If the Blakiston’s fish owls that live in the Tunsha River valley were trying to make it difficult to reach their nest tree, they knew what they were doing. Although it’s only a kilometer’s walk east from the road to the massive, rotting Japanese poplar they call home—a straight shot across the floodplain—it’s easily the hardest to access of the dozen sites I monitor. One has to cross three of the four Tunsha River channels, which are often unfrozen in winter, with each waterway buffered from the others by an intricate maze of bushes, vines, hidden logs, and thorny plants. I’ve given up trying to find an easy passage through—rather I tuck my head and plow straight on—each visit an exercise in breaking falls, ripping pants, and extracting thorns from my hands and legs.
On this particular trip my objective was to discover if the fish owls had chosen to nest; not something this species does every year. I shuffled through the forest on wide, short hunter skis—what Russians use here instead of snowshoes—snagging them on half-buried shrubs and catapulting myself at odd angles into the deep and heavy snow. The sky was almost the same shade as the ground that day; an ominous, greyish-white pillow that settled In to suffocate the valley and obscure the mountains on either side. I approached the nest tree and found the cavity itself full of snow: no nesting this year.
I turned back as a storm began, a timid offering at first but with increasing resolve as I backtracked my trail through knotted vines and poking branches. The snow then fell from the milky sky in heavy volleys, coaxed into escalation by an increasingly rabid wind.
The elements continued to goad each with outbursts, first one then the other, until joining forces in transition to a full-on blizzard. I made my way in retreat, my trail now buried, shielding my face from the disorienting frenzy of bowing branches, slapping snow, and swirling wind. In a Korean pine grove about halfway across a gale gusted with such bristling power that it seemed like the snow was hitting me from every direction at once. Then, one of my skis cracked. With no recourse I threw the pair over my shoulder, cinched my hood, and with near-zero visibility followed my compass west with labored, halting steps.