Winging it in the Russian Far East

BEYOND THE WING of the Aeroflot twin-engine plane unfolds a tapestry of green tundra and mottled muskeg, the wetlands sliced into crescents by dark arcs of old river channels. Timbered strips of spruce and fir fringe these waterways. A village of perhaps a couple hundred ethnic Russian and native Udehe people looms in the crook of a broad bend of river, now receding from spring melt-off to expose wide sandbars and islands of willow. The little town is the first human sign upon the land in over a hundred miles. Up ahead lies a range of low mountains, the summits traced by lines of snow cornices marking the rounded, windswept ridges. Beyond these hills, at the southeastern edge of the former Soviet Union, lies the Sea of Japan, where we plan to scout out a section of coast for a kayak trip.


The Amur tiger

It is late spring of 1992, just months after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new independent Russian state. On board this flying boxcar are many military men, a few families, a number of young men in leather jackets, and my companions, Jib Ellison and Doug Tompkins. Jib runs commercial river trips in Siberia and Central Asia, though this hastily organized expedition is simply a buddy trip and the three of us merely the advance party. Our friends Yvon Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway are due to show up with Tom Brokaw in less than a week. These men call themselves the Do-Boys because despite demanding professional lives they get together about once a year and do things in the outdoors, like climb mountains or run rivers.

Chouinard and Tompkins know each other from the early Sixties in northern California where they both surfed and climbed, and where Tompkins, at twenty-one, started a mountaineering company called The North Face. Later, Tompkins started Esprit and Chouinard founded Chouinard Equipment, and within a few years a clothing brand called Patagonia. Tompkins, now retired from commercial enterprise, buys up National Park-sized forests in order to preserve them. Chouinard still runs Patagonia. Jib is a green entrepreneur. Together with Ridgeway, they are among the top outdoor clothing and equipment designers in the world and, even at the average age of almost 60, these friends are considered among America’s best mountaineers and kayakers, having climbed and paddled on seven continents.

While “Do-Boy” is derived from bad Japanese journalism and remains an inside joke, the trips these men take are serious, sometimes epic, and all the more so considering their busy lives. Ridgeway met Brokaw on the Today show in 1982 after Rick had successfully climbed the second highest mountain in the world, K2. After the show, Tom confessed that it had always been a dream of his to climb and Rick said, “You really should try it.” The two of them joined Chouinard in Wyoming to scale the Grand Teton and Mount Moran. Later, the three of them teamed with Doug Tompkins to climb Mount Rainier in Washington, reaching the summit in a whiteout.

Taking a comfortable trip with a group of strangers or herd of ecotourists to a scenic or interesting place was unacceptable for this group of men. Most of the Do-Boys had passed the point of life where notions of recreation and mere curiosity about the exotic were sufficient justification to propel an adventure.

In my own case, a strong preference for freedom of travel in wild places and an opportunity for solitude had limited my range. Ridgeway, Chouinard and I had traveled and camped together on a desert island in Mexico. Tompkins, Rick and I had joined up in the wilds of Canada for a polar bear expedition, but — in contrast with my global-rambling pals – I’d barely left North America in nearly twenty years. Then, in 1989, my friend Ed Abbey died and I got a wake-up call. I realized then that I too wasn’t going to be around forever so I’d better take my walks and trips while I still could. Now at 50, I have returned to Asia for the first time since my days as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, to see the salmon rivers at the edge of Siberia, maybe follow tiger tracks along the Sea of Japan and then head to the Himalayas to look for a snow leopard.

The idea of going to southeastern Russia surfaced during a fishing trip in Montana. Famed attorney Gerry Spence, Chouinard’s neighbor and godfather of Yvon’s son Fletcher, was discussing the best places left on earth to see wild tigers with the author, Peter Matthiessen. Since it was my fishing hole and I was interested, I felt comfortable eavesdropping; I had seen tiger tracks numerous times in the Vietnam highlands but my military-subsidized misadventures were nothing compared to the far-ranging travels of Peter and Gerry. The enduring vision that emerged from this exchange was that of a Siberian, or Amur, tiger walking the winter beach of the Pacific Ocean — the quintessence of wild tigerdom.

It turned out that subliminal image had been already been seeded. Another climber friend, Jack Turner, had given me a rare edition of a remarkable book called “Dersu the Trapper,” written by a young Russian geographer, V.K. Arseniev, who made three expeditions to the Primorsky Krai, or Maritime Province, between 1902 and 1907. Dersu was his guide and the spirit of Amba, as the tiger is known by the Tungus tribes, permeates this wonderful account of exploration in these virgin forests.


