Notes from the Field


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.    

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.  

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.    

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.

One Response to “Stepanova”


    Thank you for your blog. The pictures are helpful in understanding your research. Our company has 16,000 acres of tree farms in western Washington and it is interesting to know from your prospective what is happening in this country to the forests. I see by the NASA website that there is a huge cloud of smoke covering western Russia. Are you inhibited in any way by the smoke? Hopefully you are feeling better.