather that allows the angler to fish a dry fly without silicon or artificial floatants.

With Agu distracted, I demand a suitsupaus, a cigarette break. None of us smoke, so I produce my cup and drink from a channel in the marsh. Agu, careful not to disturb the eggs, removes CDC from the nest’s outer circumference and shoves the feathers into my daypack. Jaanus photographs the nest and promises the hiking will get easier. He says the first few days will be painful and then I won’t think about it: I will just go.

“How much ground have we covered?” I play the European. I hope to hear the number four or five.

“Maybe two kilometers,” says Agu. “No, I think less. Let’s get moving.”

I practice picking up my feet and putting them down. Man evolved to fit this landscape, I tell myself. We suit it perfectly. If the earth had been flat, man would have developed wheels. I am home, I tell myself. This is the place we all began.

 

***

 

The fishing is poor. The air temperature, around 95 degrees Fahrenheit, has warmed the top layer of water. Hot weather pushes the fish out of the rivers and back into the lakes. We catch a few fish, all brown trout, the largest of them two kilos, and both Agu and Jaanus are mildly disgusted. They are after six-kilo trout.

We keep the small fish, because otherwise there are only pancakes and beef jerky, not what we came for. We are hopeful the spin fishermen will produce some pike.

The return journey is no easier. Agu’s pace has not slackened and the sun gives no quarter: it seems always straight overhead. It is close to midnight, and I am still wearing sunglasses. I remove them and put them back on at once.

As a teenager on a Boy Scout camping trip, I was once told to imagine that I was in the desert. I was given a list of items from which to choose—salt tablets, a length of fabric, a hat, sunglasses—and told I could carry very few of them. Of course, I chose the salt tablets and other useless items, the expert suggesting that sunglasses might make survival a bit more pleasant. Now I see his point. While in Murmansk, the midnight sun was a novelty. On the tundra, with the heat, lack of shade, and what it has done to our fishing, it is our enemy.

We return to the izbà with our clothing steeped in sweat.

* * *

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The spin fishermen have pike. Agu is master with a knife, and I watch him filet them for the uha, Russian fish soup. Uha is as pleasant to pronounce as it is to eat, the speaker reaching down into his throat for a guttural “ha,” placing the accent on the final syllable.

Volodya stands beside Agu, threatening to filet the fish with an axe, which others verify that he can do very well by emphatically nodding oh-yes. Agu hands him half the filets and tells him to salt them. Volodya grabs a box of sea salt and a plastic bag and heads for the snow patch where our beer is cooling. Someone brings a large pot of water, sets it to boil, and in goes everything but the filets and guts: tails, spines, heads, and eyes. No one touches food without Agu’s direction. This is partly because they are lazy, but mostly because they don’t know what to do. Estonian men are worthless in a kitchen.

I remove the CDC from my pack to show Gennadi, whose every word seems connected to natural interpretation. He turns the feathers, mixed with dirt and debris, over in his hand, inspecting. “These aren’t CDC,” he proclaims loudly. “These are breast feathers.”

Agu looks up from the soup. He has the expression of a disappointed child. “They are too CDC.”

“No, stupid,” says Gennadi, “Ducks make nests from their breast feathers. You think a duck is going to pull all those feathers from his ass?”

Agu snatches the feathers from him and begins sorting and cleaning them, as if this action proves Gennadi wrong.

Volodya returns with beer and vodka, and stories of the day’s adventure are told while Agu ladles off scum from the soup. Toomas caught a big pike and lost a bigger one. Vallo took a brace of char, the great fighting fish with a brilliant orange belly.

Volodya has been listening to the stories and asks me which fish is best to eat. Probably the char, I answer, although I’ve never eaten one. Char have the reddest meat, closest to that of the salmon. But my answer is wrong.

“Trout and char you can eat three days without tiring of them,” says Volodya. “But pike you can eat five.” Everyone laughs. We’ll be here for ten.

