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The Western Siberia Expedition 2010: Healing Waters

August 20th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Stepanova, Siberia   58.67 N 86.76 E

10:35 pm Siberia local; 11:35 pm next day EST

High 74 F     Low 52 F    Scattered rain

It has been another day in camp for me.  I am feelin a little better, but my head is still stopped up and that makes it hard to exert myself.   I don’t think I’m all that sick, really.  If I was going to the office, no problem. But here, in the Siberian forest, everything requires a huge physical effort.  And when you’re sick, even walking fifty yards is an effort all by itself.  Expeditions and colds just don’t mix.   

They did a great job today, as usual.  Pasha, Ross, Sergei, Bruce and Marsha spent a long day in the forest, and came back with 16 plots measured.  That’s a great day’s work.  They report that the sites were fairly dry and the dominant species was Scots Pine.  I hear that there are some amazing Aspen – some at least 100 years old.  I have to say that this crew works really hard, and they work extremely well together.  Everyone is tired, but in a good mood.  Thanks to them, this expedition is making up for lost time.  

Camp is the time for discussion, planning and reflection. Slava's vest is made from a sheep hide. From left to right: Bruce Cook, Ross Nelson, Pasha Oskorbin, Marsha Dvinskaya, Slava Kharuk. Sergei Im is working in the background.

When the body won’t work, the mind can still think.  I’ve spent the day thinking about the importance of expeditions like these.  It costs a lot of money to get everyone here.  It takes everyone away from our lives and their families.  And it’s really hard work.  We don’t come here for fun.  Yes, we enjoy ourselves when we can, but, at the heart of it, this is very serious business and hard business, too.    

So I was thinking today about all the sacrifices we make to get out here, a half of a world away from home, just to make these measurements in the forest.  I was wondering if it was worth it all.  And the answer is unequivocal: yes.  

Sometimes scientists and policy makers sit in their comfortable offices, looking at data from our remote-sensing instruments, and thinking that’s really all we need.  Sometimes it slips our mind that people are living in these forests, and relying on them for their own lives.  And sometimes we forget that there is a lot more knowledge on the Earth than can be gathered remotely.  It is only by getting into the forests and getting onto the land that we connect with reality.  And we need to talk to people, too.  People that live with the land – like the Siberians we’ve met, have an incredible amount of knowledge about the forest.  They have a lot to share with us.  And they are greatly affected by forest policy as well, so our data can impact their lives.

The Siberians we’ve met are helpful, friendly people.  They give us gifts, offer us hospitality, give us directions and are quick to laugh with us.   We all are here in this forest at this time for our own reasons.  But in the end, we’re really all just trying to do what is the most important to us – take care of our own lives, take care of our families and take the best care we can of our forests and our Earth.   While they live day-to-day within this forest, we are trying to understand this same environment, to keep it healthy and viable, long term.   

So as different as we are, we are connected through this forest.   A few days ago I felt very connected to the past, as we worked forests that the kulaks had worked.   Yesterday we connected with the past again as the harvesters cut the grass by hand, just as Slava’s grandfather had done, and generations before him.   Today I realize that the forest doesn’t  just connect us to the past, it connects those who live a half a world away, in the present, despite our very different lives.

The forest connects us to the future, too. It is here, in the forest, where carbon is taken up at a high rate, and that may be a key to living on this earth without destroying it – to care for the carbon sequestration to keep the earth in balance. Caring for the forest is, in a very real way, caring for our future.

Sometimes the forest is called “the lungs of the world” –and in a way that is true.  The forest is a living entity, one which helps keep our Earth clean and temperate through its very existence.  If we can use our data to learn more about this forest, and to help policy makers make decisions to better manage this essential part of life as we know it, then we are making a real contribution to the health of our future.

This expedition is allowing us to study very different forests than we saw in 2007 and 2008.   We were in extremely remote areas then. The forests were in a more natural state, so we were studying mainly natural changes and climate changes, with less direct influence from humans.  Here the forests are heavily used by people.  We can study the effects of human influence on the forest.   As someone said in camp today – in years past, we were in the middle of nowhere.  Now we are just on the edge.  It’s a different world, and we are learning a great deal about human-forest interaction. 