Actor Maksim Munzuk in the title role of Akira Kurosawa's award-winning film (1975), Dersu Uzala.

So, after several false starts—in trying to find a wild trip in the Russian Far East– Yvon called with news that Dr. Maurice Hornocker had invited him to fly fish the rivers draining the Sikhote-Alin mountains, where Hornocker was conducting a Siberian tiger study, we all jumped on it.

On this relatively tame trip we also want to explore some wild country using collapsible sea kayaks — a river or piece of coastline — we don’t know exactly because the political logistics of travel in the former Soviet Union are still complicated; we will have to wing it. Also, the interests of these men are as eclectic as their backgrounds: Yvon wants to sample the fishing. Doug is looking for virgin timber, maybe try to buy it up and preserve it. Tom is anticipating some simple travel with a few friends without the usual entourage of newspersons and political leaders.

Jib is a student of the culture, and my own interest is skewed towards wild animals that sometimes kill and eat you, like tigers and bears. Everyone wants to see this land, the largest forest on earth, known by its Russian name, “taiga,” the greatest timber resource and wildlife habitat in the hemisphere. We’d like to know what the Russians plan to do with the taiga: set it aside as preserves, continue to protect it as native homelands, or sell it off to foreign logging companies.

What is perhaps most inviting about traveling with the Do-Boys is less that they travel to exotic places for dangerous adventure than that they have genuine curiosity about the wide world and all try, in their own remarkable ways, to affect its course.

OUT THE WINDOW the slate-gray ocean glints in the east and the dark mass of Sakhalin Island hangs on the horizon. A huge wildfire has ravaged the forests below; only ribbons of larch and birch along the creeks have survived the flames. The plane descends into the harbor of Sovetskaya Gavan, a natural anchorage littered with rusting ships and a gray necklace of dreary concrete buildings ringing the bay — the industrial clutter of the cities stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the countryside.

Though I had told my friends I was going to the southeastern edge of Siberia, no one here calls it that. This region is known as the Russian Far East. Elsewhere in Siberia the resources are gas, oil, coal, uranium, gold, and diamonds, but here it is timber that is most visible as an export commodity. “Siberia” means the sleeping land, but with the collapse of much of the Soviet infrastructure people are reeling and the country is waking like a cranky grizzly rudely roused from his den by an avalanche in late February. Despite the material bleakness of the cities, the country feels a lot like Alaska did when oil was discovered there. Siberia and the Russian Far East are on the brink of a boom. An early riser could get rich.

In minutes, we land and collect our backpacks, boat bags and folding kayaks. We wait for our ride in what might be a bar; there are dusty bottles of mystery booze lined up on a grimy counter. Through the window I can see a junkyard of buses and plane wings. Travel in the former Soviet Union is difficult. It is very hard to get off by yourself. Here, someone is always officially accountable for your safety; the notion of being responsible for one’s own ass is unknown. It is true that the old bureaucratic inflexibility was perhaps beginning to unravel, but this relaxation of the rules had yet to drift out to eastern Siberia. On the other hand, there is a comfortable anarchy here and everything is cheap. To get to Sovetskaya Gavan, we had simply paid five bucks to change a visa and hopped on an airplane.

We ask if we can go into the Botchi and have a look. A Russian biologist named Valera befriends us. A round of negotiations begins. The captain of the only “available” boat, though there are hundreds in the harbor, wants an arm and a leg to take us down there. Valera, who I immediately take a liking to, takes charge and gets the price down to ninety dollars.

Valera tells us about the threatened Botchi Valley, how wild and rich it is and how perhaps as many as seven Siberian tigers have ranges that include parts of the drainage.

“Maybe, if we like it, we’ll buy it,” says Doug Tompkins, introducing the alien notion of private ownership and the foreign idea of buying the land in order to save it.


The Do-Boys about to board the helicopter. L to R: Doug Tompkins, Tom Brokaw, Russian wildlife biologist Dimitri Pikunov, Jib Ellison, Doug Peacock, and Yvon Chouinard.

Rick Ridgeway

The silence is followed by nervous laughter. This is a difficult concept to grasp for our Russian friends.

“Who owns this land and how much would they sell it for per hectare?” continues Doug who used this strategy successfully in Chile, where he outbid the timber companies and bought up thousands of hectares of rainforest.