The uha is ready and everyone brings bowls and spoons. The filets are eaten in soup bowls, as well. Agu has also prepared raw fish, which he presents on a plate spiced with lemon, dill, and a sauce that resembles teriyaki.

“Ah, sushi,” says Gennadi, as Agu places it on the table.

“No, sashimi,” Agu corrects him in a surprisingly gentle fashion. “Sushi is the rice.”

To my surprise, Volodya is right about the pike. They have a meat-like quality that the red fish do not have: firm, pure white filets, and without the usual annoying bones. Volodya says you don’t get the bones if the fish is large enough and if you filet it right. The taste is exceptional, due, Volodya credits, to pure water and a trout-only diet.

While we eat, Volodya mentions that he heard helicopters today. He speculates that due to high temperatures, the English are moving their clients around in search of fish. With clients paying over a thousand dollars per day, the camp owners are serious about putting them on to fish. The Kola is zoned, and the English, while their advertisements boast thousands of square miles of water, are as heavily regulated as anyone else. Their clients are not allowed this far upstream. Another possibility is the police hunting miners. The peninsula is famous for its apatite, hepheline, iron, and nickel. But there is also gold in the rivers, and Volodya knows a man in prison, caught with two sacks he had panned out of the river we’re fishing. The final possibility, Volodya admits, is Russian inspectors hunting us. The camp owners view fishermen like us as competition and worry that low-budget trips might catch on. They want every dollar on the peninsula to pass through their hands, and they encourage the Russians to run others off.

“Damned blue tent,” Gennadi mutters. Jaanus, Vallo, and I have a bright blue tent. It’s the only object of color we have, and Gennadi talks like it’s sending out a radio beacon to the helicopters. Everyone ignores him.

“I think we should move camp tomorrow,” Volodya says. I have been pleased with the fishing—it is superior to anywhere I’ve been, save perhaps Alaska on a very good day—but the others did not come to catch two-kilo trout. “We’ll move downstream, closer to the Barents. Maybe we’ll catch salmon.”

No one is enthusiastic about moving in this weather, but this is balanced by a desire for better fishing. More and bigger. Eventually, I am able to ignore the motor-like whir of the mosquitoes, and I fall asleep in my tent dreaming of this Kola-sized fish. We will move camp tomorrow.

* * * * *

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It’s pleasantly hard work covering your beat, clambering in and out of the boat and then wading your way amid the rocks, hour after hour, but you just fish through, for all you are worth –‘Ride straight, and ride like hell’…

–David Profumo on the Ponoi River

 

They only write about the Ponoi, the biggest and most well known of the Kola Peninsula rivers. It’s large enough to be on every world atlas, the prominent eastern-flowing vein pumping perfect water toward the strait between the Barents and the White. If a river can be civilized, the Ponoi is, with its satellite telephones, 24-hour hot shower tents, and guests who sleep in floored, heated tents—“…pleasantly hard work…”

My Kola Peninsula is a different sort of work. My pack is thirty kilos, I suspect, because it’s noticeably heavier than the fifty-pound sacks of dog food I routinely tote from the car to the house. So as not to appear a shirker, I offer to carry group supplies. There is a tent, food, a few pots and pans, but Jaanus quickly gathers them up and distributes them to others. He knows I will have a hard time managing my own gear.

“Just because you have an eighty-liter pack, doesn’t mean you have to fill it up,” smiles Gennadi, who has overheard my offer. Gennadi wears a pack identical to mine, and he reaches behind my shoulders to adjust my straps. “Keep it upright,” he says. “Weight on your hips.”

Volodya is already out in front of us, the Russians leading the way. Vallo, Jaanus, Toomas, and Gennadi follow, with me bringing up the rear. Volodya is already a half kilometer ahead of me, a spot on the horizon.

