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Montag, Dezember 20, 2004

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Native hunters prepare to take a skin boat into the frigid waters of the Bering Strait to retrieve a ringed seal that had been shot.
(Globe Staff Photo /
Essdras M. Suarez)
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Degrees of Separation
In Russia's east, survival can depend on the herd and hunt, old ways largely forgotten across the strait in Alaska
By Tom Haines, Globe Staff December 19, 2004

NORTH OF KANCHALAN, Russia -- The knife plunged, and the young bull reindeer, tugging lamely against the strength of one man, shuddered, then dropped to the crisp cover of snow.

A woman hustled from a nearby tent and poked her finger into the reindeer's eye. The reindeer blinked. The woman waited as its breathing faded, then poked again. The eye stayed open.

Three other women quickly set upon the reindeer, slicing and pulling fur from muscle, muscle from bone, working as an island of energy in the frozen, forgotten tundra of the Russian far north. Beyond the horizon obscured by a white cloak of snow and sky, coastal mountains rose, then sloped to the ice-locked shores of the Bering Strait, 300 miles east.

Until roughly 12,000 years ago, land bridged the strait, offering a passage for ancestors of some Native Americans to move from Asia into North America. After the ice age thaw, Chukchis, Inupiat, and other indigenous peoples crossed the strait freely in skin boats in summer. But in the 20th century, distant capitals, Moscow and Washington, split the Arctic into communist and capitalist lands, making a barrier of the border through the middle of the strait and changing forever how natives and newcomers on both sides live.

The Bering Strait is the last of four geographic and cultural divides the Globe is journeying across this fall, in a series that has circled the planet, from savanna in South America to desert in Africa, from Asian waterfalls to Arctic sea. The power of the strait as a divide comes not so much from its size or nature, but from what Russia and the United States have made of it.

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of the massive government subsidies that supported modern Arctic life, many on the Russian side have had to fend for themselves, often relying on the land for survival. On the North American side, at the westernmost edge of the mainland United States, native villagers have shifted uneasily in the overwhelming embrace of their country's capitalist culture.

During a journey from the Russian tundra eastward to the coast, then across the Bering Strait to the tip of Alaska, encounters with people, and their personal struggles, revealed their evolving relationship with this demanding terrain.

In the tundra reindeer camp, less than an hour after first taking knives to the young bull, the women hauled its carcass into the yaranga, a portable, domed tent used by Chukchis roaming with their herds.

Nearby, two men, their skin boots soft against the snow, wandered among a sea of grazing reindeer and lassoed one to train it to wear a sled harness. Two other herders pinned a reindeer to the ground to pick horsefly larvae, a reindeer parasite and source of protein for the herders, from its fur.

Inside the yaranga, tree trunks cut a century earlier supported a weathered cover of reindeer skins. In the rear, loose skins hung to form the walls of two sleeping rooms. Smells of earth and bodies mingled in the shadowed space as the women prepared a feast.

One woman hunkered over the still-warm carcass and her hands, coarse from the cold, pressed blood from the sticky mass into a pool, then, with a knife, sliced ribs and steaks. Two teenagers carried scoops of snow to a cast-iron pot. A white-haired woman, stooped but sturdy, barreled into the tent, her body covered in a reindeer skin suit, her hands filled with kindling. After an hour, the men sat on skins on the dirt floor, their heads framed by drifts of wood smoke, and gulped boiled ribs and tongue, raw brains and hot tea.

Chukchis had followed these routines in isolated tribal communities for hundreds of years until, in the late 1920s, the Soviet government began forcing the nomadic herders to settle in villages and herding cooperatives. Soviet newcomers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other places nine time zones and thousands of miles away came to villages such as Kanchalan, 30 miles south of this camp, to run the cooperatives.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kanchalan's reindeer herd dropped from 30,000 to 5,000 in three years, as management fell into chaos and villagers slaughtered reindeer to survive. The village's human population also fell, as many newcomers fled the unemployment and poverty that remains for the 726 residents, mostly Chukchi.

Kanchalan's reindeer have since multiplied to some 15,000, divided among seven brigades of herders. But pay for the herders has stayed low. And helicopters, a staple in Soviet times, no longer shuttle herders from the village, or deliver newspapers and more basic supplies. Instead, a villager rides a suffering snowmobile from Kanchalan to deliver salt, oil, flour, and sugar to this camp. For sustenance, the herders count on the reindeer.

Before their midday meal ended, the oldest woman, Zinaida Kaantakay, 65, had crossed the low hill to a wide quilt of reindeer skins spread on open ground.

She crouched on the quilt, a long, three-sided needle in her hand. Behind her, three husky pups snoozed. Beside her lay a dead reindeer calf, stillborn that morning. Kaantakay, her warm eyes set in folds of soft skin, planned to sew a hat for a herder from the calf's hide. Until then, she needed to keep the body from freezing stiff.

Kaantakay also hoped, by day's end, to finish her bigger sewing project: a new yaranga, refuge from the other tent crowded with two young couples. As she worked through the afternoon, the soup-thick sky cleared. The air warmed toward freezing. The steady wind brought silence.

Kaantakay told the story of her husband, Alexei, who had been lauded by Soviet officials for his handling of a herd of 3,000. Then, on July 12, 1985, Alexei did not return from tending his reindeer on the tundra. Search parties canvassed the banks of swollen rivers and meadows thick with wildflowers. Helicopters circled.

Kaantakay set off on her own search, walking for one month, then two, from summer into autumn, long after Alexei had been given up for dead.

"I hoped for a long time," Kaantakay said, her fingers pushing the needle relentlessly.

Finally, after she fell through a thickening layer of ice and sank to her waist in frigid water, Soviet officials sent Kaantakay south to a spa to heal her stiff, sore legs. She later returned to the tundra with her son, who had become a chief herder.

At twilight, the two teenage girls helped hoist Kaantakay's just-completed quilt of skins onto the wooden structure of the new yaranga. She did not take time to build a fire that night. Instead, as the sky above an opening at the top of her yaranga turned from cobalt blue toward black, she parted the skins of her sleeping area and, still wearing her one-piece reindeer skin suit, climbed in. She began to settle, then thrust her arm back toward the dirt floor. She grabbed the stillborn calf by the fur and pulled it into the warmth of her bed.

. . .

Dawn came at 3 a.m., when steel blue light broke the eastern horizon. The course of a frozen river trailed south from the reindeer camp. A grove of trees on the river's bank stood locked in ice. Slanted sunrays woke shadowed gullies. Nothing moved.

The April days were lengthening toward the midnight sun of summer, when brown bears, red fox, wolverines, and wolves roam lush meadows fed by rivers that are home to whitefish, pike, and Arctic char. Blueberries, salmonberries, cranberries, and red currants grow thick. But by mid-August, the land turns again toward winter and months of sub-zero temperatures.

On the river ice, deep tracks marked the route south, then east toward Anadyr, the capital of the province of Chukotka, which stretches across the Chukchi Peninsula to the Bering Strait. The widest tracks had been cut by the steel treads of "vezdekhods," tanks converted to carry passengers and cargo in a jerking frenzy of diesel fumes and grinding gears.

A second frozen river opened onto a desolate plain of ice, where bundled fishermen huddled below the surprise of a city on a hill.

At its edges, the city of Anadyr, home to nearly 12,000 people, appeared a worn Soviet relic. Hot-water pipes traversed littered lots en route to daunting apartment blocks. A mural on one building celebrated the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The mural rose several stories above the ground, higher than the statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin near the center of town.

Beyond Lenin, where the hill steepened and mink-clad matriarchs strolled slippery sidewalks, a second city emerged within the first. Facades of more apartment buildings burst with shades of egg-shell blue, soft red, yellow, and lime. At a modern supermarket, refrigerators brimmed with sausages, gourmet cheese, and fresh yogurt. Jars of olives and caviar lined shelves. Upstairs, children played in a plastic wonderland of steps and slides.

At the top of the hill sat a simple, squat villa, home to Roman Abramovich, the second-richest man in Russia and, at 38, the patron of the province.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Chukotka quickly lost much of the government money that had financed the province's military, scientific, and cultural programs for decades. Soldiers, doctors, and teachers returned to warmer climes. Chukotka's population dropped from roughly 160,000 to 55,000. In those remote villages not completely abandoned, children went hungry.

A desperate decade ended in 2000, when Abramovich, who had made billions by seizing a controlling stake of Sibneft, a privatized oil company, sought the governorship of Chukotka. In the province, many reasoned, Abramovich found a friendly shelter for his investments and the potential for more oil riches with drilling in the south.

But Abramovich, originally from western Russia, also brought a hefty personal tax bill to pay into provincial coffers and an entrepreneurial attitude that has helped him buy a yacht in the Caribbean, an estate in the Mediterranean, and the Chelsea soccer club in London.

The arrival of Abramovich's Boeing Business Jet signaled to residents when the soft-bearded oligarch was in town. His money built more permanent reminders. On a bluff overlooking the sea, workers from Siberia hoisted beams for a modern Orthodox cathedral. The steel frame of a concert hall rose a few hundred yards away. At the end of main street, Turkish workers had built a luxury hotel that offered suites with French drapes. Another hotel, designed by Canadians, had sensibly-sized rooms.

Life in some villages also improved, with helicopters again delivering food to fill empty store shelves. Small, colorful homes rose amid the ruins of buildings collapsing onto Chukotka's permafrost, a layer of soil that never thaws.

But even Abramovich's promises of prosperity had limits. At the base of the hill on which Anadyr sits, a series of planks ran from a trash dump across an icy expanse to six more apartment blocks, remnants of an annexed village called Tavaivaam.

Up one dank flight of stairs, Mikhail Pleshkov, a 45-year-old carpenter, sat at a small kitchen table as his wife boiled water for tea and his 1-year-old granddaughter played with a doll at his feet.

Natives and newcomers in Tavaivaam had operated some of Soviet Chukotka's largest reindeer herds. After 1991, much of the herders' equipment was quickly sold off. The government monopoly on alcohol ended, and entrepreneurs peddled high-octane liquor to herders. The market for reindeer meat plummeted. Unemployment rose, and many in Tavaivaam, especially men, began to kill themselves.

"Every week we were burying somebody," Pleshkov said. "Every week."

Pleshkov donned a thick coat and descended the staircase to stroll broken sidewalks. Three children ran atop one of the above-ground water pipes. A man with thick shoulders and a toughened face carried a bucket of fresh-caught smelt. As Pleshkov walked across a lot spotted with frozen puddles, he talked of a 6-year-old boy who, the spring before, had fallen through thinning ice at the edge of the Gulf of Anadyr. Pleshkov had run to help, but arrived too late.

"Now the danger for the children is their parents," Pleshkov said. "And it's all due to alcoholism."

Pleshkov circled the lot, then ascended again to the warmth of his apartment. A few minutes later, two young women walked arm-in-arm across the planks leading from Anadyr into the village. One held up the other, so drunk her wobbling ankles bent almost to the ground.

The drunk woman stopped, her hips and shoulders swaying against Tavaivaam's bleak horizon. She growled in laughter, then hurtled across the last of the narrow wooden track.

. . .

A Chukotka Airlines twin-prop shuddered into the sky for the 350-mile flight to Lavrentiya, an industrial town set on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. A new mother, her baby swaddled tightly, settled for the journey home from the Anadyr hospital. A few rows behind her, a young boy cuddled a kitten in his sweatshirt, which read, accidentally, "Micihigan."

In the Soviet years, the capital and the coast were connected by short-wave radio and telephone, helicopters and passenger planes, overcoming distances that had long enforced more isolated lives. Thirteen years after the Soviet system withered, telecommunications remained, but only two flights a month made the one-hour trip from Anadyr to Lavrentiya, a coastal hub.

From Lavrentiya's airstrip, a road, one of the few in Chukotka, climbed a low pass, then descended past soggy earth toward a low promontory and the village of Lorino, where buildings hovered above the Bering Strait in a trick of twilight.

After short sleep, two hunters strode at 3:30 a.m. past Lorino's scattered shacks and apartment blocks to a mud lot, home to hundreds of sleeping huskies. One of the men, moving quickly despite wearing layers of seal skins and a heavy parka, chained a dog onto the back of a long harness. The other huskies broke their slumber with yelps and leaps.

The hunters mushed their dog teams to the edge of a high bluff. A few hundred feet below, a shelf of ice stretched a quarter-mile into the strait, where still waters opened southward toward the Bering Sea.

The younger men, joined by two older hunters traveling by snowmobile, headed for the edge of the ice. The sled dogs kept a steady clip as the hunters scanned the silent sea for seals that follow schools of Arctic cod.

The hunters stopped and scouted, moved, then scouted again, bothered little by breath-breaking wind and air 5 degrees below zero.

