When Vladimirovich and I reached the Losevka River, we drove along a narrow logging road contouring the waterway and found a flat, clear spot to set camp on the riverbank. It was late May 2006, and we were toward the end of a multi-week excursion looking for Blakiston’s fish owls in the remote corners of northern Primorye.
I went to the river for some water to boil tea while Vladimirovich began preparing lunch. The first thing he removed from the pickup truck was a cooler: an average sized, light blue model with aluminum trimming that he seemed convinced had magical properties. Earlier that spring it had performed admirably by keeping perishable items like meat and cheese cool. But now, in the heat and humidity of early summer, it could do little to prevent mold from forming on the items we stored within. Regardless, Vladimirovich was stubborn in his belief that this supernatural box would preserve food for long periods of time without refrigeration.
As it turned out, we’d set our tents fairly close to an isolated logging camp. The watchman, a hefty, bored individual named Pasha, heard our truck arrive and ambled down the dirt road to our tents. We offered him a spot on one of the stumps we’d arranged around the campfire, and invited him to share some food and tea. As we got to talking the conversation at one point meandered to Ternei, a village some four hundred kilometers south and the site of the closest hospital. Pasha said he’d last traveled there years ago, for a medical evaluation of a chronic condition. While at the hospital he’d been convinced by the intoxicated doctor to have his appendix removed.
“When he stepped out the nurses hissed that I was crazy, that I should get up and leave before he killed me, but I was already there, you know? So he did it, and that’s how I got this.” He raised his shirt to show me a gargantuan appendix scar. “One less thing I have to worry about.”
Meanwhile, Vladimirovich had been inspecting our food. He removed a long stick of sausage from the cooler, which he held aloft by two fingers and scrutinized with a wrinkled nose. Pasha looked on skeptically. When Vladimirovich deemed the sausage fit for human consumption and rubbed it with warm water to rinse off some of the mold, Pasha voiced dissent:
“I’m not sure that sausage is safe to eat,” protested the man who allowed a drunk doctor to remove his appendix in a spontaneous and unnecessary surgery. “It’s been really hot and that meat has probably gone bad.”
Vladimirovich dismissed him. “It’s fine,” he said, pointing to his blue wonder agape and airing, its silver band shimmering in the hot afternoon sun.
“We have a cooler.”
Note: this text is excerpted and adapted from my 100,000 word, forthcoming book on the wonders of fish owl fieldwork in Russia.