The mark of humanity can be seen everywhere in these forests. The black marks on these birch trees were made by locals stripping bark to make baskets. The baskets are used by families and sold in craft shops.

There was some excitement in camp this morning.  Two men arrived on a little motorcycle with a wooden sidecar.  In the sidecar was an inflatable boat.  They blew it up, carried it to the river, went to the other side, and started fishing.  They were pretty quiet about it all, and didn’t chat with us.  I guess they were catching something, but we couldn’t see what.

So we decided we’d better go see what they were catching.  We haven’t caught any fish at all this trip, which means there has been no fish soup.  That was a staple in prior expeditions, so we’d like to have at least a taste this year.  To make fish soup, one takes a whole fish, chops it up, and throws it in a pot with onions and seasonings.  That’s dinner.  In years past, it was also sometimes breakfast and lunch, too.  This year, we’ve missed the key ingredient: fresh fish.

Whatever the success on the other side of the river, we had no luck here.   The only thing I caught was a six-inch Northern Pike.  Might sound like something, but pike are so skinny that it looked like a cigar.   He was cute, but not big enough to flavor soup, so I let him go.  Slava shook his head, saying he’d just go tell his buddies that we were here trying to catch them, and we’d get no more fish today.  And that is exactly how it worked out – one cigar, and no more.

I heard that there was a little misunderstanding on the way back from the forest.  The crew decided to stop at a store to get some supplies.  Bruce had bought some bottled water in Tomsk, and wanted more.    I think it’s called Bon Aqua.  He went into this little shop, showed the keeper the bottle, and lifted his finger up in “one” sign, hoping she would sell him one bottle of Bon Aqua.  After a moment, she smiled and graciously took the bottle from him, went to the tap, and filled it up.   Bruce called the Russian-speakers over to help, but it was just no good.  Not only was there no bottled water, but the shopkeeper just could not imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to buy water, when the best water in the world was to be found, free, in Stepanova.   Apparently, the town is world-famous for mineral springs and healing water.  I guess we are the talk of the town tonight, as those folks who came to the best water in the world, and wouldn’t drink.

Well, if it’s healing water, I’ll be drinking it.   We’re going to stay here for at least one more day and night.  There are many GLAS footprints nearby, and it’s most efficient to stay put, without wasting more time on rough road.  Between the rest and the mineral water, maybe I’ll be fit to work tomorrow.

The Western Siberia Expedition 2010: A Day of Rest

August 19th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Stepanova, Siberia   58.67 N 86.76 E

10:35 pm Siberia local; 11:35 pm next day EST

High: 58 F     Low: 47 F   Scattered rain

This has been a hard day for me.   I have been a little sick with a cold for several days, but today I am just exhausted, with no energy at all.  I had to make the very difficult decision to stay in camp.  

I want to be in the field, working.  But if I get in the field and have to quit, or can’t walk fast enough, then we may get less data than we should.  It is standard protocol that we don’t take people in the field that can’t keep up.  And today, that is me.  It has never happened to me before, and I am taking it pretty hard – but it’s necessary for the expedition.  

The others, except for Slava, went out as usual to make measurements.  They did a great job, too.  They returned to camp very late, with measurements from 14 plots.  I understand that the forest is mostly upland, with moderately dry soils.  Scots Pines are the predominant tree, with some other species mixed in.  They reported that there were some really outstanding old Aspen trees – some they estimated to be as old as 100 years old. 

Using the new GPS we purchased yesterday, Sergei and Marsha find the center of a GLAS footprint in the field. Now that we carry two GPS, two groups can make measurements simultaneously, increasing the amount data that can be collected daily.

The camp is right on the bank of the river here – the Ket River.  The ground is sandy and soft, and the weather is cool.  We have some rain today, but just scattered rain and clouds, then some sunshine.