Shortly before 6 a.m., the slick, sloping head of a seal broke the water's surface about 100 feet from the ice edge. One hunter dropped to his chest, aimed, and fired. The seal dove, surfaced again, and looked steadily toward the ice edge. Another hunter, Stanislav Vukvuk, 24, shot the seal in the head. Then he stepped onto a narrow shelf of new ice, which freezes and thaws in the course of days, and boarded a small skin boat to paddle out to the floating seal.

Later that afternoon, among the battered buildings on top of the bluff, a whale hunter working in an open shed leaned over a snowmobile in hopes of coaxing more from a weary engine. Children jumped with joy across wide gaps in the balcony of an abandoned building. A security guard pulled his young son on a sled through the village fox farm as he patrolled beneath the stilted steel cages that held 545 foxes, their silver coats thickened by the whip of winter wind.

Inside the kitchen of an apartment in one stout Soviet building, Galina Ottoy, wife of Alexei Ottoy, who had led the morning's hunt, stood above a 3-foot-long ringed seal. In the neighboring room, her two young daughters watched music videos, while her son, Igor, 20, who had joined the hunt that day, slept.

For an hour, Galina Ottoy stooped and sliced, butchering the seal for food, oil, and skins. She chatted with Alexei, a Chukchi born in the seaside village of Akkani, 15 miles north. Soviet officials in the 1960s ordered Akkani's indigenous residents to move to Lorino; Akkani has since been only a summer hunting camp.

"Before, [we] believed that the newcomers would help us," Alexei said. "Now we know that it is up to us to educate our local people."

Beneath Lorino, a half-mile-long tunnel serves as a makeshift freezer for whale, walrus, and seal meat, much of which is eaten by villagers. Whaling lagged in the 1990s, but last season Lorino hunters harvested 35 gray whales weighing roughly 20,000 pounds each. Leaders in Lorino have long been criticized by animal rights activists for using the whale meat to feed the foxes.

Women working for the municipal cooperative still sew skins from the fox farm and a coastal reindeer herd, but recently the cooperative has tried to diversify, opening a greenhouse and a hot spring spa.

"My dream," Alexei said, "is that one of my daughters starts her own business, a small enterprise."

The next morning, Ludmila Trifaneva, director of Lorino's cooperative, hung up her long, black mink coat and sat squarely behind a small desk with her two plump hands set before her. Trifaneva had come from "mainland" Russia 29 years before. Her children were born in Lorino and she did not want to leave.

"It is possible for us to be profitable, even self-sufficient," said Trifaneva.

A map on the wall showed the Bering coastline, with dots marking its few settlements. Trifaneva talked of the need for new markets for the village's products. But she knew Lorino would always be defined by its isolation, vulnerable to changes from afar, whether a communist uprising in 1917, or the breakdown of the Soviet state 74 years later.

"One time, revolution, the next time, perestroika," said Trifaneva. "You have to be ready for everything. At least the people in the village know how to survive."

. . .

Inside the tired terminal of the Provideniya airport, a Russian customs officer, who the evening before had walked into a public sauna wearing only pink sandals and whipped himself with birch branches, stoically searched baggage.

Russian and American patrols continue to monitor closely the strait's boundary. The only legal crossing for most has remained an occasional charter flight from Provideniya, a two-day snowmobile ride south from Lorino, to Nome, Alaska.

An American twin-prop airplane lifted quickly to 8,000 feet and soon crossed the International Date Line, also the Russian-US border. Beneath a scatter of clouds, the strait was covered by a jigsaw puzzle of ice, dark cracks separating sweeps of snow.

In the summer of 1648, the Russian explorer Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev made the first recorded passage by an outsider through the strait, which later became a route for Yankee whaling ships. Sea traffic was forced to one side or the other as the Cold War tightened a border drawn between two islands, Big Diomede on the Russian side, Little Diomede on the American.

Since 1991, indigenous groups on both sides have begun cultural exchanges, with some again making rare crossings in skin boats.

The strait also has become a destination for oddball adventurers from afar. One man tried unsuccessfully to pedal across the ice on a bicycle. A woman who attempted a summer crossing in a bathtub lashed to 2 x 4s with inner tubes at either end fared no better. Both had begun their trips at the edge of Alaska, on the western tip of the Seward Peninsula, on a point of land beneath a high ridge and the sweep of the Bering Strait, home to the 152 residents in the village of Wales.

