This text was originally published 13 October, 2014 as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView Photo Blog series.
It was the depths of winter in the southern Russian Far East, and I was making my way through the soft whiteness and open forest towards the Avvakumovka River on a morning hike. I stumbled over an unseen obstacle along the way; a log I assumed, but when I looked down was taken aback. There was a frozen salmon peeking out of the snow. I stared at it curiously. I was at least half a mile from the river: why had I just kicked a salmon? I continued on.
When I reached the river I understood. There were countless fish carcasses visible in the patches of open water; the remnants of a massive keta salmon run that had ascended the Avvakumovka River the autumn prior. And there were eagles everywhere: mostly white-tailed sea eagles, but also Steller’s sea eagles and the occasional golden eagle. They fought like siblings over the salmon carcasses: one bird would rise into the air with a dead fish, and three more would chase it. Occasionally a salmon was lost in the struggle, spiraling earthward and snagging in the fingers of forest canopy before reaching the ground.
By the end of that morning hike I had discovered a total of three salmon carcasses hanging from the trees; rags of bone twitching in the breeze.
This text was originally published 04 February, 2015 as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView Photo Blog series.
Raccoon dogs are quirky beasts. Despite sharing an uncanny resemblance to the raccoons of North America they are in fact true dogs, and represent the surviving line of an ancient lineage now otherwise extinct. Given this distinctive pedigree, raccoon dogs exhibit behaviors atypical of other, more modern dogs and are unique among canids in their propensity to hibernate in winter. They also climb trees. Raccoon dogs are native to East Asia where they forage under cover of darkness and thicket eating just about anything they can, from berries to birds to fish.
This particular raccoon dog had been found as a small pup; alone and shivering next to the road on the outskirts of the village of Ternei in the southern Russian Far East. She was brought inside, warmed and fed, and over time grew too tame to safely release back into the wild. Rather, she became part of the family. Her love of fish became evident as, instead of hibernating in winter, she would accompany her human foster mother on ice fishing trips to the mouth of the Serebryanka River. Here, the brazen raccoon dog would snap up the flopping smelt pulled one after another from the darkness of an ice hole, while adjacent fishermen huddled on their tackle boxes, jiggled their lines, and stared at the spectacle with mouths agape.
This cabin in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, called Ust-Prokhodnaya, is not an easy place to get to. It is twenty-five kilometers down an overgrown wisp of a trail that first crosses the Sikhote-Alin divide then follows the flow of the Kolumbe River west, all the while weaving through an expansive larch bog. I arrived at Ust-Prokhodnaya drenched by sweat, caked in mud, and drawing a pulsing cloud of biting insects behind me through the warm afternoon air.
This is a lonely part of the reserve that sees humans a scant handful of times a year, and the tiger tracks I passed by the river and the bear skull closer to the cabin only underscored the wildness of that place. Consequently, I was taken aback when I pried the cabin door open and locked eyes with a man inside. He was sitting on a bench by the wood stove, clutching a rifle firmly on his lap. There was a brief, awkward pause—silent save the trills of lanceolated warblers outside—and then he lunged.
His motion, as it turned out, was more towards me than at me, and he leveled a hunched shoulder to push me aside then bolt for the forest. He disappeared among the green tangles of young larch on the far side of the clearing.
He was a poacher, and had been attracted to Ust-Prokhodnaya for the same reason I had: the nearby Kaplanov mineral licks. This natural phenomenon is a series of clearings concealed among the damp forest; open fields of thick, nutrient-laden mud that entice deer, elk, and moose. I was there to catch a glimpse of one of these animals; he was there to take home some meat.
That evening the sky opened to produce one of those summer rains that makes you get up, open the door, and silently absorb the sights, sounds, and aroma of the unfolding spectacle. As I watched puddles swell with water then spill into each other to form an ephemeral stream, I thought about the poacher. He was out there somewhere—this place was too remote for him to have escaped the storm—and he was likely huddled under a cliff lip or maybe a fallen tree, trying to stay dry and cursing his luck. Neither of us had found the solitude we expected from Ust-Prokhodnaya.