There is a hayfield behind our camp and the grass is ready for cutting.  This morning we looked up and there were people there, working just behind the tents.  They just sort of appeared from nowhere, very quietly, cutting the hay by hand.  They had these big scythes – just like the grim reaper is supposed to carry.  They are continuing the traditional harvest, just as it has been done here for many centuries.

They waved to us, and Slava went out to talk to them.  Pretty soon I saw him with a scythe, helping them harvest.  He did a pretty good job, too.  When he returned, he was smiling.  He said it reminded him of when he was a boy. He used to go harvest like that with his Grandfather. 

Slava made a run into town today, and came back with milk and newly made bread, some onions and cottage cheese.   The people at the market gave him some smoked fish to try.  It’s a type of carp and it comes from local rivers.   The dried fish still has the bones in it, but you can pull the flesh away and it tastes pretty good.   Slava also tried his luck at fishing today, but said he caught nothing in the river.   And he set up a new tent.  This one is tall, so we can stand up in it.  For the rest of our time here, it will be our “office”, where we can work together if it rains, and maybe we’ll be able to zip it up to keep the mosquitoes out. 

The biggest chore for the day was fixing the grey UAZ.  There was something wrong with the electrical system. Slava said he couldn’t turn the headlights off anymore. Even when the car is turned off and he takes the keys away, the lights still burn.  That’s not very good, and it drains the battery, so it had to be fixed.  Slava had the car all apart and wires in his hands for most of the afternoon.   And, of course, he succeeded.

After he fixed the electrical system, he took every bit of everything out of the car and scrubbed it well.  Then he applied sealant to the seams in the floorboards.   They let dust in yesterday, and he thinks that made my cold a lot worse, so he wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I don’t think I described the dust-storm in the car very well yesterday.   We were driving on a good, paved road, with Ross and I sitting in the back seat.  I was very tired, so I fell asleep.  We hit a bump, and I woke up with a start.  My head was down and all I could see was this white cloud billowing up between my feet.  I thought the car was on fire.

I got all excited and yelled at Slava, “pull over, pull over!”  Slav asked “Jon, what do you mean by ‘pull over’?”   “I mean stop the car!” I yelled.  He said no, he didn’t think we should.  Then Ross informed me that it wasn’t fire, just dust.  The tires were tossing road dust up against the wheel well, and it was billowing in through holes in the seams of the floorboards.

For awhile I tried to cover the holes to stop the dust.  I grabbed maps and papers and all sorts of stuff.  Then finally I gave up – and found a dust mask in my backpack.  I put that one, and tried to go back to sleep.  That’s why Slava is fixing it.  Oh – I found out this is NOT Slava’s personal car – it belongs to the Sukachev Institute.  Obviously, it must always need a lot of repairs, because Slava appears to be a very practiced mechanic. 

So Slava’s day was very busy.  As for me, I took some pictures for the blog and thought about making dinner for the homecoming of today’s “Heroes of the Expedition”  But our heroes had taken all the supplies for dinner with them, so they had to help cook when they got back.   I hate to say it, but what I did, mostly, was lie in my tent and sleep.  It’s no way to spend an expedition, but it’s the only way to get myself well again. 

Ross Nelson works in our new "office" by the banks of the Ket River. This is the first time we've had a tent dedicated for meetings and work.

I did help fix the car – okay, well let’s be more accurate and say I made a contribution.  Looking at the cracked windshield gave me an idea.  I dug around in my backpack and found the adhesive that I like to carry along.  It’s called Gorilla Glue, and it’s great for sticking just about anything together.  I offered it to Slava, thinking it might stabilize the windshield.  He liked the idea, and now the UAZ has Gorilla Glue on both the outside and inside of the windshield.  Maybe it will hold together until we get back to Krasnoyarsk. 

While I lay in my tent today, I started thinking about animals.  When I drive around near my home in Maryland, I always see lots of mammals and birds.  There are lots of animals that live in Siberia, but we don’t ever seem to see many when we are on expedition. Maybe they stay away from people, because they aren’t used to seeing many of us.  Or maybe we just make too much noise – that’s certainly true when we are working a plot.  We’re cracking through brush and yelling out numbers. No self-respecting animal would hang around when fools like us are in the woods.   Whatever the reason, the only four-legged wild things I’ve seen so far have been a couple of squirrels and a few skinks. 

