Down the River

THE TEAM had been working out of Agzu for nearly two weeks, both while waiting for my helicopter to arrive and then in my company. There was more we could do here, but citing satisfaction with the local search, a melting river, and his overtaxed liver, Sergey gave the call to pull up stakes. Before I joined them, the team had met and arm-wrestled a hunter named Chepelev in the forest upriver, who had invited us to work out of his cabin some forty kilometers south of Agzu, a place called Vosnesenovka. We’d relocate there, where Sergey thought the atmosphere would be more peaceful. It was only my fifth day in Agzu, and I would have benefited from more time on the Sokhatka River looking for the nest tree of the fish owls we knew were there. But just because the birds were residents of a certain territory was no guarantee of nesting. This is because unlike most birds, fish owls in Russia typically attempt to breed only once every two years and typically raise only one chick, more rarely two. In Japan, just across the sea, fish owls tend to breed every year and usually have two chicks.

The reasons for the discrepancy in breeding output remain unknown, but I now believe it has to do with how many fish are in the rivers for the owls to catch. In Japan, where fish owl extinction was narrowly avoided by concerted government intervention and significant financial investment, nearly a quarter of the fish owl population is artificially fed in stocked ponds. This might mean that the Japanese birds are better fed and thus in better physical condition to reproduce. In Russia, a pair concentrates on a single chick that often stays with its parents for fourteen to eighteen months after hatching—an astonishingly long period for any bird species—before it leaves to find its own territory. In contrast, a young great horned owl of North America, a dwarf at only a third the weight of an adult fish owl, seeks its own territory after only four to eight months.

But simply confirming the existence of a pair in the area was enough for the purposes of this expedition, which was designed only to identify key locations along the Samarga River where fish owls were found to prevent logging there. I could understand Sergey’s sense of urgency: I had been in Agzu for only a few days, but the others had been weathering local hospitality for nearly two weeks. We would be heading south as soon as the sleds were ready.

It took us several hours to prepare. Tolya carefully packaged all of our food in a giant watertight barrel. Shurik filled the snowmobile tanks with gasoline from our diminishing supply. Sergey consulted with some locals about the route. We piled the majority of the weight on the wooden, yellow-painted sled that Sergey had constructed in his garage in Dalnegorsk, and we hitched it to the black Yamaha, which was the larger of the two machines we had at our disposal. The smaller, green Yamaha was recreational, designed for speed, and pulled an aluminum sled with some of our lighter gear. We boxed and wrapped our supplies, covering them in several concentric layers of blue tarp before cinching everything down tightly on the sleds with rope to keep anything from flying off and to keep any water out.

Tolya rode alone, helming the spry green snowmobile, while I straddled the long bench of the black Yamaha behind Sergey. Shurik assumed a dog-musher stance on the back rails of the yellow sled we towed. Our positioning was purposeful: if we started to flounder in deep snow, Shurik and I could pop off and push to keep the Yamaha’s momentum going. We led and Tolya followed.

We departed Agzu without fanfare. A few locals came out to wish us well, including the unshaven Russian and Loboda, the one-armed hunter. However, Ampleev and most of the faces I’d seen around the table the previous few nights were absent.

As our caravan sped south, I recognized the forests we had surveyed in the days before; we passed the spot where Ampleev had fished, then where I had dug a hole to hide from the wind and where the deer drowned. A little farther south, Sergey slowed the snowmobile and leaned back, his eyes shielded like mine by ski goggles and a hood cinched tight around his head. The ice surface was uneven here, with a small disk from some disturbance where the ice had ruptured and then refrozen.

“This is where that guy went through,” he yelled so Shurik could hear in the back, “the one they told you about in Agzu. This is the spot.”

We continued on.

