Siberia's Reindeer Herders
Russia's Reindeer Herders: The Vanishing Breed
In a forgotten corner of Russia, a little-known group of reindeer herders still lives by the old ways, shifting nomadically with the seasons. It is a life from another century. The question is, how long can it last?
Text by Gretel Ehrlich Photography by Gordon Wiltsie
WAY OF THE NOMAD: Komi reindeer herder Piotr Terentév gives his team a breather while crossing the tundra.
Gordon wakes me. I had fallen asleep, even as we bumped over frozen tundra on sleds. How many hours had passed? We'd been traveling for days—by train from Moscow, helicopter from Arkhangel'sk, and now snowmobile from the village of Nizhnyaya Pesha in northwestern Russia. "I think we're here," Gordon says.
Photographer Gordon Wiltsie shows us a day
in the life of the nomadic Komi reindeer herders.
Watch the slide show >>
Dogs bark and come running. Ahead I see three large tepees with smoke curling from their topmost holes, four harnessed reindeer, and a group of men looking up to see who we are. One of them, a
man wearing dark glasses and a reindeer-skin tunic, hands me a piece of hard candy by way of greeting. His wide leather belt is decorated with bear teeth and bone cutouts of spruce trees. A scabbard hangs from two gold chains and swings with the weight of the knife sheathed inside. "We are Komi people," he says. He is Vasily, the leader, and he seems not to notice my confusion.
We had come to this part of Russia—somewhere between the Kanin Peninsula and the Yamal Peninsula—to join the Nenets, one of Russia's indigenous groups. They are an Asiatic people and tend to have almond eyes and black hair, far different from the Komi before us. These people are fair-haired with blue eyes and look like Russians. No one on our team had ever heard of them.
Vasily asks who we are. I say we are one Russian, one Alaskan Iñupiaq, and two white Americans, and that we've come to learn about the people of the reindeer. "In our long memory, we have never had foreign visitors," he tells us shyly. "But you are welcome to travel with us if it pleases you."
Somewhere nearby, the Komi's 2,500 reindeer are being readied to move. Camp is packed up in front of us. "We will be traveling tonight and every few days for the next weeks," Vasily says. "We are making our way to the place where the females will begin calving."
There's quiet excitement among our team of four: photographer Gordon Wiltsie, filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, translator and naturalist Andrei Volkov, and I. To have come upon people still living according to the old ways, traveling in every season in nomadic family groups, wearing skins, and driving reindeer sleds across the tundra is completely unexpected. Unlike many indigenous families that were collectivized and segregated into "reindeer brigades" during the Soviet period, these particular Komi were forgotten. "We are people who move," they say with easy smiles. We decide immediately to join them.
Only 12 hours earlier we began this wintry day south of the Barents Sea in the ecotone between taiga and tundra. Our cavernous helicopter had lost one of its ceiling panels. Electrical wires hung down almost touching our heads. We sat on hard benches for hours. There were no seat belts, no bathroom. One man—not of our team—with a vodka hangover vomited quietly into a bag.
Green to the south, white to the north, islands of spruce trees floated in close-cropped tundra; frozen bogs and waterways separated humps of moss and lichen and spread laterally as if to the ends of the Earth. Below us a filthy river bent back on itself, almost in half, like a mind that had been lost. To the west were the Solovetskiye Islands and the infamous prison camp upon which Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago had been based, and a few miles south was the labor camp where the poet Joseph Brodsky had been detained. Now, among reindeer sleds piled high with the Komi's belongings, the darkness of those Soviet days seems long gone. We are welcome here.
Andrei unfolds his satellite map on top of a sled as the men gather around to show him where we are. A finger points: 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Nizhnyaya Pesha, and across the Snopa River. Tomorrow, they tell us, we will travel north again.
The women of the camp drift over to our group. They are old, in their 70s, but vigorous; all adult Komi reindeer herders drive their own sleds. They tell us that they are four families: "Just old women and our sons—and one daughter," they say, laughing. "With a few married in, and two young helpers." They have no permanent residence, and most have no memory of ever having had one. They travel year-round with their herd. The route, comprising four pastures, goes from taiga to wet tundra, where north-flowing rivers and streams bleed into the Barents Sea.
Their possessions are packed on 84 sleds. Moving with the seasons and the weather, they live in large skin chums (pronounced "chooms"). They don't ride their reindeer as the Sakha people to the east do, but harness them to hand-carved wooden sleds. "We can't remember a time when we didn't live this way," Vasily says, and invites us into his chum for tea.
We duck through the canvas flap. Inside, Maria, Vasily's mother, is feeding the woodstove with split birch logs. She scoops snow into a pot to melt for tea. Another pot burbles with chunks of reindeer. Our welcome is not just tea and cookies but also stew with potatoes or pasta, wild berries, and bread.
We sit on skins laid over spruce boughs at a low table. Maria pushes plates of food toward us. "You've come a long way out of the sky—you must be hungry," she says.
The chum is spacious, 25 feet (8 meters) in diameter. Instead of the sacred pole used by the Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula, the practical Komi set their sheet metal woodstove in the center of the chum with a stovepipe thrust up through the open hole. Maria and Vasily, her youngest son at 45, sleep on one side; Piotr, the oldest son—he's 52—sleeps alone on the other.
Through the one window, snow-encrusted spruces sway and dogs are curled up on the seats of the sleds. It's early April and still wintry, with three feet (one meter) of hard snow on the ground. At 25 miles (40 kilometers) above the Arctic Circle, it's unusual to see trees. At the same latitude in Greenland or Arctic Canada there would be none, but this corner of northwestern Russia is warmed slightly by the Gulf Stream.
For Komi nomads, each year is one of frequent movement and harsh temperatures—30-below (-34 degrees Celsius) in winter, 90-above (32 degrees Celsius) in summer with ferocious bugs. They have reindeer to eat, and reindeer from which to make clothes and shelters, with usually enough animals to sell so they can buy what they need from nearby villages. Winter is spent in the taiga's mixed forests of birch and spruce; spring and fall are on the open tundra near the Barents coast. In the summer they move up to a low mountain that is mosquito free.
The men pore over our maps, speaking of features as most would a good friend. What I see is thousands of square miles of uninhabited land. "Who owns all this?" I ask. "I guess Putin does," Piotr, the leader's older brother, says, laughing. He's tall, gaunt, and voluble. "Yes, it must be his. There are Nenets to the east near Indiga, and Nenets to the west on the Kanin Peninsula, but here, no one but us and we are not many. You see, we have no wives, no children, and the old ones are dying out—our fathers are already gone." He pauses, looks around, then smiles: "In summer the main population is mosquitoes."
By the time we finish our tea and reindeer, it is twilight. Piotr lights the kerosene lamp hanging from his wooden carving of a man's face. "Why aren't any of you married?" I ask. Vasily and Piotr shake their heads: "No women want to live this way, out on the tundra with the oleni [reindeer] anymore," they say. There will be no new generation to carry on this group's reindeer-herding tradition.
Morning. Bands of pale light slide down the peeled spruce poles. There is reindeer under me, reindeer around me. I sleep soundly. Someone gets up and starts the fire. The stove wood crackles. Water boils. I sit up. Maria smiles: "Good morning," she says in Komi. She is fixing the usual breakfast of stewed berries, boiled reindeer meat, and bread.
It's moving day. Outside, thick fog rolls in. Rime ice hangs in trees, on sleds, and laces the net fence—a portable corral into which the reindeer will be herded. Piotr is splitting wood. He looks toward the horizon, a gray blank: His fellow Komi, he says, "are hunting for the reindeer. They're out there somewhere. But it's hard to find them in this weather."
We pack our things. Then the "village"—the three chums—is dismantled. Stick by stick, the hole to the sky is gone, the center stovepipe laid on the ground. The three spruce boughs at the entrance are stacked on top of a loaded sled. Both men and women unwind the canvas and skin coverings and pull them from the poles. Skin by skin, animal by animal—it takes 25 reindeer skins to cover one chum.
Today I have made two new friends: Katya, and a dog, Moo Moo. Katya is 38. Her mother, also named Maria, is 72. They live in the middle and largest of the three chums. While her mother makes tea, Katya explains that in their one chum, two separate families have lived for over 80 years in a space divided by only the pach—the woodstove in the center.