There are birds here, though.  Southern Siberia seems to have a lot more birds than the far north, where we traveled the last two expeditions.  So far I’ve seen hawks, pigeons and magpies.  There are two types of crows – a black one and a gray one – and I’ve seen both.  There were some swallows feeding their young and a flock of heron-like birds that flew overhead.  The best bird I’ve seen was the Siberian nutcracker, a Nutifraga species, which is called a “cedarbird” here.  This bird eats the seed of the Siberian pine, and through this habit, helps the tree reproduce.  Since I like Siberian pine, I have a soft spot in my heart for this little bird. 

Today has been a quiet day for me – a day of healing and meditation.  For the rest, it was a long day of hard work, as usual.  The night has come, with cool air that makes the prospect of snuggling into a warm sleeping bag very attractive.  It’s great sleeping weather.  Hopefully a good night’s sleep will bring me a healthier tomorrow, so I can go back to the forests with the team.  They are already asleep – the morning comes soon in Siberia.

The Western Siberia Expedition 2010: Stepanova

August 18th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast  58.67 N 86.76 E

11:15 pm Siberia local; 12:15 PM next day EST

High: 72 F    Low: 62 F   Scattered Rain

Today we finally reached the town of Belyy Yar.  I can testify that yes, it does exist and also that it is a lovely little town.   But what a day it has been – it’s a long, long way from Tomsk to Bely Yar.

Our first goal was to cross the Ob River by ferry.  Our cars were running fine, the weather was decent and the roads were paved.  We soon found the ferry, and drove our vehicles aboard with no trouble.  There  enough room that five cars, one truck and a few standing passengers easily got onboard.  It must be a popular ride – four ferries work this dock, departing and returning approximately on the half-hour.   They load up quickly, and then they take off.    

The ferry across the Ob River. The grey UAZ and The Pill are aboard. Slava watches another van come aboard. Soon it would depart without warning, leaving Jon standing on shore.

When I say “take off”, that’s exactly what I mean – they waste no time at all.  As Mikal and Slava drove onto the boat, I stayed on the dock to take another picture.  I had the camera up and was focusing, when, through the lens, I noticed that the ferry was moving!   The captain had decided they were full and gunned the engines – without sounding a horn or giving any notice at all.   I ran down the dock and made a big leap for the boat.  Somehow I landed on the deck rather than in the Ob.  Nothing like the fear of being left behind in Siberia to turn a scientist into an athlete!  

We disembarked at a nice little town on the other side, but we didn’t linger.  We needed to make Belyy Yar by early afternoon.  At first the road was paved, but, predictably, the good road soon ran out.  We hit a gravel road and the ride turned noisy and dusty.   Gravel spattered against the car’s body and dust rose up from the seams in the floorboards.   

I looked up in time to see a big truck driving towards us, going fast.  As it passed, the gravel flew high – and hit the windshield right in front of Slava.   The windshield cracked with a horrible noise – but it held, and no one was hurt.  We’re not going to be able to get it fixed anytime soon, and that’s a shame.  We can’t seem to get through a day without some kind of car trouble.  The rough road and all the car trouble makes me nostalgic for river expeditions.  They seem so easy, now!

At last, we arrived in the town of Belyy Yar.  It was a nice town.  The houses are quaint and the people talkative and helpful.   It is is apparently the center of government in this area, and most of the industry in the area is forestry, so it’s a town important to those interested in the forest.   We had a meal at a restaurant, filled our tanks with gasoline, and spent a few hours visiting with the local Forester. I am terrible with names, and with apologies to him, I have to say all I remember is that he is called Igor.  He was helpful and generous.  Igor told us about the forest conditions, discussed the cutting history and methods here, and gave us up to date information about the main roads between here and the forest sites.  And he gave us tea and cookies, too.  We would have loved to linger in town, but tonight’s camp was about 130 km to the east – so we had to move on.  