Though the Russians have not yet entered the era where private citizens and groups can own land, they are moving towards it. Tompkins is the ultimate can-do guy and he is, if necessary, prepared to take on the devastation of the world’s forests singlehandedly. The man loves forests. Last summer I flew with Doug all over wild British Columbia. We stopped to kayak in the Queen Charlottes for a few days and then flew the great temperate rainforest. He owns and pilots a Cessna 206 and exploring wild country by air is his passion. He was looking for a large expanse of wild biodiversity; that is, a big chunk of uncut forest. When he finds one he likes, he buys it. Instead of writing his congressman, he just writes a check. Doug owns a number of forests, and some of them are bigger than some national parks. Down in South America, he bought one complete with glaciers, a fjord, and his own active volcano. He doesn’t do anything to them; he only wants to protect them from industrial destruction. If native or subsistence people live there he pencils them into the deed with grandfather clauses.

The one constant remains the soul of Russia. Long after the scenes of dreary city life and funeral lines of bureaucrats examining your papers fade from memory you recall the hearts and hospitality of the people.

The next morning Valera and we three Americans board the sixty-foot boat to Kopii, a small village on the way to Botchi. Perhaps thirty Russians live here along with fifty dogs of vague husky descent, most of them puppies. The few passengers debark here and we break out the folding kayaks for assembly. Jib and Doug are sharing a two-person Klepper. I have a new Feathercraft model. We put these boats together in time for a quick float just before dark. We want to be ready for the Botchi.

Later, we are dieseling south on the big boat when we flag down a crab boat. Valera does the talking and the captain of the crabber sends for a man who comes out with an armload of perhaps fifty pounds of huge, fresh, boiled Kamchatka king crab: all he can carry. I ask Jib to find out how much we owe and in the translation we get another enormous load of crab. We offer to trade cigarettes but the Russians respond with a 20-kilo block. The crew refuses to be paid; the crab is a gift. Finally, they accept tiny pins from America as souvenirs and a drink of vodka. These men who make less than two dollars a day have just potlatched us a couple grand worth of crab.

We put in at the village of Grossevichi at the mouth of the Botchi. The game warden here is a hunter named Gorbachev who will be both our host and guide. Gorbi is two days from 48, tall and very muscular, like many mature Russian men on the frontier. Only Gorbachev and two other families live here, although there is a twenty-man military detachment. Everywhere tiny plots of potatoes are planted to ward off the hunger of winter. There are gardens, smoked fish, salted Chinese garlic, wild greens, moose meat in the cold box, and barrels of smelt.

I walk out to the yard along the ocean where there is a clothesline. Pinned to the rope are hundreds of seven-inch long fish drying in the late spring sunlight. These smelt, I think, are similar to the eulachon or candlefish of British Columbia, so rich in oil that they burn like a wick when dried.

Gorbachev’s log house is hot but comfortable. The wood stove to boil tea water also heats the place. Tomorrow, he says, we will go up the Botchi. Doug and Jib sack out; I go fishing with Gorbi, Valera, and two soldiers. A light rain falls as we motor upstream in the long flat-bottomed boat. On the way up, we pass mergansers, dippers, osprey and fish eagles. Purple herons lift off the bend of river ahead. Gorbi supplies me with a short, stiff rod — the type that my family back in Michigan used to call “meat-rods” — and shows me how and where to flip the crudely hammered homemade lure. On his first cast Gorbi hooks and quickly reels in a kilo-sized char, a fish like our Dolly Varden, or brook trout. Before long all three Russians are hauling in char while I am still fooling with the ancient reel. Gorbi and one of the men each land a silver salmon, about six pounds. Finally, I cast well out into the current, let the lure swing below me, start a retrieve, and I am immediately hit by a three-pound char. The fish are pulled in businesslike with little notion of sport. Even the tiny char are kept, tossed in the boat. These men are fishing for food. A pounding rain nails our skiffs going back downstream and we squint into the downpour. In the driving rain Valera yells out and points out a pair of chestnut-winged Mandarin wood ducks roosting on a gravel bar.


Jib Ellison at the bow.

Back at Gorbi’s cabin, Doug and Jib are up. A few of Gorbi’s friends sit around a long table with Doug at the far end and me at the head. In short, Tompkins has set me up. The rounds begin with pounding down shots of rotgut vodka and toasting anything. Since everyone is watching me I can’t get out of it, though I am sick to death of vodka after the past few days of getting to know these wonderful Russians. Tompkins proposes yet another toast from the end of the table: “Screw Hyundai!” I watch him pour the contents of his glass into the planter he has chosen to conveniently sit next to, while I gag down my poison. Doug does this five more times, five more big shots of vodka, which he dumps out when no one is looking. I pray he doesn’t kill the plant and hope I don’t offend my new friends by puking on the table. Tompkins has a big shit-eating grin on his face.