"At one time there were 20 of us living in this chum—and 16 of them were children," Katya says. Currently she and her two brothers live with their mother on the left side of the chum; five men live on the other side.
"What happens if someone doesn't get along?" I ask. She looks at me quizzically. "That never happens. If there's a problem, we talk it out among ourselves. If that doesn't work, we send them to a village for a short time."
Katya folds clothes and patiently helps her mother pack the kitchen: Porcelain cups go into a padded wooden box with a lid, plus the plates, spoons, forks. The belongings are loaded on a sled, then the walls of the chum come down and we stand exposed to the snowy world. The spruce poles are dragged away, the kitchen table is gone, and the ashes from the woodstove are dumped.
Somewhere out on the tundra are the two herds: the gelded reindeer used for pulling sleds, and the big herd of 2,500, which includes the breeding males and the females about to begin calving.
Reindeer hunting and husbandry has always been the traditional way of life for indigenous people of Arctic Russia, since tundra can support no other crop or animal. Biologists have put Russia's domesticated reindeer population at 1.2 million. It is estimated that there are between one and 1.5 million wild reindeer in the northern tundra regions of the country. At night these animals often come and steal tamed ones away.
Tundra, which comes from the Finnish tunturi, meaning "completely treeless heights," has peaty gley soil carrying continuous mats of mosses with patches of lichen, dwarf willows, sedges, berries, and Arctic flowers like saxifrage and dryas. But it is the lichens that nourish and sustain reindeer throughout the winter with their abundant "lichen starch," amino acids, and vitamins.
In turn, these tundra-adapted animals, both wild and tame, sustain the lives of many of Russia's northern peoples, from the Sami in the far northwest to the Chukchi in northeastern Siberia.
The fog that came in earlier has dropped to the ground, and it is almost impossible to see. Someone hears reindeer coming and yells, "Oleni!" The women, standing by their sleds, hurriedly pull on their malitsas, or skin dresses, and stuff the footbeds of their leggings with dried grass for insulation. They grab long prodding poles and rush to the corral. With their sewn-in hoods tightly framing their faces and fur mittens on their hands, they look like monastics from a bygone era.
The wait is long. The reindeer were near, but now they are gone. The women lean on their poles. The fog is a cold room that holds them now that the chums have been taken down. Hours go by. No one seems concerned that we will be making a late start. A fire is built and a pot of tea is placed over the open flame. A few chunks of reindeer meat are threaded on a stick, roasted, and passed around. The men joke about not having wives. "If we put TVs in the chums, then we could get women to live with us," forgetting that they have no electricity.
Shy Vasily, the leader, speaks up: "I will bring in a television next time we are near a village." Everyone laughs except Katya. She lives half the year in a town south of here and has seen the devastation caused by capitalism without a true democracy and by epidemic alcoholism. "We live better here than in the village," she says. "It has always been that way and will always be." When one of the men from her chum suggests building a casino in Nizhnyaya Pesha, Katya turns to him angrily: "If you play in the casino, I will kick you out of the chum."
Afternoon. Reindeer swarm over the hill. In the cold their panting breath spills out in plumes. The herder glides through the middle of the reindeer on his sled as if he were floating. Flanked on both sides, the animals flood into the corral with one of the dogs barking at their heels.
The roiling mass of animals pushes at the fence and the women lean in, holding the top edge of the net high. Antlers clack, brown noses stick up out of the scrum. One huge male rises from the crowd, pawing at the animal in front of him, and kicks Katya in the face. Tears come but she waves me away, indicating that she's alright.
Antlered heads rise and fall. Strips of velvet hang from broken tines. In the chaos of the corral, several animals drop antlers to the ground. The rime ice on the net jangles.
The men take turns going into the corral. They know each animal, which ones worked last and need a rest, which ones are fresh, which ones are young and need to be harnessed to an experienced animal. Soft ropes fly: A reindeer is caught and struggles backward. Another one is caught, and another, until half a dozen reindeer are tethered together and pulled from the moving mass.