Two hours moving. I hurry up hills so that I don’t lose the group. I see Jaanus turn occasionally to make sure I’m there. Jaanus is the most easily distracted of the group. He’s not after fish—he’s caught so many he’s indifferent—he’s after an experience. He’s the monk on a pilgrimage. Right now, I know he is focused on käimine, or going. It’s a simple verb in Estonian, one that specifically describes a repeated motion, but it takes on new meaning in the tundra. Jaanus loves to go. I imagine him allowing the heat to bake him into a trance, not thinking about his movement but simply doing it.

Two hours pass and I’ve lost sight of the Russians. I am following Toomas and Gennadi in the rear. I wonder if Volodya, out in front, is also in a trance and thinks little Andrusha—now a university student—is still five years old. I say let Andrusha buy his own fucking books. What is our hurry?

In the valley below me, everyone is sitting on a snow patch. They are barefoot, feet cooling against the snow, socks drying on the rocks. In front of me, Gennadi and Toomas arrive, remove their packs, and fall to their knees. Gennadi removes his shirt and covers his shoulders and chest with snow. I wonder how long the group has been sitting. I would like to stop but cannot. The moment I remove my pack, they will rise, and again I will be last.

To my surprise, Gennadi announces that he will not continue. Someone translates this for Volodya, but he seems indifferent. No, no, the Estonians say. His load will be divided and we’ll continue. No one remains behind. Gennadi protests, but he is ignored. His gear is divided by Jaanus, who gives me an aluminum teapot to carry. Gennadi continues his protest, but the group moves on. I race to a front position, behind Volodya.

I have read of Tibetan monks called lung-gom-pa, men capable of moving hundreds of kilometers in a single evening’s twilight. They move in a trance with eyes wide-open, focused on a distant object, their feet hardly touch the ground. At its highest levels it can be likened to flying, hovering in the air while at the same time moving quickly forward. I have wondered if Volodya possesses such a secret, yet when directly behind him, I see that his solution is more western.

His pack looks virtually empty and is half the size of mine. A military field jacket, sleeping bag, wool sweater, rain poncho, extra pair of socks, toothbrush, metal cup, aluminum spoon: this is all I’ve seen him pack. He carries no tent—he slept in the poacher’s shack—wears neither hat nor sunglasses. I have seen him bathe in snow-cold water with a red, jumbo-sized bar of soap. His pack is made of timeworn canvas, its spent frame held together by bailing wire. Plastic champagne corks plug the frame tubes on the underneath side so they will not fill with mud when set upon the ground. In his right hand he carries a fishing rod. Over his left shoulder is a rifle. He wears black rubber boots like an American child might wear in the rain. Yet he moves like no other.

I follow closely, attempting to put my feet where he puts his. He takes short steps, one foot almost directly in front of the other, as if he were walking a tightrope. He walks a level plane, his body rarely rising or dropping with the landscape. He avoids stepping on rocks, sticks to reindeer trails when possible. He does not pick up his feet. It’s as if a trail forms and flattens in front of him. He sees a path, one that forms then disappears in his wake. I focus on his feet.

I am only several paces behind. He senses my presence and turns. I stop when he does. He seems to know what I’m doing and silently turns and resumes his pace. Focusing on his feet, I maintain the pace. I curse my pack. Mentally, I dissect it, but cannot think of an item I can be without.

We’ve been going five hours and we stop to fish. Agu is into a big one. He stands on a rock in the heavy current, rears back, and laughs as he plays it, his back bowing as much as his rod. He loses a nice fish—three or four kilos—but only guffaws at the fish’s luck. This pudgy man has eaten almost nothing but never seems to tire or lose his sense of humor.

Gennadi refuses to go on. He sits on a piece of granite and hangs his head between his legs. This time, there is no argument. Packs are opened and his gear is returned. Food is redistributed. Toomas will remain with him. They will make camp in a stand of dwarf birch along the river. We will meet them in several days time.