THE NEXT MORNING two flat-bottomed riverboats take the three of us with our kayaks up the Botchi. I shake off my hangover. It’s a pleasure to get back into the country. We stop at a sledge crossing to walk up into the taiga. The cottonwood, alder, and birch of the river bottom gives way to towering larch, fir, spruce and a sprinkling of Korean pine trees. In the Russian Far East, there are two types of forest that grade into one another: to our south, lies a hardwood forest of oak and Korean pine. And to the north, beginning here on the Botchi, is the boreal forest of spruce, fir, larch and, where there has been forest fire, birch. The Russian Far East is the only place in the world where tiger and leopard live with brown (grizzly) and Asian black bear. This is where Weyerhaeuser wants to clear-cut.

In the mud are the prints of many moose, Asian wild dog (dhole), Sitka deer, brown bear, lynx and mink. No sign of tiger though I know they live here. The willow is just budding up here in the northern Sikhote-Alin. The pitted heads of black morel mushrooms pop out from under a charred log and I gather a batch for dinner.

THE RUSSIANS return to the village leaving us alone, which they are reluctant to do, as our desire to be on our own makes them uncomfortable. This is less a form of suspicion than a legacy of their bureaucratic culture born of a swaddled cradleboard. I hook and beach a seven- pound salmon for dinner and we make camp on a wedge of tundra a quarter mile wide and long, the only open ground for miles along the river. Up on the bank, a game trail leads through the dwarf willow with tracks of moose and the scat of bear.

I pitch my tent out of sight of Jib and Doug, savoring a moment of precious solitude, listening to the calls of ravens, cuckoos, and other unfamiliar birds echoing in the still forest. A tremendous amount of uninhabited land lies deeper in the taiga. The reserve here is unlike American parks with our administrators and wilderness visitors; nobody’s out there. More mammal species live in these boreal woods than any place I’ve ever traveled. The Russians leave these lands to fend for themselves, protected by remoteness. The wild corner of my soul is envious.

I imagine sneaking off by myself and illegally exploring the reserve—camping alone with the tigers and bears. Solitude in wilderness is the deepest well I know—the easiest escape from the prison of culture and self-indulgence. And it’s just out there. I can almost smell it.

Not this time.

Later, we build a fire of wet alder and larch, carefully lighting the inner bark of birch to slowly dry spruce twigs until the branches catch fire. Finally, I stuff the salmon with mushrooms and dust the exterior with Cavender’s Greek seasoning. I wrap the fish in foil and slowly bake it over a thin layer of alder coals. The three of us drift off in different directions to savor the wild forest. By the time we return to camp, the salmon is perfectly cooked.

Wild dogs bark and yowl up and down the river. We try to stoke up the campfire. Across the stretch of tundra, I catch sight of what looks like a large tabby cat against the treeline. The shapes of the dhole dogs dance in the shadows. An amazing menagerie of carnivores roams the taiga, mammals I have never seen before, like raccoon-dogs and the tabby-cat. The only image missing in this primordial landscape is a 200-kilogram tiger roaming the heather.

As recently as the nineteenth-century, the Siberian tiger was common in Siberia, northeastern China, the Korean peninsula and ranged west as far as Mongolia and Lake Baikal. Now the heart of the Amur tiger range lies in the Sikhote-Alin, the Bekin River, and up here in the Botchi, close to the northern range of surviving tigers.

We squat around the poorly burning alder fire. I tell my friends about burying my friend Ed Abbey in a lovely, illegal grave deep in the desert. We speak of mortality, of dreams.

TWO DECADES LATER, after many trips and a half a world away, I get an email from my dear friend, Rick Ridgeway, who has been sharing an adventure with Doug Tompkins, Jib Ellison, and Yvon Chouinard in Chile.

“Doug (Tompkins) and I flipped in a double kayak in cold water. Jib and others did an absolutely valiant effort to get us in. Doug died of hypothermia and I just made it—barely.”

Three months later, Jib, Rick, and I squat around a roaring mesquite fire deep in the desert wilderness near the Mexican border. We pour wine down our throats and spit exploding whiskey into the fire, howling at the owls and poorwills, laughing and weeping in the flickering light. We grill our thick bloody steaks and toast our friends, alive and departed. A meteor flashes out of Cassiopeia.