Harnessing is slow, but no one ever looks hurried. Every member of the group drives a sled and pulls a caravan of packed sleds behind them. Each driver requires at least 15 reindeer: three or four to pull the first sled, then two more between each of the six or seven freight sleds.
It's late afternoon by the time we take off, but because it's April and we are above the Arctic Circle, there will be light well into the night. Katya and I share the front seat of her sled, really only big enough for one person, but we squeeze on. Her reindeer run at first and we bounce hard, then they slow to a trot. The dogs are tied to the sides of the sleds and run along happily. Puppies get to ride.
Katya's mother starts off in the lead, followed by Vasily's mother, Maria. They are strong drivers, and the sleds glide easily on the ice-covered ponds and over the purple and rust-colored hummocks. There's a forest of snow-flocked spruces on our right, but we're still out in the open. One meadow gives way to another. The going is slow. We seem to be in another century: traveling in a wintry shroud, clothed in hides and fur, the clacking of reindeer feet setting the rhythm.
A river ahead. Fyodor, the youngest of the group and of Nenets descent, glides up beside us, jumps off, cocks his fur hat to one side, and helps the others lift each of the sleds down an embankment. Down they go, fishtailing across the frozen river, then bump up the other side, three men pushing from behind.
Traveling again, thick trees yield to a huge meadow. We make camp at the far end. The reindeer are turned loose. It's 10 p.m. by the time the first chum goes up, the two central poles forming an A, and the other poles carefully balanced against them.
Four wooden planks—a portable floor—are put down on either side of the woodstove, and cut spruce boughs are laid around the perimeter and covered with reindeer skins. Fires are started in the sheet metal stoves, even before the hide and canvas coverings are tied on, so that later the stoves will be hot enough to heat tea water and cook the evening meal.
For the time being, the camp is a hive of activity: Logs from the forest are ferried in on reindeer sleds and firewood is cut. At our chum, Maria bosses the men as they push the reindeer-skin coverings to the top of the chum with long poles. "Not too high, down on that side . . . no . . . no, okay that's right, higher, it's going to be bad weather tonight. . . ," she yells, and her sons do her bidding. The piece of canvas that has a glass window sewn in is carefully placed at the back to let light in on the low table where they eat. The kitchen is set up: tablecloth, dishes, silverware, tea, cookies, and candies. The movable world of these Komi people is set in place again.
Afterward the men rest on the huge pile of firewood they've just cut. "Two years ago in December and January, in just this place, three wolves came into the herd and ate some of our reindeer," Vasily tells me. "There was very little snow, so the wolves could get away from us. But when they came back, the snow was deeper and we were able to shoot them. We don't eat the meat, but we use the skins."
That same year a bear attacked three harnessed reindeer near their chum. "We were inside eating when the dogs began barking," they tell me. By the time they ran outside to kill the bear, the reindeer were already dead. The bear stayed around camp all night and found their cache of meat. "He ate that too. He ate everything."
They look at the woods nearby. "Maybe we will have a bear come into camp tonight," they say, smiling. "They are smarter than we are, so watch out!"
Night. No wolves, no bears, only Arctic sun touching down on reindeer hides. Snow falls. Maria ties a red wool scarf over her head, shuffles out away from the camp activity, scoops clean snow into three buckets, and hauls them into the chum to melt for tea. The dogs are fed and curl up under the sleds for shelter.
I follow Vasily and Piotr through the flap of the chum. It's warm inside. Vasily looks boyish, with brown bangs and big soft eyes. He tells how, when he was forced by the Soviet government to go to boarding school, he hid when the helicopter came for him. "We were on the tundra, but there were some trees nearby," he says. "I ran into the forest and dug a cave in the snow. The pilots found me and dragged me away."
The children spoke only Komi when they arrived at school. It took an extra year of classes just to learn Russian. They tell me they couldn't digest the food. "Especially porridge," Vasily says. "Before then, we had only eaten reindeer meat, fish, and berries."
As he talks, Maria makes his bed with loving care. She piles up skins, positions a large pillow against the chum wall, and lays out his sheepskin bag at a right angle to her bed so that his head is almost in her lap. At 45, he's still sleeping with his mother.