In Belyy Yar, we met with the Forester for the Region. He showed us great hospitality and shared excellent information regarding the local forests. From left: Slava Kharuk, Bruce Cook, Igor the Forester, Jon Ranson, Ross Nelson.

After a relatively uneventful drive, we arrived in the general area that we wanted to camp.  We get details for camps from locals, so we started looking for a likely source of information.  We rolled into Stepanova, a little village, and saw an older fellow sitting on a bench in front of his house.  He was a typical Siberian townsman, in long pants and a long-sleeved summer shirt.  But on his feet he sported a large pair of purple Crocs.   I don’t think I’d ever seen Crocs quite that color before.  And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Crocs in Siberia.  Slava thought he’d be a good guy to talk to, and we made a stop.  Sure enough, soon we had information about a wonderful camp on a decent road, and off we went to find it. 

The only problem with following local advice is that conditions do change.  Maybe the last time this fellow was on this road, it was good.  But today it was terrible.  It was more of a path than a road, and it was full of grass, rocks and mud.  I rode in the grey UAZ, the lead car, and Slava was paying close attention to the road.  So we didn’t notice when The Pill ran into deep mud and got solidly stuck.  But we didn’t drive too far, because all of a sudden we, too, were axle-deep in mud.  We waited for The Pill to show up, but when they didn’t, Slava called them on this cell phone.  That’s when we found out the entire expedition was mired in mud. 

Pretty soon the crew from The Pill came carrying their hand-shovels to help dig us out.  We dug near the tires, then laid down branches and brush under the tires for traction.  Then we dug a bit more.  It took awhile, and at some point, I heard Marsha mutter the slogan I’d read about before: “a UAZ will break down where no other car will go”.   I get it, I get it – a UAZ will take you far beyond where it makes any sense to try to drive.  And then you may regret it.

Eventually we freed the grey UAZ, then drove back to rescue The Pill.  Slava and Mikal hooked The Pill’s winch to the grey car, and, after much more digging, Slava gave a good pull.  Finally Mikal was able to get some forward momentum and The Pill rolled forward out of the mud to safety.    

A local told us this was a good road. I guess it depends on your definition of "road". Marsha, Pasha and Slava work to free the grey UAZ. The Pill waits, axle deep in mud, about 1/4 mile behind.

We decided to abandon that road, and headed back to Stepanova.  As we reached town, the fellow with the purple crocs waved to us.  “How did you like the road?” he said, with an open, guileless smile.  With characteristic understatement, Slava gently replied “It was not so good” – and off we drove, waving and smiling.

We finally reached a lovely campsite near a river.  It was dark when we arrived, so I don’t know much about it, other than it looks like a lovely place to sleep.   

It’s been a long, long ride.  From our campsite two days ago we have driven about 1500 km (930 miles).  That’s about the same distance as driving from Baltimore, Maryland to Des Moines, Iowa.  And most of it has been on really, really rough roads.  I like road trips, but at times this  has been more like an amusement park ride than a road trip. 

There is a lot of work we can do in this forest, so we will camp here for the next three or four days.  By the end of that time, we’ll be ready to return to Krasnoyarsk refreshed, with loads of excellent data.   I’m hoping our car troubles are behind us, and am looking forward to a productive time in the forests near Stepanova.

The Western Siberia Expedition 2010: Twisted Neck

August 17th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast     57.22 N 83.53 E

11:22 pm Tomsk local; 12:22 pm, next day, EST

High 70 F    Low 49 F     Clear skies

Today was a long day of slow progress.  At the end of a tiring journey, we are now snug in a wonderful little camp, with a bright half-moon shining over the lake next to our tents.  But, unfortunately, Bely Yar still eludes us. 

We woke up early this morning, broke camp and loaded up as quickly as possible.  By 8:30 the sun was up and we were on our way.  After rattling down our rugged forest road for a bit, Slava discovered a leaking tire.  Fortunately we soon found the village of Komsomorsk and even more fortunately we found a good mechanic, a nice young man who had grown up in the region.   