There, late on a Friday afternoon, three men pushed and pulled an 18-foot aluminum boat toward the edge of a shelf of ice that ran a quarter-mile from the village into the Bering Strait. One hunter scanned the churning waters for bowhead whales that can measure 50 feet in length and, like the gray whale, weigh more than 20,000 pounds.

"It might be a slow day," said another hunter, Luther Komonaseak, a 50-year-old village leader and part-time whaling captain who had agreed, for a fee, to guide two visitors.

"It would be nice to get a seal . . . today," Komonaseak said. "Usually, you see them by now."

His nephew, Travis George, chugged a Mountain Dew, tossed it aside, then kicked his feet absently in the snow. Nearby, an empty Starbucks Frappucino bottle lay half-buried.

"Don't litter, Travis," Komonaseak said.

Behind the men, a bank of fog hid the village and a circle of whale jawbones that mark a centuries-old gravesite in a wide meadow. Above loomed a rocky ridge, the last of North America's Continental Divide.

During winter, when there is only a hint of daylight, temperatures can fall to 50 degrees below zero, and gusts, which reach 120 miles per hour, shake houses so hard that toilet bowl water swooshes back and forth.

But the hunt has little to do with life at this hard end of the continent, which has long since been redefined by products and ideas from easier climates. Six Alaskan air companies serve a simple airstrip at the north end of town, with at least one flight a day to Nome, an hour south.

The flights deliver Mountain Dew and frozen onion rings, ammunition and aspirin to stock four shops. They carry students and longtime residents to new homes in Nome, Anchorage, or beyond. And they bring representatives of the federal, state, and tribal agencies who monitor many of the projects in town, including the recent construction of a tribal center, built with a million-dollar state payment to the village for fisheries damaged in Norton Sound, south of Wales.

From the airport, a road weaved past small houses to a school built with state money a few years before. Inside, computer terminals with high-speed Internet access sat on tables of a well-stocked library. Teachers from the Lower 48 encouraged children, nearly all of whom were native Inupiat, to master subjects that would get them into colleges in Fairbanks, or Anchorage.

A few hours before heading out for the hunt, Komonaseak had lingered beside the wooden frames of two Russian skin boats that stood near the school. On top of one frame, forgotten seal skins hung in a crumpled mess, remains of an attempt by village elders to teach youngsters the old ways.

"People lost interest," Komonaseak said.

In 1918 and 1919, the influenza epidemic killed several hundred residents of Wales, and the town has since seen more than its share of suicide and depression.

Several students perform in a dance group that has revived a number of the village's traditional songs. But more students gather in the gym on Friday nights, where teenagers and adults, men and women, play hoops to the rap lyrics of Eminem.

Children joy-ride on Polaris snowmobiles. Adults ride all-terrain vehicles the few hundred yards from home to store.

One family manages a reindeer herd near town, but few choose to do what they consider hard, messy work. Most who earn a living in Wales work indoor jobs financed, ultimately, by government dollars. Hunting is largely a part-time affair: Only four bowhead have been killed in more than a decade, the last in 2001. On the day Komonaseak led the hunt, he knew of no whale, walrus, or seal meat in the village.

Out on the ice edge, Komonaseak's brother, visiting from Nome, cut a trail for the boat across a ledge of new ice. A seal appeared, perhaps 50 feet from shore. No one raised a gun.

"We weren't ready," Komonaseak said.

A few hours after arriving for the hunt, Komonaseak proposed a break.

"Supper will be soon enough," he said, suggesting that afterward "we might find some time to get out investigating."

The five hunters gathered around the boat, which still sat atop the ice, and munched Almond Joys and Nutrageous candy bars. George, the nephew, opened a vacuum-packed bag of smoked salmon, brought to Wales by airplane.

A second seal appeared, its eyes trained on the hunters. No one raised a gun.

"You've got to have priorities, and that's the whale," said Terry Komonaseak, Luther's brother.

The next day, the hunters would get out on the ice earlier. They would chase a bowhead 7 miles across the strait toward Russia, though they would not get close enough to try to kill it.

But on this evening, as a thicker fog settled over the Bering Strait, obscuring all but a few hundred yards of its dark, rippling waters, no whale surfaced within view. One hour passed. Then another.

The hunters stood, backs to the village, eyes to the sea, waiting.