We are now seven. I am slightly ashamed, because Gennadi’s departure has given me new confidence. I did not want to be the one to fall. I am the new guy, the weak westerner, liked enough to get an invitation, but there is surely concern that I will not be able to hack it. Before, I most feared breaking my leg, falling into a hole and snapping an ankle. Were that to happen I would have to be carried out or at least back to the izbà, where a helicopter would meet us in a week’s time. I did not want to be the one who spoiled the trip.

Now, thanks to Gennadi, that is gone. I move with new energy and new technique. We split into two groups, Andrusha leading the second. Sasha takes the rifle and disappears alone into the tundra. There is some joking about shashliki, shish kabob, and I wonder if reindeer are in season or if we have a permit. Perhaps I was naïve to assume the rifle was a precaution against bear.

Two hours later we are still going and have not yet eaten. I am with Volodya, Jaanus, and Vallo. Agu and Andrusha are behind us somewhere, fishing as they move. We must ford a deep stream in swift current. Volodya removes his boots and crosses barefoot. Jaanus moves to the first rock in the current, and we relay our rods across. Shoes are removed and thrown. We’ll have to wear our packs.

We cross like old women. Volodya stands in the current on a submerged rock, ready to grab us if we can make it halfway alone. I step off and extend a hand toward Volodya. “Other hand,” shouts Jaanus. I see his logic. I reach out for Volodya and am practically lifted out of the stream. Jaanus and Vallo follow suit.

Volodya climbs a ridge and lights a signal fire. He tosses crowberry branches on the flames, and makes our position clear. In minutes, Andrusha and Agu materialize, as well as Sasha with the rifle. They all cross the stream barefoot and without assistance. Some of my guiltily gained confidence is lost.

We go another hour without pause.

Agu moves to my side. “Which direction is south?” he demands. I look around. If I can point broadly, I have roughly a twenty-five percent chance.

“There.” I point.

“Wrong,” says Agu. “There.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” he says. He quickens his pace and moves ahead of me. Without Gennadi, he is in full control of lessons.

“Helicopter,” Andrusha says, walking at my side. “I can hear it.” Andrusha has studied English but has been reluctant to use it. I stop and listen, and sure enough, faint in the distance is the deep-pitched motor.

“How far?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Ten kilometers maybe. No, less.” Andrusha points. “On the horizon.”

The column stops and everyone watches. It is a speck moving along the river, and the column regards it with only casual interest. We move on.

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“You’ll camp here,” Volodya says. It’s ten o’clock at night, and we’ve been walking at a brisk pace for eight hours. We’re standing in the shallow beginnings of a gorge, mosquitoes thicker than we’ve seen them yet. There is an exchange in Russian and Volodya, Andrusha, Sasha, and Agu take off.

“Can you see it?” Jaanus asks me as Agu hops rocks over a stream in the distance.

I see the stream cut deeper into sharp rock, a notched gorge squaring up like the rear sight on a rifle. I admit I cannot see whatever it is I’m supposed to see.

“Look carefully. Right side. Among the rocks.”

And there it is. Another Hilton. Tarpaper and weathered pine. Almost impossibly placed on a sixty-degree slope. We are camping in the glen, because Volodya wanted no attention drawn to the shack. Our blue tent has few friends.

“Let’s pitch the tent and go eat,” Jaanus says.

The poacher’s shack is a partially floorless frame built atop two boulders on a shelf in the cliff-face. The rounded crest of one boulder forms the kitchen floor. This shack has two rooms but is smaller than the last and sleeps only three. There is a stove in the sleeping quarters, but too much heat is the problem today. The shack is baking. Below, where part of the streambed is still covered in snow, Volodya saws snow blocks and Andrusha carries them to the shack. They cut three and place two behind the stove in the sleeping quarters and one in the kitchen. The kitchen floor is littered with empty vodka bottles, rusted cans, and old clothing.

“Russians aren’t fond of cleaning,” Agu deadpans. By any standard, both camps have been filthy. In the previous shack, trash was thrown on the floor behind the stove, presumably for burning. Agu carries a rusted metal box from the shack and places it outside atop a boulder. Everything here rests on boulders, and movement demands attention to the crevasses between them.