Slava drives this gray UAZ 469, a Russian-made four wheel drive vehicle. They are sturdy cars, designed to be easy to repair when things go wrong. They are quite popular - and useful - in Siberia, where roads are rugged and distances are long.

Like most folks around here, our mechanic was friendly and enjoyed chatting.  He told us that his family had been exiled here in the 1930’s, under Stalin’s regime.  It turns out that it is quite likely that his family had lived in the very same forest we worked two days ago – the forest where we found the old, sad stumps. 

His family had been rounded up in Russia and forced into exile at Shushenskoye, a town built at the confluence of the Yenisei and Big Shush Rivers in the southern part of Krasnoyarsk Krai.   It’s a famous town, because it is site of Vladimir Lenin’s exile from 1897 to 1900.

The families were allowed to stay in town for a little while.  Then, suddenly, the Russians came and packed them up, along with many others, and transported them to a “special settlement” near the Chulym River.   They were dropped in the middle of the wild forest with just a few tools, and told to go to work and build cabins for themselves.  This was just before winter set in, he said.  That would make it this time of year, probably in August. So we are experiencing what conditions may have been like for those kulaks so long ago.  They would have had mild, probably rainy weather for a few weeks longer.  And then winter would come.   

When winter comes to Siberia, it moves in fast and hard.  In this area, average August high temperatures are in the low 70’s.  By September, average highs fall to the low 50s and snows may start falling. It gets worse from there – and quickly.  Food is reasonably available in the summer, but one can’t start a garden in August – there is no time – so they would have had to live off the land, without a garden and without reserve food.  In the winter, food becomes quite scarce.  One can hunt, but there is not much vegetation to gather.   It was not a very good situation, to say the least.  Our friend says that of the 300 people who were put out at that site, only 30 survived the first winter.  

Besides these “special settlements”, the Russians also had Gulags in this area.  These were forced-labor prison camps.  If the kulaks had it bad, those locked away in Gulag had it much worse.  Prisoners were supposed to be provided with food, a luxury the kulaks did not enjoy, but at least the kulaks could strive to survive and they held their fate, as bleak as it was, in their own hands.  Prisoner’s lives were at the whim of the State and particularly at the whim of the prison guards – most of whom were well-hardened men, if not outright cruel.   If kulaks were cold, they could look for kindling and have a chance at a fire.  Prisoners might be shot for trying the same thing – or freeze to death if they did not.  Suffering from extreme conditions, lack of nourishment and extraordinary work loads, survival rates in Siberian Gulag were very low.    

After hearing about these hard times, we felt pretty happy that our troubles were so simple.  The tire was repaired and off we drove. To reach Bely Yar tonight, we would have to head west hundreds of kilometers to Tomsk, then turn north and drive hundreds more kilometers in that direction.   In the end, we’d be fairly close to where we left last night, but on the other side of the impassible road.  What a very long diversion, just because of one bad road!   Around here, you can’t just hop off the beltway at the next exit and drive a parallel route, like we do where I’m from.   In many areas, here there’s only one route in, and one route out.  And when that fails, it’s time for creativity.  And patience.  

Our team consults with a local at a gas station near our first night’s camp. We have just discovered that the road to Bely Yar is impassible, and are searching for any reasonable alternative. In the end, the only possibility meant a diversion of hundreds of kilometers. On the left, from back to front: Bruce Cook, Mikal, Marsha Dvinskaya, Pasha Oskorbin. On right, from back to front: unnamed local man, Slava Kharuk, Sergei Im.

We soon reached Tomsk, where we had planned to shop for supplies and another GPS. Having a second GPS which would let us divide up into two groups and work two plots simultaneously.   So we were glad to take a break there.  And that’s where we heard the news that Slava’s car was having steering problems.  We figured that being able to steer might be a bit important, so he went off to get the car fixed, with our blessing. 

