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A Village Named Hell
THE HELICOPTER WAS LATE. I was in the coastal village of Terney in March 2006, three hundred kilometers north of where I’d seen my first fish owl, cursing the snowstorm that grounded the helicopter and impatient to reach Agzu in the Samarga River basin. With about three thousand people, Terney was the northernmost human enclave of any notable size in the province: villages any farther, such as Agzu, had their populations measured in hundreds or even dozens.
I’d been waiting more than a week in this rustic settlement of low, wood-heated homes. At the airport, a Soviet-era Mil Mi-8 sat immobile outside the single-room terminal, its blue-and-silver hull tarnished by frost as the winds and snows raged. I was accustomed to waiting in Terney: I had never flown in this helicopter before, but the buses to Vladivostok, fifteen hours south of the village, ran twice a week and were not always on time or in suitable repair for the road. I’d been traveling to (or living in) Primorye for more than a decade at that point; waiting was part of life here.
After a week, the pilots had finally been given permission to fly. Dale Miquelle, an Amur tiger researcher based in Terney, handed me an envelope with $500 cash as I left for the airport. A loan, he said, in case I needed to buy my way out of trouble up there. He’d been to Agzu and I hadn’t: he knew what I was getting into. I got a ride to the edge of town and the airstrip, a clearing cut from riparian old-growth forest. The Serebryanka River valley was 1.5 kilometers wide at that spot, framed by the low mountains of the Sikhote-Alin, and only a few kilometers from the river mouth and the Sea of Japan.
After collecting my ticket at the counter, I inserted myself among the anxious crowd of old women, young children, and hunters both local and from the city, all waiting outside to board, insulated by thick felt coats and clutching suitcases. A storm this protracted was uncommon, and many of us had been stranded in the resulting travel bottleneck.
There were about twenty people in this crowd, and the helicopter could hold up to twenty-four people if there was no cargo. We watched uneasily as a man in a blue uniform stacked box after box of supplies by the helicopter while another dressed the same loaded them on. Everyone in the group was starting to suspect that more people had been sold tickets than the helicopter could carry—the crates and supplies being loaded were taking up valuable room—and everyone was equally determined to squeeze through that tiny metal door. Surmach’s team, in Agzu and already waiting for me eight days, would probably travel on without me if I did not make this flight. I positioned myself behind a stout older woman: experience showed that my best chance of securing a bus seat was by tailing such a person, a technique not unlike following an ambulance through traffic, and I assumed this rule held for helicopters as well.
The go-ahead was given almost inaudibly, and as a wall we surged forward. I battled toward and up the helicopter ladder, climbing among the crates of potatoes and vodka and other essentials of Russian village life. My ambulance moved true and I followed her toward the back, where there was a view out a porthole and a little bit of legroom. As the passenger load swelled to a probably unsafe number, I retained my window view but lost legroom to a giant sack of what I think was flour, upon which I rested my feet. The finite space filled to the crew’s satisfaction and the rotors began swirling, languidly at first, then with increasing vigor until their fury commanded all attention. The Mi-8 lurched into the sky, jackhammered low over Terney, then banked left a few hundred meters out over the Sea of Japan and shadowed the eastern edge of Eurasia north.
Below our helicopter, the coast was a strip of pebbly beach wedged uncomfortably between the Sikhote-Alin mountains and the Sea of Japan. The Sikhote-Alin ended almost mid-mountain here, with slopes of lanky Mongolian oak giving way suddenly to vertical cliffs, some of them thirty stories tall, a uniform gray with the occasional patch of brown earth and clinging vegetation or whitewash stains betraying a raptor or crow nest in one of the crevasses. The bare oaks above were older than they looked. The harsh environment in which they lived—the cold, the wind, and a growing season largely shrouded in coastal fog—left them gnarled, stunted, and thin. Down below, a winter of breaking waves had left a thick, icy sheen on every rock the sea mist could reach.
The Mi-8 descended some three hours after departing Terney, gleaming in the sun through swirls of displaced snow, and I saw a loose collective of snowmobiles massed around the Agzu airport, nothing more than a shack and a clearing. As the passengers disembarked, the crew busied themselves unloading cargo and clearing space for the return flight.
An Udege boy of about fourteen approached me with a serious expression, his black hair mostly hidden under a rabbit-fur hat. I was different and clearly out of place. Twenty-eight years old and bearded, I was obviously not local—Russians my age were clean-shaven almost as a rule, as this was the style at the time, and my puffy red jacket was conspicuous among the subdued blacks and grays that Russian men wore. He was curious to know of my interest in Agzu.
“Have you heard of fish owls?” I answered in Russian, the language I’d be speaking exclusively for this expedition and most of my fish owl work in general.
“Fish owls. Like, the bird?” the boy answered.
“I’m here to look for fish owls.”
“You’re looking for birds,” he echoed flatly and with a note of bewilderment, as though wondering if he had misunderstood me.
He asked if I knew anyone in Agzu. I replied that I did not. He raised his eyebrows and asked if someone was meeting me. I responded that I hoped so. His eyebrows lowered in a frown, and then he scrawled his name in the margins of a scrap of newspaper, holding my gaze as he handed it to me.
“Agzu is not the kind of place you can just go to,” he said. “If you need a corner to sleep in, or you need help, ask around town for me.”
Like the oaks along the coast, the boy was a product of this harsh environment and his youthfulness hid experience. I did not know much about Agzu, but I knew it could be rough: the previous winter the meteorologist stationed there, a Russian (but still an outsider) and the son of someone I knew in Terney, had been beaten and left unconscious in the snow, where he froze to death. His killer was never publicly identified: in a town as small and tight-knit as Agzu, everyone probably knew who did it, but no one said a word to the inspecting police officers. Punishment, whatever that might have been, would have been handled internally.
Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan C. Slaght
Maps copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey L. Ward