The Fragility of Field Plans

Sometimes your truck makes it across the frozen river, and sometimes it doesn’t. Photograph courtesy Anton Gabrielson

When our truck broke through the ice of the Funtovka River, it nearly sank the 2012 field season.

The river wasn’t particularly deep, maybe four feet at that spot, but the open water was a sufficient barrier to prevent the rest of our caravan—a pickup truck and a snowmobile—from following suit. The truck, a formidable Kamaz, scraped back to shore among shrieks of metal grinding through ice, leaving a splintered bumper and shattered headlights to float slowly downstream in the slushy water.

It was nearly dark and we’d been on the road all day. Defeated, we doubled back and found a spot out of the wind where we cleared some snow and set camp. We had everything we needed to be here for up to a month of winter fieldwork: sacks of rice, potatoes, pasta, and cans of meat. The river would provide drinking water and fish.

From here to the Ugolnaya River some forty miles west was a selection of transects that we intended to walk daily, counting fresh deer and wild boar tracks in the snow to estimate their abundance. The original plan was to set up camp about twenty miles further down this old logging road—in the middle of the study area—and drive the pickup truck or snowmobile out to our transects each day.

But now, by punching a hole in the Funtovka River, we had blocked our only path forward. Nothing could cross here until the river refroze, and it would be a while—maybe more time than we had—before the ice could bear the significant load of the Kamaz. Packing wood into the Kamaz’s stove, we went to sleep. I’d worry about next steps in the morning.

Continue reading “The Fragility of Field Plans”

By Chance: Food & Shelter

A hunter cabin in northern Primorye, Russia. Photograph (c) Jonathan C. Slaght

The latest from my Scientific American blog, East of Siberia:

North of Ternei, in the province of Primorye where I conduct most of my research, there are no hotels and no restaurants. There are barely even people. There are only a half-dozen small settlements: logging towns or subsistence villages that are remote islands of humanity scattered broadly across a rolling sea of mountain and forest. When I travel to this wilderness it’s usually in a huge truck that doubles as a cabin, a hulking diesel we pack tightly with food and other supplies and assume it’s enough to sustain us. We have to make do with what we bring and count on local contacts if we’re ever in a pinch.

However, sometimes I travel north when an unexpected opportunity presents itself and do not have the luxury of planning ahead and massing supplies. In those cases, I’m especially vulnerable to the whims of the road and am truly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

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A Kettle of Firewood

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.