Sasha arrives with dead birch limbs for firewood. I wonder for a moment how Toomas and Gennadi have fared. I imagine Gennadi in a comfortable camp, sitting in a webbed chair, legs crossed, staring at the river, toasting nature from a small silver cup. I can hear him lecturing Toomas on the peregrine falcon, citing its top speed in a dive and ability to kill an arctic fox.

“Welcome to the Hilton Two,” Jaanus says, handing me a coffee cup a quarter full of vodka. The group gathers outside around Agu’s rusted box, semi-portable two-burner stove, now lit. They throw back the drinks. I only take a swallow: I am beat and have no wish to drink.

“Drink it all,” says Volodya. “Or I’ll penalize you.”

“It’s not allowed to sip,” Jaanus explains. “The penalty is drinking a full glass alone.”

I apologize to Volodya and throw back the drink. I wonder how much vodka we have and who carried it. We seem to have an endless supply. If we run out, what will follow? I pray we don’t run out. I take the bottle and put two fingers in each glass—it is best to take the offensive and make a toast. “Pivo bez vodki, denghi na veter,” I say, making the all-important eye contact with Volodya. Beer without vodka is money to the wind. He laughs and throws back his drink.

“How many shacks like this are there?” I ask.

Volodya strokes his beard as if pondering a koan. He is silent a full minute. I imagine the movie screen in his head, him combing the terrain, counting the shacks as he might move between them.

“Fifteen,” he says.

“Fifteen?” I verify.

“Fifteen that Volodya knows about,” adds Jaanus. “There could be more.”

“Over how much ground?”

“Forty by sixty,” says Volodya.

“Kilometers,” clarifies Jaanus. “That’s the area Volodya knows without a map.”

“Without a map?” I ask. It’s true I’ve never seen Volodya touch a map, except to answer a question for someone else. “2,400 square kilometers?” I ask again. “Without a map?” That’s half of Thule.

“In the early days, there were no maps, not even military,” says Volodya, no doubt sensing my skepticism. “And Russian maps, except for military, are no good.” It is true that, even today, Russian atlases are more or less worthless, the paranoia of a great nation manifesting itself in doctored maps to inhibit movement of even its own citizens. Maps are good enough to get a traveler from A to B, but the lake won’t necessarily be where the map says it is, or an island might rest where open sea is recorded.

“Volodya helped make the military maps,” adds Jaanus.

This confuses me more. Was Volodya poaching while in the military? It seems ironic but in a sense perfectly Russian: what better time to poach? I don’t ask anymore. The mystery is too charming.

“But how do you know where you are?” I ask.

“Memorize your landscape,” says Volodya in a teacher’s tone. “It all looks the same to you now, but it isn’t. Every rock is different. You first memorize views from the tops of hills. Then you work in smaller units. In East Germany, we could move hundreds of kilometers and find a cache of supplies buried under a certain rock. It isn’t impossible.”

Maybe not, but I won’t be doing it on this trip.

Agu produces a silver bag from his pack which he fills with pike filets someone packed in. He covers the burners—crudely cut holes in the rusted box—with pans and places the silver pouch directly in the fire.

“Cosmonaut food?” I ask.

“Norwegian cosmonauts,” he says. “A fish smoker.”

A light, warm breeze carries the oven’s smoke. We dine on smoked pike filets served in a rich mushroom sauce. For dessert there is dark Kalev chocolate from Estonia and cups of strong coffee.

“Cooling off tonight,” says Volodya, leaning against a rock with his coffee.

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Volodya and I will fish together today. Alone. I don’t know whose choice this is, and I am afraid to ask. There is a point in learning languages where the speaker is able to manage delicate topics and I am not there with Russian. Asking would risk insult to Volodya and I am flattered to fish alone with him. Volodya has not yet been wrong about anything on this trip. I feel chosen.