It seems we’re having a lot of car trouble on this trip, but then again, this is not an easy trip for any car at all. Some of these roads might even be a challenge for a horse – or a human.   Slava drives a UAZ 469, which is a boxy, Russian-made, four wheel drive vehicle.  UAZ (pronounce that as “you –oz”, cars have a simple design, so they can be worked on by their owners, because Russians seem to prefer being independent.   The cars, especially those built up to 1990, have a reputation for being very reliable and rugged.  Our blue Pill is also a UAZ and is also a four wheel drive.   I once read that there is a saying in Russia that goes “a UAZ will break down where no other car will go”.    I don’t think many other cars would have gotten us into the forest on yesterday’s roads, so I guess we can forgive a bit of trouble. 

By the time Slava and his UAZ returned, it was so late we had to give up once again on our quest to reach the fabled Bely Yar, at least temporarily.  Slava had asked around and found a promising camp location to our north and west, so off we went to try to find a place to park and sleep for the night.  As it was, we rattled up another rough road to the camp just as the sun was getting ready to set. 

Whoever turned us on to this spot certainly was kind.  It is a nice flat meadow right next to a little lake.  I am told that it is in an area called Charevo Shayno, which translates as “Twisted Neck”.  I have no idea how it got that name, and I’m not sure I even want to speculate.  But I do know this is a beautiful campsite and I feel lucky we get to take a rest here. 

As I was putting up my tent, I looked across the lake and the sun was going down.   The sky was full of colors and it all looked so very peaceful as the sun slowly set.  Then a million stars came out against the blackest sky you can imagine.  Tonight the sky is very clear and the half-moon looks very white and bright.  We will sleep well at Twisted Neck, I think. 

Morning will come quite early.  We’ve left everything but the most essential gear in the vehicles, so all we need to do is get up, grab a bite to eat and pack up minimal gear.  We need to be on the road by 6:30 in the morning.  We have another 4-5 hours driving ahead of us, and we’d like to try to get a little time working the forest tomorrow afternoon.   The night is beautiful, but morning will come early, so it’s time to close this entry.   Don’t forget to look at the moon tonight, wherever you are.

The Western Siberia Expedition 2010: The Scarred Forest

August 16th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast    57.83 N 86.7 E

12:00 midnight Siberian;  12:00 noon EST

 High: 55    Low:  43    Overcast

Oh my goodness, I’m exhausted tonight.   It’s late and it’s been a very long day.   It’s chilly tonight, too – the breeze off the water is cold here, in our camp by the river. I’ve already crawled into my sleeping bag, where it’s quite warm and cozy.  Stick a fork in me, I am done.   

This morning we climbed into The Pill and headed out to the study area, only about 30 km (18mi) away.  That’s a fraction of my morning commute back home, so I thought it would take just a few minutes.  But the road was full of ruts and potholes. It took us almost two hours to get to work.  It was worse coming home, too.  We happened upon some locals who had gotten stuck in a real deep pothole.  Mikal had a winch on The Pill, so we got them hauled out, but it made the commute take forever. 

The morning commute in the Siberia forest can be a challenge. The road was lined with potholes and ruts. The average speed was less than 9 miles per hour.

As we drove in, we saw a very diverse and robust forest.  Siberian fir, Siberian pine and aspen are abundant in the wetter spots.  Spruce and Scots pine thrive in the drier areas.   When we stopped, we noticed right away that the wet soil-species predominated in our work area, so it looked like a good idea to wear our rubber waders.   

The waders are heavy and hot, but they do keep feet dry, and wet feet in the forest can be miserable. We all elected to wear them, except for Marsha.  She is very experienced in this region and was confident she could pick dry paths through wetlands.  She did great most of the time.  But there was one very wet bog that was a challenge.  All us guys in our big boots sloshed right on through.  It was a little tiresome, but we got out dry. Marsha had to be much more methodical, picking her way from one tuft of vegetation to another.  We waited for her, and silently rooted for her to make it through.  In the end, though, she ended up getting her feet pretty wet a time or two. And no, none of us gentlemen offered to carry the damsel across the bog.  We’re scientists not knights.  In the forest, there is no chivalry.

Let me describe how we do our work.  To start, we have to find the right location, so we consult maps to locate a GLAS footprint within walking distance.  Using our GPS, we walk to the center of that footprint – which can be a challenge, depending on what is in our way.  Then we measure and mark the boundary of a 10 meter radius around the center, so we end up with a 20m diameter circle.  That’s our “plot”. 