Every so often someone would point a gloved hand, and we’d all look to see deer after deer, some red but mostly roe, resting on the thawed southern banks or chewing at the newly exposed vegetation. There were so many deer that eventually we stopped pointing and passed them without announcement. These were gaunt creatures with hides of matted fur pulled tight around arching ribs. Exhausted from the punishing winter, the deer did not flee—some did not even stand—and they paid only cursory attention to the thunderous, curious spectacle we made. These animals were on the tail end of a season’s long decline, and as the days grew warmer and the nights shorter, their perseverance would reward them with snowmelt and deliverance into spring. God forbid some Laikas strayed this far south, I thought. It would be a massacre.

Sergey suddenly slowed the machine and stood, looking ahead intently. Tolya pulled up behind. About fifty meters up we could see open water—a light blue snake of slush that contrasted sharply against the surrounding whiteness of solid ice. The slush meandered narrowly before slowly spreading to envelop the entire river from bank to bank for perhaps five hundred meters, beyond which we could again see solid ice.

“Naled,” said Sergey in assessment, and Shurik and Tolya nodded their agreement. I did not know what a naled was, but I certainly did not think the best plan forward was to pick up steam and head straight into it, which was exactly what we did, with Tolya lingering behind to watch and wait his turn.

A naled, literally meaning “on the ice,” is a phenomenon common to the rivers here in late winter and early spring. In the awkward between-season months of March and April, the combination of warm days and subzero nights turns surface water into a slushy mass known as “frazil ice.” This dense ice sinks, causing blockages downstream that dam the river’s flow. These stoppages cause pressure to build and force the slushy water–frazil ice mixture out of any fissure in the surface ice, where it flows atop uninhibited. The trouble with any naled is that without close inspection, there is no way of knowing how deep the soupy mush is. In fact, instead of solid ice underneath, a naled could be hiding free-flowing water. If the latter case was true, we were essentially careening to an abrupt end to the expedition: we’d never get the snowmobile out if the naled was concealing a deep, open river.

At the time I didn’t know any of this, only that we were barreling toward what seemed to be cloudy water, pulling a heavy anchor of a sled. I suppose Sergey and the others assumed this naled was only a few centimeters deep and we would continue largely unfettered, but when we slammed into the water and immediately lost all momentum, we discovered that it was, in fact, meter-deep slush. The snowmobile listed in the water, belching black exhaust, while the sled sank into the icy bog and sat half-submerged, suspended in the mire and immobile. We moved quickly to unhitch the sled; I followed Shurik’s lead, and when he dropped into the thick soup of the naled so did I, my feet finding the still-frozen ice hidden underneath. The slush was above my hip waders, and I could feel the water saturating my pants and quickly soaking through my socks. We threw our weight behind Sergey, engine straining, to push the snowmobile in a tight arc back to the solid ice only a few meters away. We then wheeled the suspended sled around and rehitched it to the snowmobile. With solid ice underneath it, the Yamaha had the traction to pull the sled free.

Too frantic from the flurry of sudden activity, I had not registered the cold until then. I was soaking from the waist down. Tolya, who had remained dry during this adventure, started a fire on the bank as Shurik and I put on fresh clothing and began drying our soaked pants and boots. I examined our situation. As little as a few days ago, this had all likely been solid ice, but with the warmer days of early April contributing to ice melt, the river was no longer a viable route forward, at least not here. We had barely tested the naled: from what we could see, there was half a kilometer of it to go.

Shurik scouted downriver, following the riverbank, and returned to say the naled eventually disappeared. The only realistic course of action was to cut a trail through the forest and bypass it altogether. The forest was fairly open here, consisting mostly of willow, so we had cause for optimism. As our boots dried Shurik unpacked the chain saw, then he and I went ahead to clear a trail while Sergey and Tolya followed on the snowmobiles. We moved slowly, cutting trees where necessary, and made it back to the solid river ice downstream.

Some fifteen kilometers after we returned to the ice, the Samarga transitioned from one side of the valley to the other, and we followed it briefly east past branching tributaries before reaching a cliff base, which forced the river to curve south again. Past the bend, in a clearing opposite a towering slope of the Sikhote-Alin, I could see two wooden structures high on the Samarga’s west bank. This must be Vosnesenovka.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl