Clean Water & Healthy Living

Shurik draws water from a thawing river channel. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared 01 March, 2016 on Scientific American

Despite nearly twenty years of experience in the Russian Far East, I unambiguously remain an outsider here. I am clumsy on backcountry skis, I’m a terrible fisherman, and I am unable to repair a vehicle with scraps I found lying about (or at all).

These are glaring character flaws among the outdoorsmen of the region; the men and women who populate the few villages scattered among the mountains of pine and oak in the province of Primorye. But in my time working here to conserve Blakiston’s fish owls, Amur tigers, and other animals, I’ve forged ties with locals who love the wilderness here with the same focused determination I do. These biologists, hunters, and fishermen have made me feel welcome; we work together to keep this place wild. And by now my shortcomings are largely ignored.

The purpose of this blog series is to shed light on this little-known corner of the world by offering short vignettes of wildlife, fieldwork, and life in this land of breathless beauty.

The story that follows is from the 2009 winter field season, when my Russian partners and I camped out along the Saiyon River in northern Primorye, just a few kilometers from the western shores of the Sea of Japan.

We spent nearly two weeks there watching the resident pair of Blakiston’s fish owls hunt for salmon and trout in the clear waters. These stout, enormous birds would wait in ambush along the riverbank then lunge into the shallow water with outstretched wings and a surprisingly delicate pounce.

Our goal was to observe the behavior of both the resident male and the resident female; but as each bird had its own preferred hunting spot at different sections of river, we set up two different observation blinds. I usually manned the downriver Saiyon blind where the female hunted, one reason being that I preferred the solitude. The upriver blind was closer to our main camp, an industrial-sized Kamaz truck with a custom-built two-room living compartment secured to the flatbed.

Given that nights dipped to the mid-minus thirties Celsius, those working out of the upriver blind usually succumbed to the temptation of the wood-heated sleeping quarters in the truck for rest once fish owl observations ceased. The drawback of this warmth was the crowd; a human sardine can of sleeping bags, snoring biologists, and the pervasive stench of the long-unbathed.

I welcomed the quiet of the lower Saiyon blind where, alone a kilometer from camp and wrapped in a sleeping bag and sipping warm tea, I would watch the female owl fish via remote infrared camera then tuck deeper into my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep once she disappeared.

Another, perhaps less romantic reason for preferring the downriver blind was the fact that a series of radon hot springs flowed into the Saiyon River close to the upper blind. This meant that any drinking water collected near there was, well, radioactive. At least at the downriver blind this radiation was diluted by a kilometer of gurgling river.

Our time at Saiyon saddled the winter-spring divide, with snow and ice melting measurably by the day. One afternoon toward the end of our stay I approached my regular ice hole by the downriver blind to find it considerably expanded by the spring thaw. Now visible, just a meter or two upstream of where I’d been collecting my drinking water for the last week-and-a-half, was the twisted carcass of a drowned roe deer. It had clearly been there all winter.

A low, guttural noise of abject repulsion escaped my throat. Which was worse: radiation water or dead deer water?

I moved a bit upstream and dipped my cup.