A section of the Ternei-Amgu road one month after the September 2014 flood. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared on 16 March, 2016 on Scientific American.


Amgu, like many of the small, sparsely-scattered coastal villages of Russia’s northern Primorye, faces whimsies of nature on a regular basis that few of us would care to experience. Life is tenuous, uncertain, boom-and-bust. When there’s a fire, Amgu burns. When there’s a flood, Amgu drowns. But when Korean pines drop their pine nuts to feed deer and boar, and salmon ply the rivers to spawn, the people of Amgu have meat on their tables and racks of fish drying in their sheds.

I traveled to Amgu in October 2014, a month after a leviathan flood ravaged the region with waters rushing impatiently to the Sea of Japan. I had business in the northern villages and tagged along with two biologists driving that way. Their goal was to recruit local hunters to assist in a 2015 range-wide Amur tiger population survey by recording any tiger tracks they found in the snow.

The three of us left the village of Ternei early enough that the pre-dawn autumn frost cemented the mud and improved surface integrity along the only road north. This narrow path of crushed rock and dirt served as the sole terrestrial link between Amgu and the outside world.

Our trip had been delayed a few weeks because of the aforementioned September flood. A key bridge needed to be rebuilt and Amgu had been wholly cut off during that time. Most of the drive was routine but all semblance of order deteriorated after we crossed the Sikhote-Alin divide and descended the Amgu River basin.

The river had surged its banks to covetously occupy the space the road once had. The only reason we were on dry land at all was because the logging company based in Amgu had thrown everything it had over the past month to wrestle some of the valley back from the river. We bumped along a deeply-pitted track barely wide enough for our vehicle; sometimes weaving among mesas of the destroyed road and heaving through recently-birthed river channels.

When we finally reached Amgu I looked at my watch. What was typically a four-hour drive had stretched to seven. The village, always sleepy, seemed more haggard than usual: I saw a woman’s dress draped in a tree, a plastic toy bulldozer abandoned in a field, and a chair wedged atop a fence.

We stopped at the home of a local hunter, who pointed to a waist-high brown line on his front door marking the September flood water’s upper limit. Until then, I hadn’t realized the flood had actually penetrated the village, and the debris I’d spotted as we drove through town suddenly made sense.

The smartly-dressed, articulate man pointed to soft couches and chairs stacked and airing on a wooden palate in the yard. The woodshed and the banya (or ‘sauna’) were both askew from their foundations and a wishing well painted a hopeful green was tipped on its side. Several panels of a metal fence surrounding the property were bent towards the sea as though bowed in deference.

The hunter took us inside and recounted the flood. At midnight, the sounds of water and his screaming wife jolted him awake. Wading through the knee-high water, he burst outside to assess the situation.

There, the powerful current pulled him across the yard, slamming his body against the shuttering woodshed. Battered by debris, the hunter crawled up into the woodshed’s eaves, where he remained perched until morning. His wife weathered the flood atop the refrigerator in the kitchen, with their grandson crammed into a cubby in the adjacent cabinet.

“The shed was like a kettle of boiling firewood,” the hunter recalled. “Quartered logs were swirling, rising, falling. One of the dogs saw me and swam to the shed, but she simply couldn’t gain the footing to pull herself out. Every log she tried to hold onto sank under her weight. By the time I could reach her she had already drowned.”

After some tea the biologists explained what was needed of the hunter during the tiger survey. He did not need to do anything different or special, but if during the course of the hunting season he happened upon a tiger track, he was asked to mark the spot on a map provided and note the date. The hunter agreed and we moved on to the next village. But the matter-of-factness with which the hunter recounted the horrific flood stayed with me.

I understood later that in the context of Amgu’s boom-and-bust cycle the hunter’s reaction made sense: he was accustomed to life here. The flood was without question a catastrophe, but he will dry out his sofa, knock the banya back onto its foundation, and his surviving hunting dogs will breed new pups. The hunter will rebuild, knowing from experience that some unexpected bounty is just over the horizon.

Such is life here.

Shurik draws water from a thawing river channel. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared 01 March, 2016 on Scientific American

Despite nearly twenty years of experience in the Russian Far East, I unambiguously remain an outsider here. I am clumsy on backcountry skis, I’m a terrible fisherman, and I am unable to repair a vehicle with scraps I found lying about (or at all).

These are glaring character flaws among the outdoorsmen of the region; the men and women who populate the few villages scattered among the mountains of pine and oak in the province of Primorye. But in my time working here to conserve Blakiston’s fish owls, Amur tigers, and other animals, I’ve forged ties with locals who love the wilderness here with the same focused determination I do. These biologists, hunters, and fishermen have made me feel welcome; we work together to keep this place wild. And by now my shortcomings are largely ignored.

The purpose of this blog series is to shed light on this little-known corner of the world by offering short vignettes of wildlife, fieldwork, and life in this land of breathless beauty.

The story that follows is from the 2009 winter field season, when my Russian partners and I camped out along the Saiyon River in northern Primorye, just a few kilometers from the western shores of the Sea of Japan.

We spent nearly two weeks there watching the resident pair of Blakiston’s fish owls hunt for salmon and trout in the clear waters. These stout, enormous birds would wait in ambush along the riverbank then lunge into the shallow water with outstretched wings and a surprisingly delicate pounce.

Our goal was to observe the behavior of both the resident male and the resident female; but as each bird had its own preferred hunting spot at different sections of river, we set up two different observation blinds. I usually manned the downriver Saiyon blind where the female hunted, one reason being that I preferred the solitude. The upriver blind was closer to our main camp, an industrial-sized Kamaz truck with a custom-built two-room living compartment secured to the flatbed.

Given that nights dipped to the mid-minus thirties Celsius, those working out of the upriver blind usually succumbed to the temptation of the wood-heated sleeping quarters in the truck for rest once fish owl observations ceased. The drawback of this warmth was the crowd; a human sardine can of sleeping bags, snoring biologists, and the pervasive stench of the long-unbathed.

I welcomed the quiet of the lower Saiyon blind where, alone a kilometer from camp and wrapped in a sleeping bag and sipping warm tea, I would watch the female owl fish via remote infrared camera then tuck deeper into my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep once she disappeared.

Another, perhaps less romantic reason for preferring the downriver blind was the fact that a series of radon hot springs flowed into the Saiyon River close to the upper blind. This meant that any drinking water collected near there was, well, radioactive. At least at the downriver blind this radiation was diluted by a kilometer of gurgling river.

Our time at Saiyon saddled the winter-spring divide, with snow and ice melting measurably by the day. One afternoon toward the end of our stay I approached my regular ice hole by the downriver blind to find it considerably expanded by the spring thaw. Now visible, just a meter or two upstream of where I’d been collecting my drinking water for the last week-and-a-half, was the twisted carcass of a drowned roe deer. It had clearly been there all winter.

A low, guttural noise of abject repulsion escaped my throat. Which was worse: radiation water or dead deer water?

I moved a bit upstream and dipped my cup.