Volodya was not wrong about the weather, either. We gather on the boulders outside the shack dressed in fleece, shells, and stocking caps. We scratch at our beards like flea-bit dogs.

Five degrees, speculates Agu, as we shovel down pancakes and coffee. The sky has turned gray, a welcome though otherwise depressing sight. Fog has set in, and we cannot see even halfway to our blue tent. For the first time in a week, I remove my sunglasses.

 

Of course I don’t know where Volodya is taking me. Wherever we’re bound, we are in a hurry. We climb out of the gorge and follow a reindeer trail into the fog. We cross a field of moss-covered boulders standing on their ends like dominos, as if children of the gods have lined them up to knock them down. They are spaced in perfect intervals and we move across their crowns. We cross a stream and find ourselves in front of a steep snow bank. Volodya turns but says nothing. He takes his first few steps slowly to command my attention. He duck-walks up the slope on his instep, knees pointed uphill. This is the most snow we’ve seen. We reach the top and lift ourselves over large boulders, fishing rods in our teeth, to meet more tundra. Stop, says Volodya. Wait.

The sun burns a hole in the clouds and electrifies the fog, Volodya a silhouette lit by silver fairy dust. There, he whispers. See? We sprint down a trail and stop abruptly. There, he whispers again. There are two reindeer moving in front of us, giant tawny creatures. They are in motion and I catch only a glimpse. But this is all I want. Shrouded in fog, they are part of the magical Kola, where a former spetznats and a young occidental move together silently along ancient roads.

 

When we hear the rotors’ whine we are fishing a deep channel where the wide river narrows between two gentle cliff faces. The sun, although still behind the clouds, has warmed the air enough to drive away much of the fog. I am standing on a promontory casting a Blue Charm for salmon.

Volodya stops fishing and listens. I look at him and he shakes his head, a signal I interpret to keep fishing. The helicopter’s whine grows louder, then softens, then suddenly is the loudest we’ve heard it.

“Get down,” yells Volodya.

I don’t have time to reel in. I let the current bring my line to shore. I lay my rod down, the shiny silver face of the reel toward the tundra. I remove my red daypack and fall on it, my white hands underneath. I become a rock.

I do not need to see it, because I can feel it in my core. It is on top of me. I wonder if our reindeer feel it, if the tundra, too, feels this immense downward transmission of energy coupled with horrific clamor, this helplessness below seven tons of airborne hydraulics. The noise crescendos and passes.

“Move,” yells Volodya. I take in my line and move beneath a stand of dwarf birch closer to the cliff face. Volodya is silent. He is behind a rock listening for clues from the rotors’ whine. It becomes sharply louder and we see it crest the pass above the river’s far bank. It is an Mi-2, white, blue, and red: Russia’s flag on the tundra. It is visible only momentarily before disappearing behind the ridge.

Volodya looks at me and shrugs.

“I like this very much,” I tell him. “Like playing soldier.”

“Yes?” he says, smiling broadly. He seems pleasantly surprised that the westerner enjoys running from helicopters. I sense that I’m a step closer to his approbation.

The helicopter can no longer be heard, but Volodya does not move. He lights a cigarette. He asks about my family.

I tell him about my brother, the journalist. He wants to know how old my parents are, what my father does. While the conversation takes place in pidgin Russian, at least from my end, it is refreshing. It is said that Russians and Americans are quite similar, and I believe this in part. Denizens of big nations and of conquering nations share an openness and perhaps ignorant bravado. I’ve known Volodya only several days, but I know more about his spetsnaz career than I know about Gennadi’s exile or even Agu’s bleeding ear. Estonians, while certainly not afraid to ask about my family, often never ask, perhaps considering it a private topic. But Volodya is interested in family for family’s sake. He nods in approval. It seems to please his deep Russian soul that an American father and son also fish together.

We sit an entire hour, most of it in silence. Fog thickens then dissipates in the sun and wind. The helicopter is only a hint in the distance. We fish.