Piotr, the restless one of the two brothers, fends for himself. His bed is spartan, and he thrives on listening to the radio news from Moscow. "Do you know Tina Turner? Will you vote for Hillary Clinton?" he asks. A few years earlier he left the tundra for a job in the city of Arkhangel'sk. He didn't like city life, so he came home. "They didn't pay me enough, and I had no free time. I hated it. Not enough money to rent an apartment or have a girlfriend; no time to do carvings."
As he talks, he fiddles with his cheap short-wave radio: It issues only static. For a moment news about Chechnya comes on, then the voices fade. In frustration, he shoves the radio under a jacket by the side of his bed and pulls a single reindeer skin over himself without removing his clothes or boots. "I've always slept with my boots on," he tells me. "It's from living outside with the reindeer all my life," he says. "I'd prefer to sleep outdoors all the time."
Several miles away, Katya's two brothers are camped out with the main herd of reindeer. Despite the snow, they have no tent. From the age of 12 all Komi herders spend certain nights out on the open ground, regardless of the weather. Staying in the chum, they tell me, "would make us lazy and sleepy, and then the wolves and bears would come and eat the calves." They are on guard duty for a week, and after they come in, two other men from the camp will take over.
Soon it will be Vasily's turn to live out on the range with the expectant reindeer, but for now he's dreamy-eyed and quiet. He sits back against the tepee poles with his sleeping mother's head against his thigh. She's already snoring. He speaks slowly, with the quiet reserve of a much older man: "We like it here, living in a chum, because these poles we have carved from the forest, and these walls we have sewn together from our reindeer. That is the meaning of home."
A hard crust has formed on the snow during the night, and in the morning I ski alone through the open meadow and up the Snopa River with no idea of where it might lead. Northwestern Russia was thought of as an untamed frontier. But it was neither empty nor uninhabited. In fact, the whole apron of tundra between northwestern Russia and the Pacific Ocean was as rich and diverse in culture as it was in natural resources. First contact with the indigenous peoples between the Dvina River and the Ural Mountains occurred as early as the tenth century, when fur-mongers made their way north. By the 11th century, the colonial subjugation of the Komi was well under way, and by the late 1300s, their ceremonial life had been devastated by Christian proselytizers. In 1456 a treaty "gave" these northern lands to the Muscovites under Ivan III, and by 1620, the conquest of western Siberia, all the way east to the Yenisey River, was complete.
It's hard to be in this country without thinking of subsequent
terrors: the forced labor system that began in 1918 and continued through 1956; Stalin's Great Purge of 1937, during which 30 million people were imprisoned and ten million died; the collectivization of nomadic people under Communism. But when I ask my Komi friends if they were harmed during these years, they say no. "They forgot about us. We weren't collectivized like the Nenets were," Vasily says. "They left our families alone."
Alone but hardly untouched. In those times the Barents and Kara Seas became dumping grounds: At least 7,000 tons of radioactive waste and 18 nuclear reactors were sunk into the depths, giving off cesium-137, cobalt-60, strontium, and iodine worth some one million curies. One curie is enough to kill a human. The Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya just north of here was also befouled by nuclear testing. Prevailing winds blew radioactivity all the way across the Siberian tundra, only to be sucked up by lichens, which acquire their nutrients from air, not earth. These, in turn, are eaten by reindeer, and the reindeer are consumed by those who live in the path of the wind.
I ski and ski, then turn back toward camp. Under my feet the land is changing. Between the Barents Sea and the Pacific Ocean the permafrost has been melting. One of the biggest causes of exponential jumps in global warming could come from methane, which is 20 times stronger in its greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
Warming Arctic soils are outgassing upwards of 15 million tons of methane a year. A German climatologist, John Schellnhuber, told me, "If the big methane reservoirs get activated, then they could contribute as much to global warming as the burning of all fossil fuels on Earth." But will the reindeer mind if the tundra no longer freezes?
Rain in the night. The Komi word for rain is zer. In the morning the white world of flocked spruce trees around us vanishes. I wash my face using water from a small iron pot hung by a chain. Camp is disassembled and the sleds are repacked. We are traveling again—one in a series of moves that will take us to spring camp, where the women of these four families will stay until June while the men tend the calving reindeer.
