An Optimistic Turtle

Inside the yurt, 2015 Maksimovka Field Season. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

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.

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Paranoia at Myaolin

Chinese hunters and trappers in Primorye, Russia, early 20th Century. Photograph by Vladimir Arsenyev.

Toward the end of “Across the Ussuri Kray,” a book written by the explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, there is a description from 1906 of a cabin in Primorye, Russia. Called Myaolin and inhabited by an elderly Chinese man, it was famous for its moonshine. The Chinese and native Udege hunters all across the vast Iman River basin offered meat, pelts, and ginseng in trade for the grain alcohol distilled there. Myaolin was one of the oldest cabins in the region; the old man had settled that place some fifty years prior when the territory was still part of China.

By the time Arsenyev stumbled up to Myaolin it was early winter and it was dark. The Russian was cold and weary; he and his team were achingly close to the  end of a six-month expedition to explore that region’s wilderness. All they wanted was a dry, warm place to rest before pressing their calloused feet to the trail once more.

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