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.