To live nomadically in the Russian north doesn't mean one is homeless, but quite the opposite. Home is wider than four walls; home is the wall and roof and floor of each season: white, green, and brown. It is taiga and tundra, mountain and river, lichen, moss, and berry, reindeer, river, and bog.
We travel in fog. With little visibility, the caravans become separated. We see the tail end of the last sled vanish. Snow blows onto the tracks. For a moment we're lost, and Andrei, our translator, takes
a compass reading just in case we get left behind. We set off again, hoping we'll come across sled tracks.
Flat land, flat all the way to the cod-rich, polluted Barents Sea. We pass the tilted dunes of tundra. Tiny yellow berries and small orange flowers are starting to show. Another bend and another, and we see the other sleds. In half an hour we're at camp.
Already the first chum is going up. Even this close to the Arctic Ocean there are trees in view. Sun shines through the fog, but the wind is frigid. "Maybe the wind has come to take the fog away," Maria says.
We're camped near a forest island called Kol'-Ostrov, and I dream that the trees exhale gyrfalcons, brown bears, and swans. Andrei and I ski to it—he, on wide Komi skis, pushing along with a pole. We look for bear tracks, wolf tracks, but see none. Up high there are falcon nests, but they are still empty. We cross a melting cranberry bog, our skis dropping through one layer of ice and water to a second, firmer ice floor.
In the distance, lake ice booms. A swan flies into the Kol'-Ostrov. "The earth is waking up. You can hear it," Andrei says with a smile. Another small lake appears on the horizon, which the Komi call Happiness. They say that when the geese arrive, the reindeer will start calving.
Evening. Blue sky and flat tundra. Fires in every stove. Reindeer grazing in the distance. Moo Moo and another dog sit together on the seat of a sled and howl as if to say: Finally, it is spring.
She sweeps the floor of the chum with three raven wings. Earlier I had asked Katya if the feathers were a sacred amulet. She laughed at the suggestion. "No, they're just for cleaning." She's a wide-eyed beauty, vigorous, affectionate, and innocent. Outside on the tundra, in her hooded malitsa, she's a medieval nun, but in the chum, wearing black tights and a turtleneck, she's modern, efficient, quick-witted.
She lives nomadically half the year to help her aging mother and her two brothers. The rest of the time she lives in a small town. In June her older sister comes to camp and takes over. "Every year I say, 'This will be the last year,' but then I come back. They say about people like me that I have 'tundra fever.' Well, maybe I do. I love it here too much to stop coming," she says.
We re-dig the trenches that we made the day before to keep meltwater from seeping onto the floor of the chum, and lay firewood in front of the stove. Her face alternately registers excitement, sadness, and calm. "I feel very good now, inside of myself," she says. "I had bad experiences with men and also with racism, because I am not Russian. When I went to college, people made fun of me because I was Komi. And the men, well, there was always too much vodka. Now I am a woman not looking for a man, a woman who lives in two worlds. This is best for me. Yes, maybe this is the only way."
Late at night Vasily returns from a nearby village slightly drunk. As if ashamed of him, his mother lowers a cotton curtain over their two beds. In the dark, Piotr lies on top of reindeer skins, smoking. He says that the Nenets around Indiga no longer live as families on the tundra. The men take turns going out for a month at a time, and the women live in town. They are having problems keeping their language alive among the young. "They have given up living all the time with their reindeer. We Komi are still vödzyny—nomads. I'm proud that I speak Komi. I prefer this way of living—always moving with the animals and our families. I lived in town once and worked. I know what town is. Living with the oleni, making everything we need, and requiring very little else—that means we are free."
He stubs out his cigarette. The night's darkness breaks into something darker. Fresh air swoops down through the smoke hole. Piotr blows out the kerosene lamp and crosses back to his thin bed. "If I had a million dollars, I wouldn't buy a house, or a car, or get a wife. I'd travel," he says. When I ask where, he says, "To the places in the world where there are reindeer—Sápmi, Mongolia, Chukotka." In other words, he would never venture far from home.