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On the return to Hilton II, we choose a path which conceals us against the landscape for the entire journey. We arrive at the camp on the opposite side of the stream from which we left, Volodya crouching for a brief moment before bolting across the stream, leaving me watching. There is a helicopter in the camp. Through the gorge and behind our tent rests the white, blue, and red Mi-2. The blue tent. I can hear Gennadi cursing it now.

I remove my coat and replace it over the red pack. I cross the stream and work my way to the poacher’s shack, careful to remain hidden. Shortly there is the sound of rotors, and I peek over a boulder to see the Mi-2 lift off and fly out toward the river, away from the shack.

Jaanus is outside the cabin, prone, taking pictures of the helicopter. Vallo, Andrusha, and Sasha are making their way back from the tent.

“Sorry,” Vallo says to Jaanus. “I did my best, but they took your rod.”

“How did they take it apart?” asks Jaanus.

“Carefully.” Vallo allays his fear.

“They must have really wanted us to fly in this fog,” says Jaanus.

“Yes,” says Vallo. “The pilot was bitching about it constantly.”

Sasha tells the tale. The inspector didn’t give a damn about our permits. The inspector’s boss is the one who issued us our permits. He didn’t give a damn about that either. He is either looking to extract a small bribe—or working freelance for the English.

Everyone is sure of the latter, because of the inspector’s parting words as he returned the permits: You paid too little for these privileges. Here the budget traveler has no place.

“I spoke English with the inspector,” says Vallo. This would be taken as insult, Vallo speaking Russian with Sasha and Andrusha in the inspector’s presence. It is to say: I speak Russian freely with my equals, but you are not among them. “They got my spinning rod, too,” he says. “Andrusha’s gear, as well.”

It’s Volodya’s turn, and he is angry. “This is your fault,” he points at Sasha. “You’re an inspector, too.”

“But it’s not my zone,” says Sasha.

“Then you should have knocked him down.”

I wonder if this means to strike him. And why not? It was a show of force from the inspector who was completely in the wrong, a man who lowered himself to the level of a common cipher, a bureaucrat with a helicopter. Why not knock him down?

But this is perhaps too much to ask of Sasha. He is not Volodya. He is not spetsnaz. He is a simple man who likes to shave his arm with a hunting knife. He was, until recently, an assistant to the chef in an English camp. But the chef was a Finn who liked to tip the bottle in the evenings. Sasha taught him to do it in the mornings, too, and they soon were both fired.

Of course, Volodya feels responsible himself. Had he been present, nothing would have happened. On previous trips to the tundra, inspectors had landed and confiscated gear. Volodya had allowed it in order for inspectors to save face, but a private conversation in the helicopter just before take-off always ensured the gear’s immediate return. There was never a bribe. Volodya is above money.

“You’ll get your gear back next week,” Volodya says. No one doubts this.

“Where is Agu?” Jaanus asks.

“Probably sleeping,” says Volodya. Agu has never come face to face with a helicopter. On a previous trip, when an inspector landed, Agu stayed hidden in the rocks, drew his hood tight against mosquitoes, and fell asleep until the rotors awakened him.

“Well, I hope he comes soon,” says Jaanus. “I’m hungry.”

 

***

Three rods confiscated, we are not beaten but decide to reassemble our group of nine. Hilton II did not yield salmon—Volodya is convinced they are not yet present in strength—and we are curious to know how Toomas and Gennadi fared. There is cold beer at the izbà, too.

A journey that took much of a day now takes a little over four hours. We walk a direct line, up steep ground and across wide marshes. The crowberry has torn at my boots for days, slowly removing the waxy waterproof layer. My feet are soaked. I need a campfire to dry them.

Gennadi and Toomas are where we left them, Gennadi drinking tea and Toomas outside in his sleeping bag next to the campfire. We drop our bags and listen.

