The Fragility of Field Plans

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Sometimes your truck makes it across the frozen river, and sometimes it doesn’t. Photograph courtesy Anton Gabrielson

When our truck broke through the ice of the Funtovka River, it nearly sank the 2012 field season.

The river wasn’t particularly deep, maybe four feet at that spot, but the open water was a sufficient barrier to prevent the rest of our caravan—a pickup truck and a snowmobile—from following suit. The truck, a formidable Kamaz, scraped back to shore among shrieks of metal grinding through ice, leaving a splintered bumper and shattered headlights to float slowly downstream in the slushy water.

It was nearly dark and we’d been on the road all day. Defeated, we doubled back and found a spot out of the wind where we cleared some snow and set camp. We had everything we needed to be here for up to a month of winter fieldwork: sacks of rice, potatoes, pasta, and cans of meat. The river would provide drinking water and fish.

From here to the Ugolnaya River some forty miles west was a selection of transects that we intended to walk daily, counting fresh deer and wild boar tracks in the snow to estimate their abundance. The original plan was to set up camp about twenty miles further down this old logging road—in the middle of the study area—and drive the pickup truck or snowmobile out to our transects each day.

But now, by punching a hole in the Funtovka River, we had blocked our only path forward. Nothing could cross here until the river refroze, and it would be a while—maybe more time than we had—before the ice could bear the significant load of the Kamaz. Packing wood into the Kamaz’s stove, we went to sleep. I’d worry about next steps in the morning.

We woke to a blizzard and two men approaching camp. With fifty miles and two mountain passes between us and the closest town, their appearance was unexpected. They were hunters, they said, and their vehicle was stranded in the Funtovka River. They needed our help to pull it out.

We approached the river in the pickup truck amidst swirling snow to find a swath of slush cut through the ice, meandering from the far bank and following the same route where the Kamaz had gone through the previous evening.

At the end of this trail, facing us and jammed awkwardly against some unyielding ice, languished a beat up Toyota Land Cruiser. The impotent vehicle was only a few yards away from a successful crossing when the engine had apparently flooded with water and quit. It sat in the river under a cap of snow, demoralized and silent, as the waters of the Funtovka flowed around it.

“I don’t understand,” said one of the men, “we crossed earlier yesterday and the ice was fine. When we drove back before dawn this morning we went through almost immediately. We gunned for the bank but didn’t make it.”

I exchanged a quiet glance with my companions. The ice had probably just started to refreeze after the Kamaz broke it when these two tried to cross. Masked by the darkness and fresh snow, they had no reason to think the ice had been compromised. It did not seem relevant to acknowledge our role in precipitating their current predicament so I let the moment pass without comment.

We eased the pickup to the ice edge and released the winch, which the younger of the two stranded hunters attached to the front bumper of the Land Cruiser by leaping onto it from the river bank. For the next thirty minutes there was pulling and swearing and shoveling, all under a wet, heavy snowfall.

As the Land Cruiser groaned towards the bank on a taut winch someone noticed that the front axle had snapped: this river crossing had been its last. The mission shifted now from one of rescue to one of salvage. When the vehicle was finally pulled free, the men stripped what they could from it with unemotional matter-of-factness, and abandoned it where it stood. They thanked us for our effort and started walking toward town.

Back at camp, I began thinking about how to access our field sites. I quickly dismissed the feasibility of reaching our furthest transects, as no matter how we looked at it eighty miles round trip on foot wasn’t possible. We would focus on the closest sites, and spent the next few weeks walking up to thirty miles a day in the snow.

The team would start each morning in the pre-dawn darkness; crossing a log that spanned the Funtovka to walk all day, collect our data, and return to camp often after sunset. Roe deer, elk, and wild boar ran from us as we crunched though the snow. One boar—a huge male with scythes for tusks—didn’t flush as most did and assessed me coolly as I passed.

Another thing that stood its ground was the forsaken Land Cruiser—there to see us off each morning and welcome us home in the evening; an austere monument and constant reminder of the fragility of field plans, and the need for flexibility, in this dynamic landscape.

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This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.

Russian translation of this post, courtesy of Katya Nikolaeva, is available.

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