"Good morning. Get up quickly. Good weather!" Maria shouts. It's Wednesday, our last day of living at spring camp with the women. Today we will go with the men to the main herd of reindeer, who will soon begin calving. Only one man will stay behind with the five women. The puppies are playing, the men are harnessing reindeer, and the women are busy packing the men's rucksacks with extra clothes and food—fresh-baked rolls, cloudberry jam, butter, and tea. Then it's time to leave.
Andrei is calling to me to get on the sled. In the confusion I search for Katya. She has put on her malitsa for a photograph. After, we stand face to face holding each other and say almost simultaneously, though in different languages, "I will never forget you."
Andrei and I climb onto a sled driven by Red Beard, a grumpy man who handles his animals crudely. As soon as we're seated, the reindeer lurch ahead. A piece of wood supporting the runner breaks. I yell at Red Beard. He doesn't seem to care. Andrei shrugs. The sled holds.
When I turn and wave goodbye to the women, I realize that Piotr is staying behind. He'd wrapped a carving that I'd admired and put it on the sled. How could I have known it was a farewell present? I yell, "Piotr! Spasibo!" but he has already turned away and is cutting wood.
The route is not smooth. We tip and tilt over hummocks, crash down onto ice, slide, fishtail, slam down, dip and drop into meltwater pools, then haul up onto humps of lichen and moss, and jolt down again into water.
"How do you like 'tundra-thumping?'" Andrew, the filmmaker, asks as his sled bumps by. Being from Barrow, Alaska, he's used to traveling across this kind of open country. I raise a thumb. "Bitchin'," I say. He smiles, but when the young reindeer hitched to his sled take off in the wrong direction, veering so fast he becomes airborne, his smile disappears.
A white-tailed eagle flies up, but still we see no geese. When I ask if the reindeer have begun calving yet, Red Beard shakes his head. We follow the river south where we are going to have to make a dangerous crossing and stop on a bank above the river. I'm nervous about water and had even called my husband on the sat phone the night before. Now I see it's worse than I imagined. I step to the edge: The current is fast, the water is deep, with huge shards of broken ice crashing into each other and stacking up on shore.
I ask the men how we will cross with our animals and heavily laden sleds. They laugh nervously. "We put pieces of wood and logs under the sled runners so they float like small rafts. The reindeer swim and help pull the sleds across. But you have to be careful because the water comes pretty high."
When I ask if there will be problems, they say, "Sometimes a sled runner gets caught under a piece of ice or the harness gets snagged, and then there's trouble."
"And then?" I ask. They shrug. "Do you swim?" I ask.
"Niet!" they answer, laughing.
Andrew changes places with Andrei to ride with me. He wants to film whatever it is that is coming next—floating, swimming, drowning. We follow the river farther south, then, inexplicably, turn north onto the rough tundra again. Another sled comes next to ours: "The reindeer have already crossed. They're on this side now," Nikolai, the other driver, says. Relieved that we don't have to make the dangerous ford, we keep bumping north.
We detour into melting bogs and cross a small lake where the top layer of ice is covered with standing water. Candle ice pings and the sled runners clatter. Sun sparkle blinds me, and for a moment
I can't remember where I am. A hard jolt brings me back: We are traveling downstream to find the reindeer. A second hard jolt dumps us upside down into pond water.
I call out for Andrew. His face is under water, but he's holding the camera straight up in the air. Red Beard hasn't noticed that he's lost his passengers. We run after him. Finally he stops and we get back on, dripping. There are snow clouds in the air. In polite Russian, Andrew asks Red Beard if he could slow down a bit. Red Beard growls: "You can hike if you don't like it."
Soon we're gliding up onto a good-size island amid melting ponds, and then we see: The reindeer are there—2,500 animals swarming the hillocks and swimming the narrow channels. Something black moves between an animal's legs. It's a newborn reindeer, tiny and wobbling. The mother is lying down in the midst of the moving herd, and the calf is trying to suckle. Reindeer are running past. Finally the mother gets up, lets the calf suck, then joins the others with the calf running alongside.
One of the herders has gone ahead; we hear only his high-pitched, haunting, two-note call. He's trying to get the reindeer to cross a narrow bridge, but the animals shift nervously in a wide circle. An hour goes by, and another. It begins to rain. Three geese fly up.