Once the plot is marked, we split into teams of two.  One person will use a standard forestry diameter tape (measuring tape) and wrap it around the tree trunk at 4.5 feet (1.37 m) above the forest floor and measure the diameter of the tree.  That height from the ground is known as diameter breast height, or DBH.  Once you get used to it, it’s easy to repeat DBH without having to think about it.  And the other person has a clipboard and records the height of the tree, the species of the tree and makes other notations that may be relevant.   We measure the DBH of every tree in the plot.

We also need to measure three trees for height, and they need to be representative of the species in the plot.   That means that we pick trees of the predominant species – we wouldn’t measure the lone birch in a Scots Pine forest, for example. We’d pick a pine.   Then we choose one tree from each category of DBH – one tree with a low DBH, one with a medium DBH and one with a high DBH.  We’ll need a tree that is relatively tall, and one that we can see both the trunk and the top of the crown, so we can sight it with the hypsometer – the gadget that makes the measurements.   Once we sight the tree properly, the hypsometer gives us a reading, and we write that down, too.  That’s all there is to it.  Sounds easy, but after hundreds of trees in a plot, it gets a bit tiring.  Today we measured over 600 trees in our nine plots.

This old rutted road seems to draw a line between two different types of forest.   On the south side, the land is wet and the forests are rich in birch and aspen, with some Pine, Spruce and Fir mixed in, and moss covers the ground.   On the north side of the road, the soil is dry and the forest is almost exclusively Scots Pine, with lots of lichen on the floor. 

In the early 1950's, Siberian silkmoths devastated this forest, killing over a million hectares of trees in the Ket-Chulym region. The trees killed at that time are still in the forest. This tree, most likely a victim of silkmoth, has fallen over, exposing a very large and very bare root ball.

On the northern side of the road, we can tell that a big battle was oce waged here.  It was a case of human vs. fire, with the forest being the prize.  The most notable evidence is the remnants of very old firebreaks.   In order to control a forest fire, often it is necessary to clear a wide swath of all burnable material.  That’s a “firebreak”.  The idea is that when the fire reaches the break, it won’t have any more fuel and it will die.   To make a firebreak, they take a tractor with a big attachment and dig a wide trench.   And that’s what we see here – the earth is scarred with firebreak trenches.   

They must have fought the blazes a long time ago.  Some of the trenches have almost completely been filled with soil, and others have good sized trees growing from them.  We found these tracks all over the forest.  Firs t they go in one direction, then in another.  I don’t know when it happened, or who fought it, but it must have been a mighty battle.  There’s no hint of who won, either – the fire or the people.   Well, the forest has returned, so I guess, in the end, the forest won the war.

The forest was also scarred by an old invasion of the Siberian silkmoth.   This region suffered a very famous infestation back in the early 1950s, when about a million hectares of forest was destroyed by that insect.   The little white moth lays eggs on the conifers – Siberian Pine, Siberian Fir and Siberian Spruce are favorites – and the larvae will strip the host tree of needles, killing the tree.   That happened right here, and we see a lot of long-dead trees left standing, a lot of trees blown down and decaying, and a lot of “new” growth.  Of course, the new growth is about sixty years old.  It’s clear this forest has been under a great deal of stress from both fire and insects. 

Pasha and Slava had been minding the camp today.  We again returned to a burning campfire and warm food.  Tonight we ate fruit compote, made of dried fruits mixed with water and heated over the fire,  along with rice and a soup made out of meat, potatoes, onions and spices.   I put my rice in my soup, and it made a wonderful, filling meal.   

Tomorrow we will try to find a back way into Belyy Yar.  The direct road to that city is still impassible, and it looks like it will stay that way for a long time.  Slava has been searching for another route, and he tells me he’s found it.  I’m told to get some rest, because we’ll get up very early and, if it all works out, we’ll reach that area very late tomorrow night.  I hope it works out – we really do want the data from that area, if it’s at all possible.

Notes from the Field