2015: Most & Least Read

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A barn in Ust-Sobolevka. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

This is my 40th post in the last 12 months; a year’s-end offering of 2015’s most- and least-read stories.

1. Least Read: A Graveyard of Rust. This was my first post ever, in January 2015, which garnered a mere 26 views! These 100 words about Ust-Sobolevka, one of the most remote villages I’ve ever visited in Russia, are worth a second look.

2. Most Read: A Nutritious Meal. This story, about a long drive and a very questionable can of meat, was a lot of fun to write. And I am happy to report I did not contract trichinosis as a result.

Thanks for a good year and here’s hoping for more of the same in 2016.

 

An Optimistic Turtle

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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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A Quiet Field

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The last remnant of Ulun-ga. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

In 2006, while searching the remote Maksimovka River floodplain for Blakiston’s fish owls, I was surprised to stumble upon a vast, grassy clearing cut from the forest. A weathered grey house, nestled among the bright green grasses of spring, stood at the center of this expanse. My local companion explained that this clearing was once filled with houses—the village of Ulun-ga—and the structure before us was its last vestige.

I learned that Ulun-ga had been a community of Old Believers; followers of a branch of Russian Orthodoxy that moved to the remote forests of Primorye from western Russia to practice their religion unimpeded. Scores of Old Believers settled these hills in the first decades of the 20th century; at one point there were at least thirty-five Old Believer settlements in northern Ternei County alone.

What happened to them, and what happened to Ulun-ga? Continue reading