Doug Peacock at the wheel and Rick Ridgeway riding shotgun en route to Ed Abbey's hidden grave. Rick Ridgeway photo.

After Doug drowned in Chile, Yvon pulled me aside and told me Rick had gone over to the other side with Tompkins into death and hadn’t made it all the way back yet, much the same way I had walked as far into death with Ed Abbey as I could. It took me a long time to come back to the living.

The next morning, we bury all traces of our camp, pack up and drive up into the mountain range. The three of us strike out across the bajada, aim for a distant volcanic peak and drop our packs beyond a rim of basalt. We are here for an honoring, a ceremony. This is the grave of Edward Abbey, where three friends and myself buried him here 27 years ago. Doug Tompkins is buried in South America, but today he will be here with us. It’s also the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre that I unknowingly witnessed on my last day in Vietnam, flying up the South China Sea coast. A year later the photographs in Life magazine changed my life.

Jib reads a poem he has written for his dearest friend. Rick and I are carrying offerings. I leave Doug a Zuni bear effigy in memory of the kayak trip the two of us took in the Queen Charlotte Islands in coastal British Columbia, looking for big bears. Rick speaks softly, telling the mountain about Doug’s love of beauty.

We grieve and laugh, lingering to pour a little Mexican beer on Ed’s grave for old time’s sake. A pair of turkey vultures soar over, headed out to the vast bajada below.

It is our day of the dead.  

Doug Peacock grew up roaming the pine forests and swamps of Michigan, fishing for trout, exploring the encampments of ancient people along the post-glacial beaches of the Great Lakes. He attended the University of Michigan, spending two summers as a research assistant under National Science Foundation grants. The first allowed him to assist archeologists in excavating a site Peacock discovered as a teenager. On the second expedition, he and a professor traveled to Alaska in search of Tertiary non-marine vertebrate fossils.

While at the university Peacock ran a lecture program, personally inviting Martin Luther King, Norman Thomas and Tom Hayden to speak to students. Accordingly, Peacock–though essentially a loner–was involved with what would eventually be called “The New Left.” The principal movements then were civil rights and anti-war, especially the approaching war in Southeast Asia.

After two tours as a Special Forces medic in the Central Highlands of Vietnam (for which he received the Soldier’s Medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Bronze Star), Peacock was repatriated to the Rocky Mountains, the wild deserts and tundras of North America. It was there he met the late author Edward Abbey, who used Peacock to mold his iconic character, George Washington Hayduke.

After the war, Doug crawled back into mountains and found solitude in wilderness to be exactly what he needed to confront the demons of Vietnam. In Grizzly Years, Doug credits grizzly bears with restoring his soul. He has been the most consistent advocate for grizzly bears for the last 40 years, traveling between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks to film them and document their struggles to survive. For the last three decades, he has lectured and written widely about wilderness: from bears to buffalo, from the Sierra Madres of the Sonoran desert to the fjords of British Columbia, from the tigers of Siberia to the blue sheep of Nepal.

His books include Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (Henry Holt, 1990), ¡Baja! (Bulfinch Press, 1991), Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness (Eastern Washington University Press, 2005), and The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears (The Lyons Press, 2006) which was co-written with Andrea Peacock.

Peacock was named a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a Lannan Fellow in 2011 for his work on about archeology, climate change and the peopling of North America, published in 2013 as In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene (Counterpunch/AK Press).

Doug was the subject of a feature film about grizzlies and Vietnam, Peacock’s War, which premiered on PBS’s Nature, and won the grand prizes at the Telluride Mountainfilm and the Snowbird film festivals. He has appeared on television shows including the Today Show, Good Morning America, NBC Evening News, PM Magazine, Sesame Street, The American Sportsman and Democracy Now!.

He lectures regularly about wilderness and veterans issues, and has made two appearances on Fresh Air as well as other NPR segments including This American Life with Scott Carrier.

Doug co-founded the Wildlife Damage Review, Vital Ground and Round River Conservation Studies. He serves as chairman of the board of directors for Round River, which works with indigenous people and governments in Namibia, Botswana, North, South and Central America to develop region-wide conservation strategies protecting and enhancing intact ecosystems (simultaneously training indigenous people and college students in environmental sciences). Round River has emerged as one of the most successful medium-sized conservation groups anywhere, having directly or indirectly contributed to the preservation of more than 20 million acres of wilderness.

Peacock lives in Emigrant, Montana, and spends considerable time in the Sonoran Desert, southeast Utah and with the grizzlies of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Married to Andrea Peacock, he has two children with whom he visits the wilderness and three cats who share his homes.