The Soundtrack of a Russian Woodsman

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Andrei Katkov on the Tunsha River, Winter 2009. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

My colleagues in the Russian Far East are serious outdoorsmen; individuals who scavenge meat from dead animals, remain unwashed for days or weeks, stand stock-still to endure bluff charges from bears and tigers, and react resolutely when such attacks turn out to be more than feigned.

I sometime wonder, if life were film, what music would trail these men. A fitting soundtrack might be raw and acoustic; a lo-fi recording of light-fingered guitarists and rhythmic stomping that lofts sawdust from floorboards underfoot. Or perhaps something heavier: a grinding wave of rusty industrial noise to highlight the rough edges of this place.

In reality, there is an arresting dichotomy between my gruff Russian companions and the music they select to augment their travel experiences. On long rides churning through mud and skirting cliffs against backdrops of magnificent mountains and twisting rivers, they actively choose to listen to what I would expect to hear at a middle-school dance party instead.

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The Pine Nut Wars

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The business of pine nuts is a serious one.

I spoke with a conservation inspector last year, the fellow singly responsible for enforcing wildlife and natural resource law across all of Ternei County–an area larger than Massachusetts–in northern Primorye, Russia. He recounted his experiences in 2008, a year when the pine forests yielded an atypically productive harvest of cones packed with commercially-valuable pine nuts. People fell over themselves to profit from this bounty, and the inspector animatedly recalled numerous skirmishes fought over the resource.

In one case, a band of Chinese shishkari (pine nut collectors) were robbed of their harvest by Russian competitors from the village of Malaya Kema, men who stumbled upon the Chinese camp and its neatly-organized sacks of cones while their owners were in the forest collecting more. The Chinese men returned to find their hoard missing, rushed out in pursuit, and were almost surprised they found the robbers so quickly. They rounded a curve in the forest road to see the Russians cursing and smoking and bent under the hood of their truck. Their get-away vehicle had selected an untimely moment to break down. The Russian thieves were beaten with sticks and the stolen cones triumphantly reclaimed. The Chinese victory was short lived, however. The Kema men fixed their truck, returned to their village to rally compatriots, and descended on the Chinese camp with rifles. The Chinese team decided against the indignity of burial in hastily-dug graves in the Russian wilderness; opting instead to cede the forest and leave their aromatic treasures behind.

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A Nutritious Meal

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In autumn 2014 I found myself in a pickup truck on an overgrown forest road in northern Primorye with a biologist and a hunter; it was long after dark and we were far from where we needed to be. I knew of a cabin nearby, on the bank of the Maksimovka River, where we could get a few hours of sleep before continuing on. The biologist was behind the wheel and I advised him that we head that way.

It was well past midnight when we opened the cabin door to reveal a cold, single room. The biologist started the wood stove for heat and dinner while the hunter found an empty bucket and headed into the darkness toward the sound of the river for water. The stove resisted an easy light as the firewood was freshly cut and still full of moisture; it hissed in protest and burned grudgingly. Eventually the biologist coaxed a pot of water to boil and began to cook rice. Next, he dripped some oil into a pan and added a sliced onion.

The hunter meanwhile removed an unlabeled tin from his backpack and sunk his knife into its yielding surface. With a ratcheting motion he revealed the can’s contents: cooked meat of some kind, which he said was bear. When the rice was nearly ready, the hunter shook the bear meat into the pan of caramelized onion with a few brisk flicks of his wrist. I asked him where he acquired the meat. He replied that a brown bear had repeatedly raided some apiaries near Ternei, smashing hives and causing a nuisance, and he had been tasked with shooting the offending beast. The biologist then added that he’d examined the bear carcass for trichinosis—the parasitic disease that can cause one’s eyes to bleed—and noted that he’d never seen a more infected animal than that one.

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