Siberia 2008

July 21–22

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 09:05 PM USZ6S (09:05 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Few Clouds
  • High: 67 degree F
  • Low: 54 degrees F
  • Humidity 62%
  • Pressure: 30.1 in Hg
  • Wind: 13 mph NE
  • Visibility: >7 miles

From Dr. Ranson

The time is rushing by like lightning. We stay so busy, and the experience is so intense that I can’t believe this year’s trip is almost over. It seems like we just began a day or two ago. But when I think about my home, my friends, and my family, it seems like forever that I’ve been gone. On the river it seems almost as if that life is just a dream. But the fact is we’re done with the river. And I’m only a half-a-world and four days away from my home.

Yesterday was our last day in the forest. It was a pretty routine day, no special excitement. The weather was cooperative, and the mosquitoes a steady backdrop, just music to measure trees by. We went up the back of the mountain and worked down slope. The trees there were small and far apart. We made a ton of measurements so it was a highly successful, long day’s work.

Slava and his team worked the other side of the river. Today they took transects of trees for their fire-return studies. Fire has always been a part of life in the forest. The larch trees actually benefit from smaller fires. The larch resist the heat of fire that burns the underbrush, so a fire will allow the seeds more fertile ground with less competition. And it helps the cones to release their seeds, too. But large and extremely hot fires will damage and often kill larch—so fire is a mixed blessing to this forest.

From his prior work, it appears that fire is occurring much more frequently in recent years, possibly as a consequence of the warming of the region. It also appears that these fires are much larger than in the past, affecting and killing many more trees. To continue these studies, Dr. Kharuk’s team cuts slices across the tree and takes these discs back to the lab to analyze. If there has been a fire in the tree’s lifetime, it will leave a scar on the tree. Each fire leaves a different scar on a different growth ring. The collected transect of the tree not only can date the fires the tree has lived through, but they are also analyzed to study the effects of the climate on growth and the age of the trees in the forest. So one tree gives a wealth of information for many studies.

  Photograph of Slava Kharuk and Sergei Im holding transects (slices) of larch trees.

The last night in camp was quiet. And yes, fish was on the menu again. We eat a lot of fish here. We have fish soup, salted fish, fish over rice or pasta or over bulgur wheat. We’ve had fried fish, and we’ve had canned fish with crackers. For variety, we sometimes eat canned cow. There’s been canned beef over pasta, over rice or over bulgur wheat. And we get oatmeal for breakfast.

By this time last year, I was having cravings for borscht, and Paul was constantly reciting a mantra that sounded something like “pizza, pizza, pizza.” This year no one is complaining much, although Paul has just begun talking about craving some of his special, secret tacos. I guess we’re more satisfied with our diet this year. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s Pasha’s secret ingredient—ketchup. He uses a lot of it when he cooks for us.


Slava Kharuk (left) and Sergei Im (right) return to camp after a day collecting transects from Larch trees. Sergei is holding some of the transects, or cross-sections. Slava holds the chainsaw they used to collect them. These cross-sections will be studied in the laboratory at the Sukachev Institute of Forests. Each one will give the scientists a wealth of information: the age of the tree, climate conditions throughout its lifetime, dates of fires that left scars, and changes of growth rate in response to climate warming. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of Pasha Oskorbin using his secret ingredient to enhance a meal.

Early this morning we ate a fast breakfast then hurriedly broke down our tents and boats. We piled our gear near the edge of the flattened area we’d selected as the wilderness helipad. We waited next to our gear for what seemed to be a long time. In reality, the helicopter was only a couple of hours late—a long time when you are wondering if your ride is really going to show up, but not so long for a connection in the wilderness.

We were glad to hear it coming and watched it flying towards us. Then we watched it hover a bit—and fly on. A short while later it reappeared. I guess he wanted to survey the local conditions before landing.

The big MI-8 made a memorable arrival. We crouched down next to our gear, expecting some prop wash to blow on us. We sure got that and more! Apparently the pilot wanted to make it as easy on us to load up, because he came down within five feet of our pile. We ducked down very, very low as he came in over us! I knew I was safe, but it was a bit unnerving to hear the incredible sound and feel the roaring wind as this big chopper landed so close by.

Within in an hour we were loaded and a few more hours found us in Khatanga. It’s a small town, but it seems pretty big now, after coming out of the wilderness. We’ll spend two nights here, in a small house that we rented. It’s comfortable: no rocks under our beds tonight!

Even though we have soft beds, fresh food, and a roof to sleep under, there’s no mistaking that we are still in a different land. This evening I saw a load of caribou meat being trucked to market out of town. The carcasses had been skinned, beheaded, gutted, and frozen. They were piled in the back of a slat-sided, open truck. It was bizarre to see the legs sticking every which-way. Of course, the truck was not refrigerated, other than by natural means. Yes, it’s pretty cold here even now – in mid-summer – so I guess they take advantage of the weather. I’m sure it’s perfectly safe and edible meat. Still, I think I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end of that load of caribou!

Although we are in town, the adventure is not over. Nor is the science. Now, out of the wilderness, we will be able to discuss the data a bit and start to sort through what we’ve gathered. I’ll share some of that in the final entry.


Cooking for a team of hard-working scientists in the field is a challenge. Pasha Oskorbin, the primary camp cook, uses his secret ingredient to enhance a meal. He says, “There is nothing inedible on this expedition. There may just be too little ketchup.” The label is from an American company, with the brand name written in English. The rest of the label is in Russian Cyrillic: an appropriately international condiment for this American/Russian expedition. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)