Finally the animals funnel over the bridge. On the other side is a surprising view: not tundra, but a narrow strip of arable land—
a hay meadow beside the raging river.
We camp at the edge of its three Monet-like stacks. There's a tiny hut with a long table inside, but no stove. We pitch two tents—that's all we have. Now, at day's end, and with us wet to the bone, rain turns to snow.
The men make a big fire, whittle the ends of a forked stick, and roast reindeer en brochette. We cram into the shed, drink shots of vodka, eat berries and meat. There are ten of us, and even without a stove, the body heat keeps us warm.
"The reindeer want to go north. They'd be at the Barents Sea in a few days if we let them go," Vasily says. "But we want them to stay here until all the calves are born. This is a good place for them."
During the night snow pushes at the tent. In the morning the sky is slate over white-topped haystacks. We drink pond water tea. It is brackish, sieved through furled lichens. Breakfast is reindeer soup. The bones are fed to the dogs. Red Beard's gruffness softens as he begins to sing. I don't know why, but I ask him if he's ever been in love. He responds quietly: "Yes. I once had a wife. I have a son. They've never been here to see me," and begins singing again.
Wind in the Spruces. Swans circling. Ptarmigan squabbling in the brush. Of all the Komi men, Artur, the youngest, is the most responsible. When he goes out to check the reindeer, I ski up and down the snow road in search of bear tracks, wolf tracks, or incoming swans. "You have to stay here for a whole year before you know how we live and who we are," Artur says, passing me in his reindeer sled. I concur.
In the morning we pack. Fyodor is missing—supposedly he's been drinking in the nearby village of Snopa—so we're asked to help bring in the reindeer. The sky is clearing, but it is cold. Spring has come earlier this year, the men say, but they are happy that the cold will keep the mosquitoes down.
The reindeer are harnessed, and the men take our gear to a field on the edge of Snopa. By mid-afternoon the helicopter still has not come. We visit the sauna and the schoolhouse, where a portrait of Pushkin on the wall has replaced the one of Lenin. There's a bakery, a dairy, and small gardens between the Tolstoyan wooden houses and barns, with loose horses running across the fields bucking and pawing. An idyllic scene, except that many of the men in town are drunk.
Nikolai sees Fyodor, bleary-eyed with vodka, running between two barns but can't catch him. He's in trouble. It was an embarrassment for the herders to need our help with the reindeer. Later they shun him when he appears and tell him to come back when he is sober.
We look skyward for the helicopter. Nothing. Artur gives me a gift of a reindeer's headstall made of bone. "Everything we make is done with a knife and an ax." Bone. Wood. Skin.
"Soon we will be away from this village, and there won't be anyone getting drunk," Artur says as we walk to the edge of the river. "I'm sorry you had to see us this way. I wish you could stay. Yes, a whole year would do it. Then you would know us, and after, you could go your way."
An enormous helicopter lands in the bare field like a beast out of a nightmare. The herders hand up our skis and duffels. The machine lifts and shudders. Tears come. I will not be here again. Cloud shadows sprout and die. I turn my head to look: It is endless, this mosaic of rotting ice and gray-green lichen and moss. As we gain altitude I'm instantly lost. There is no village, no chum, no reindeer. The body of the tundra is bigger than all that; it hides human and animal occupation. All I see are islands and hummocks trapped in meltwater moats and a whole frozen world going soft in faint light. I strain to hear the lichens' symbiotic song and dance. Instead, cranberry bogs may cough up methane, and by the end of summer it could boil up in a million pond-pots. We hover and slide over a world of leaking vessels—as if the earth were bleeding to death.
Trees, when they appear, stain the snow with shadows that are blue; geese drop down onto water that looks like sky. Lake ice is gouged by the tracks of a passing bear. Collars of ice fold back from ponds. A tree goes down: I see it falling. Beyond, five swans land. A bend in the river dangles like a loose knee.
We land at Oma, then Mezen', then at a nameless village. As we pass again into the world of trees, I look back at the vast expanse from which we have come and see that, once this generation of Komi is gone, there will be only the wiggle-worm puzzle of melting tundra—ultimately, a whole land drowned.
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