The fishing has been good: big pike in the slack water, a few decent trout, too. Toomas is recovering: they needed to return to the izbà for food, and he became lost in the fog, making a two-hour journey eight. The helicopter paid a visit: it came from behind, lifting the campfire with it, and hovered over the river, the inspector glassing them for several minutes. Their rods were hidden inside the tent, and they sat around their missing fire and waved.

We share chocolate and smoked pike. They have a kettle of tea. I dry my boots and socks.

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Volodya wants to go, but Toomas says no. He’s in good spirits, but being lost in the fog took its toll, and he isn’t ready to move. Gennadi says that he and Toomas will meet us at the izbà tomorrow.

We continue to walk as the crow flies and we are there in two hours.

 

***

 

Twenty-four hours later we are together again. We are halfway into our trip, and some of the new has worn off. We fish less and drink more. Most have removed their watches. We sleep when we are tired.

I have lost weight, one hole on the belt. My legs ache but they are stronger. I haven’t bathed in five days. I stink but I don’t care.

We lounge in the Hilton drinking hot Jaeger rum. Only Agu is missing, asleep by the lake on his rock, rod in hand, a caddis fly afloat, waiting on a char. Gennadi has his shoes off and sits on the corner of a bunk talking about the weather. The barometric pressure has dropped, he says, which coupled with the clouds and cool air will either make the fishing better or worse—everyone tunes him out. He is a looped cassette, a never-ending nature walk.

“Gennadi,” I interrupt him. “Just why were you put on that island?” There is silence in the room. Everyone wants to know.

Gennadi is quiet.

“Did you think differently?” Jaanus joins the cause.

“I guess you could say I didn’t think like they did.”

“But what specifically,” I ask, “did you do?”

There is more silence. “It isn’t important,” says Gennadi, and leaves it at that.

My eyes meet Jaanus’ and he shakes his head, laughing. “Okay,” he says, “let’s wake up the cook.”

Inside the shack, feet are stomped in approval. The conversation switches to Russian. Volodya and Sasha join our little mob. We all want to eat, and we’re helpless without Agu.

We step outside the cabin.

“There he is,” says Toomas. Agu is supine on a distant rock, sleeping.

“We want to eat!” shouts Jaanus. Agu does not move.

“Who’ll go get him?” asks Vallo. Everyone shrinks at this question. It’s only four hundred meters to his rock, but no one will bother.

“Get the rifle,” says Volodya.

There is a chorus of encouragement. “Let me do it,” offers Gennadi.

Sasha takes a sitting position and sights over the top of the sleeping cook. “Hey,” cautions Vallo from behind.

“It’s okay,” says Jaanus. But it really isn’t. It’s a pretty dumb idea, even though I suspect Sasha isn’t completely in the bag. But I look at Volodya, and he seems unconcerned.

The rifle’s report echoes for several seconds. Agu raises his head. His face is a pale spot wrapped in a tightly drawn black hood.

Agu sees a man beat a spoon against an aluminum bowl chest-high like a tambourine. Eight men dance in front of a tarpaper shack, arms to the gray sky, a rifle in the hands of one.

 

 

____________________________________________

[i] From the Estonian book, Nii Őpetas Gunnar Aarma (translation: So Taught Gunnar Aarma), by Ingvar Luhaäär, ©2002 Tallinn Intuitiivteaduste Kool. Estonian-born Gunnar Aarma studied at Oxford, the Sorbonne, and was due to defend his PhD thesis at the University of Jena (Germany) in September of 1939. But Aarma crossed into Poland, and circumstances did not allow his return. Aarma was also a raja yogi (exam completed in Paris, 1938) and was sought out by Hemingway to help deal with the moral guilt he was suffering due to the consequences of the disobeyed order. Aarma suggested to Hemingway that he live near moving water year-round. In his interview with Luhaäär, Aarma claimed Hemingway did one better. He moved to Cuba and bought a house on a beach where the sound of the waves could be heard from distances as great as 10 kilometers.

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