Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Frozen frontier; Dangerous ice crossings

18 February 2013 –
In the small hunting settlement of Chirpolay
-25 degrees Celsius

Yes, finally a true insight into the meaning of life!

Please hear me out!

I just came in from having been out skiing for myself a couple of hours, something which in every way gave me new air and strength! I have quite a few curious Eveny around asking what I am writing, as is the case every evening whilst transferring from camera to hard disk. It is sort of the evening entertainment and Slava wouldn´t have a problem doing any of it. He is using my camera every day to take photos he likes, mainly with a reindeer theme.

Whilst out skiing, surrounded by these pristine mountains and feeling rejuvenated by this extremely fresh and clean air, I let go of all thoughts. I suddenly realized what a privileged human being to get this great opportunity to travel the world and experience all these different cultures and peoples in such a short lifetime. At times I wonder why I of all people have been given this opportunity and not for example, one of the Eveny team members who have a more simpler but demanding existence. But please note, possibly as happy and content with life as I am.

Anyway, as it should be whilst being on a journey, one contemplates one´s own life at those rare moments. When not observing and not taking notes on what one is experiencing, I philosophized around the aspect of what is the accepted limit for saying that you have had a good life on one´s death bed?

I am sure, opinions are many and varied, but at the end of the day it is the basics, like being able to say I am or have been blessed with a great partner life. In my case, my wife Pam and my two wonderful girls. And I think if one honestly can count for ten extremely good friends all together, than one should be satisfied. And I think this is probably the basics of personal inner success for most cultures and human beings. So today, I realized for once, since I am generally dissatisfied with everything I do, that in fact, I am actually very satisfied and content with my life. Though, I have made all errors in the book and paid a high price for it.

So, on a personal note, yes, I love life!

Back to what I am here to do, observe…..yesterday this happened!

’“” –-Careful!’“” –—Slava shouted, but it was too late. I put my foot down in the water.

I was fortunately quick enough to pull it out before the icy water made it into my reindeer boot. Vika however, went down into the water with the sledge and almost overturned. She would have if my photographer, Yura, wouldn´t have stopped his filming and used his camera free hand to stop her from overturning. So typical Yura. He is one of these guys who is there for everybody, but still gets his act together. But the camera is his baby and during the day, when we spent hours crossing the extremely slippery stretches of ice, he slipped badly twice (so did I…), but held up the camera in the air, even if it meant he took a good beating landing on the ice with his head first. He is one of these human beings who is perfect for Expeditions. Always helpful, no personality conflicts, good humor and temper and works day and night. We have a good team, no doubt.

Yesterday I was very worried about the reindeer. These ice crossings are brutal on them, since they´re not shod. And so they slipped badly and unfortunately the speed has to be as fast as possible for us not to go through the ice and drown. Slava, for this reason, choose to try to find a route trying to avoid the worst stretch of slippery ice. We however ended up in the dense taiga, going up and down river banks like a roller coaster, following small streams. In these areas, the ice was only a few inches thick and we went through several times, but always managed to avoid going under. But we had to run as fast as we could all the time. For us to sit on the sleds would have made it worse for the reindeer.

Yesterday was our second day of many hours and a big distance of travelling. After two days of doing 50 km:s, we arrived at the beginning of darkness, but I am assured by the Eveny and Yegor that these are normal distances. We will cut the weight with a third from now on and every reindeer pulls no more than 30 kg:s each. I am told the reason is for the struggling reindeer. They are still tired after the extreme cold faced in Yakutia and a long winter of travelling. These guys have been travelling since the beginning of the winter. Everyone, Evenys and reindeer are really worn out. Thus, we are taking a couple of days break in this small hunting village. During the Soviet era, this once was a kolchoz offering a shop, a diesel plant and a hospital for the reindeer herders. Nowadays they´re worse off in this part of Russia. In Yakutia for example, herders are ’employed’, like during the Soviet times by the government, so they had a decent wage, a paid holiday every two years, snowmobiles and even food for free and paid sick leave. However, times have changed. Our Eveny friends and team members, who live in the Krasnoyarks region, they have nothing. Absolutely nothing. And one reason they took this job, an offer all reindeer herders in Yakutia said no too, was due to the money of course. But I am very happy they took it, because they´re a great group of people. Some of the best I have met. There is no doubt their life is very, very hard. During the last few days of warmer weather, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of this 2500 year old way to travel and make a living.

Let me first say, weather has changed dramatically and we have lost a lot of altitude height and we are presently at about 600 meters above sea level, half of our altitude level of travelling in Yakutia. The great winter landscape of the frozen frontier is gone, sure, the mountains are still impressive, but there´s no heavy thick, spellbinding and alluring snow resting high in the trees. We seldom have night temperatures below -40. Day temperatures are like today, around -20 degrees below Zero Celsius. But, the travelling is still demanding, due to fast melting ice and snow.

