When I conduct fish owl and tiger research along the Maksimovka River in northern Primorye, I’m typically with a small crew of researchers living in an encampment a hundred kilometers from the closest town. The hunters that spend the season along the Maksimovka River are our neighbors; a half-dozen men sparsely scattered throughout the river valley. They act as a critical lifeline by disclosing news about impeding storms as they pass by our camp, by sharing meat, and by adding extra muscle should a truck slide off the road.
At the same time, I’m often hesitant to engage these hunters too much. Over-familiarity can lead to foggy bouts of vodka and arm wrestling; distractions that crowd the already-tight field season schedule.
Last winter was similar to past field seasons; we’d heave ourselves up and down the steep slopes of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains counting tiger prey numbers during the day, then patrol the river bottoms for fish owls at night. Overnight temperatures flirted with the minus thirties, and the only real option for bathing was a shallow, open stretch of the Maksimovka River. Needless to say, everybody stank after a few weeks.
I’d resisted an invitation from a hunter across the river to use his banya (or sauna) to freshen up and soak in some heat. The cabin watchman there, who everyone called “Turtle,” was a serious alcoholic with leathery skin and a mouth lacking a notable number of teeth. Drinking was usually an implied component of a banya invitation–especially when Turtle was involved. He sensed this trepidation with my repeated refusals and eventually asked only for a carton of cigarettes in return.
When it’s minus twenty and you can smell your own stink, it’s time to bathe. I finally accepted the invitation.
We trekked to the frozen river as a team; the Russians lingering there to dip their lines into a loose concentration of ice holes and await their turn in the banya. I continued on with the two foreign volunteers, a couple, and explained the banya ritual to them. Then, I left the volunteers to their business and walked to the cabin to thank our host. I’d wash with the Russians when the couple was through.
I handed Turtle the carton of cigarettes he asked for. Nodding gratefully, he ripped open a pack and invited me to sit for tea.
“So,” he started somewhat tentatively, after we’d covered some other pleasantries: “what’s the story with those two?”
“Not sure what you mean,” I said; completely understanding what he meant. I’d seen him stare at the dark-skinned female who entered the banya, and peer quizzically at the skinny fellow that accompanied her.
“Are they married?”
“No,” I responded.
“But are they…together?”
“Dammit!” He swore and pushed back from his seat, scowling at the bearer of this bad news. Apparently, this middle-aged recluse alcoholic nicknamed “Turtle” had been cautiously optimistic about his chances with the exotic foreigner from across the river.
We drank our tea without speaking. My eyes explored the cabin and Turtle mulled this fresh and tragic information. Then, he saw a possible opening:
“But how serious is their relationship?”