However, I have to say, now when the extreme cold is gone I realize how much more time I have to think and philosophy during the long hours at the back of the sled. During the extreme cold most of my effort went to keeping the cold at bay. My weak cheeks are still itching from frost nips, but that is due to not being in arctic areas for 6 years. I spent most times in the deserts of Arabia and one needs a lot of time to acclimatize properly to the Arctic. The rest of the team have, of course, no problems at all, being use to and brought up in this frozen environment. Yet this too is changing for the Eveny reindeer herders in the Krasnoyarsk region I believe.

’“” –-Do you like being here in the taiga with your grandparents?’“” –—…Bolot asked Andre the other day, remember the 5 year old boy we met a few days ago, and he answered;

’“” –—I hate it, it is so boring, there´s nothing to do out here. In Arkan I have so many friends and we play a lot of games together. I can´t stand this life here.’“” –—…
Bolot told me this story when we had a break from travelling a couple of days ago. It made me start thinking hard about the future of this thousand year long existence. I have a profound feeling we are experiencing the last remains of it.

First of all, let us take a look at the Evenys who are such an integral part of this Expedition’s well being and success. Slava, who´s dream was to continue his studies and become a doctor, but as the rest of the team, was asked by his parents to help them out and survive. He understands clearly, when he and Vika get children, that the only future for them is to study. If this happens or if he will have the same demands as his parents had on him, that his children help him out I don´t know. He fully understands that the only way to have a decent living is for them to continue their studies. Slava is a really bright lad.

Vika has a sister who is still studying and she once told us that she wished she could have continued her studies, but her parents wished otherwise.

Tolya has a daughter who have asthma and she will therefore never live in the taiga. I don´t understand why, but they think settled life is safer. Though I have noticed as quick as the group sleeps one night inside together, like we are now (8 people in a small log cabin), we are sneezing, coughing and sniveling in a way we never have done so far out here in the cold. Anyway, that means that Tolya´s life will take a dramatic change soon. By the way, Tolya seldom travels like this. He has just teamed up with Slava, who is his best friend, to do this trip and earn some money. Otherwise he makes a living hunting sobel and moose and selling the meat and fur. A job from which he makes much more money than herding reindeer.

Yura who´s wife is in the hospital in Okhotsk right now, she is Vikas sister, is possibly the only one I see who might continue this life for his children. But I could be wrong. Yura doesn´t say a whole lot…;-) He is silent, but the best of the four on camera. He always has something wise to say, whilst the others, who chat like mad off camera, turn silent when on.

And of course, as a traveler, even if I have been to over 125 countries as a professional for the last 27 years, and try to see everything for all perspectives, not only my own comfortable Scandinavian life eyes, I, of course, wish they had an easier life. Because it is a very, very hard and demanding life they have with continuous worries of how to survive. A better infrastructure, for example, would solve a lot and the create more jobs. This shouldn´t be a problem for a country like Russia with its enormous resources (we’ll leave it at this).

And, being an explorer who often travels together with animals, lately with Kensington The Camel in Yemen, I think travelling with reindeer this way is out of date. It is too hard on them. This however is just my opinion. It’s not really my place to say things about other cultures and their ways to survive. I can´t claim to know better. And the Eveny really love their reindeer. At this moment in history, they have no other way to survive. They put every effort into the well being of their beloved reindeer. This is the first time I have ever done an Expedition where I don´t do the work myself. I have always walked with the animal members, to share the same burden and joys, but here I am being hauled around and just sit most of the day. This time no control of pretty much everything. Yegor does the organizing, which he is doing extremely well. I don´t understand 99% which is said. Bolot translates the essentials and does that very well and the reindeer belongs to the Eveny. I should really have no opinion on anything. It is out of my hands. For now and this time only, this is ok! Mainly because I have this feeling that something unique is under way. The privilege of experiencing all this has a price of course. Having said that, I really, really enjoy this trip!

But yes, it is still an extraordinary feeling being part of a way of life which is more than 2500 years old. It may possibly well be the last remains of it. I hope I can give a reasonably just account of it. This is the reason for the Expedition – to do a film and write about the unique way to travel and to give an insight to for future generations. That is the feeling I have. The film will be great. Even though some pieces are missing for the full picture. Still, we are getting there!

Finally, it seems like the Expedition with reindeer could well end in Arkan, 7 days of travel from here. Rumor says there is little snow after Arkan, very little food for the reindeer and the Eveny´s worry for the Russians in Okhotsk who always have treated them and their reindeer badly.

But I fear the ice crossings!

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