How I turned into Baba Yaga
It took me a long time to decide whether or not to write about an expedition that did not yield desired results. In the end I decided to do it. Everyone is always keen to share or to hear stories of success, and that's understandable. But when I was a fledgling wildlife photographer I honestly could have used a story on how a "hunt" can turn out a blank even if everything was done to ensure success. Especially if in the end the adventure was still a good one.
I departed for the Russian Far East in February with my mind set on meeting some local apex predators. The spot was wonderfully prepared, the animals were active in the area. All I had to do was stay as quiet as possible so as not to scare my fortune off with excessive noise. Not a problem, by this point in my life I had gotten very used to correct behavior in a blind.
It took a few hours of driving to get from Khabarovsk to base camp, part of the path was a narrow dirt road used by loggers. The tricky thing was that no two cars can pass each other on this road, so the loggers arrange an order in which they use the road. We got onto the track with a logger truck tailing us. And, as Murphy's law would have it, about half way through we ended up face to face with a second truck rounding a corner. there was nowhere for us to go, so my host drove his 4x4 straight into the snow on the side of the road. As per custom, the truck we let pass was supposed to drag us back out. We were to continue on our way thereafter, leaving the giant trucks to figure their predicament out on their own. But when are things ever that simple? Turned out, there was some deadwood that our car got stuck on, so the men had to grab shovels and dig out our car. After a 7-hour flight I opted to stay in the car, letting four men do the heavy lifting. It was nice to see someone else shovel snow after having moved a ton of snow myself over the winter (that winter was so heavy on snow it got the name Snowpocalypse). We weren't in hurry and I already had a few bird photos under the belt (oh how many 8s we circled chasing an owl!). The fellows made short work of the deep snow.
We departed for the filming location after a night in base camp, but we had to wait for the temperature to rise to at least -35 C. Part of the way was done by car, then we switched to snowmobiles. I had to huddle in the back of the sled pulled by one of the snowmobiles. It was a fun ride and I got to appreciate the view of the varied areas of the local taiga. I did feel a little like luggage, but riding a sled pulled by a motorized vehicle was more fun than dog sledding (in the latter case I was doing more running alongside than riding anything! maybe I will tell that story one day, too).
Deep in the woods there was a tiny log cabin where my partner would stay to provide backup. 500 meters away from the cabin was the hide where I was to spend 10 days in full isolation. The location was perfect for filming in terms of lighting and backdrop. The hide itself was more like the house on chicken legs from old Russian folk tales - it was raised about four meters above ground between four trees. It was hard to avoid the resemblance to ancient burial houses some Slavic tribes used. Those burial houses fed the myth of Baba Yaga - a fascinating female mythological entity that resided between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. She is said to live deep in the woods in a house that stands on giant chicken legs. In some stories the house is surrounded by burning human skulls on spikes. Baba Yaga is not an analogy of the European fairytale witches, she is more of a gate keeper between worlds, who possesses great knowledge and can command the creatures of the forest. She can be both deadly dangerous to humans, or she can help the hero on their quest. In the latter case she would feed, bathe and put the hero to sleep in a sequence of actions that resemble ancient burial rites, thus allowing them to continue the journey into the realm of the supernatural. She is known to be able to fly in a large mortar, steering her way with a broom. And now that I have gone full Baba Yaga, I need me one of those mortars!
The hide was tiny, but well insulated and planned out. The small space of about 6x6 feet had two camera openings, a sleeping place, a bio toilet, a chair, a tank of natural gas and a burner. I arranged all of my things so I could reach them easily without making extra noise while searching for something. I had a storage of food and water. I was only going to work in daylight, so I could happily sleep through the nights. I sealed the door and prepared myself for five days of isolation.
However, it soon became obvious that I had a big problem. It was getting dark when I felt a weird chemical smell coming off the burner. I turned on my flashlight and saw that the hide was filled with smoke. The burner was new and on its side I found a paper sticker that was burning off. I removed it immediately, but the sticker wasn't the problem - it was the paint. Even turning down the flame didn't help. While I was trying to figure things out, time was slipping by and the toxic smell was getting stronger. I felt sick and had to air out the hide. By then it was nighttime, the temperature had dropped to -40. It was clear I could not stay. I reported this on the walkie-talkie and was picked up immediately. Taking with me everything that could freeze, I evacuated to the cabin. Over the course of the night I recovered, though the toxic smell continued to haunt me for the next 24 hours. A new burner was brought in and I returned to the hide the next day.
The weather warmed up during the next couple of days and that brought about heavy snowfalls. I sat still, listening to the breathing of the quiet forest around me - the tigers come out to hunt during snowfalls. Despite the schedule being much easier than during my visit to Cedar Valley, the tension from constant vigilance and the strain to control your every move - god forbid you make a noise - kept me alert, never allowing to relax. All of my movements were restricted and slow and smooth as molasses on a cold morning - this way the risk of making unwanted noise was less. The warmth inside the hide allowed me to remove all extra clothing including shoes, leaving me in soft cotton garb - a shirt and pants that would not rustle when I moved.
One of those days I heard a very characteristic rumbling "Ah-WOO! Ah-WOO!". An adult male tiger was close by - a later study of tracks would show he was a 100 meters behind the blind, but moved on in search of prey or his mate. He must have found whatever he was looking for, because he was not to be seen anywhere in my vicinity again. After the two snowy days the daytime started to increase and the temperature began to rise. But the forest stood deathly quiet. the predators took full advantage of the cover the snow provided and most likely stayed on their kills. Even after a day's break before my second round in the blind (I needed to charge the powerbanks and wash myself) the situation remained the same. The taiga stood silent and serene. Only a grouse walked by, nipping the buds off branches and whistling to signal the arrival of spring and the mating season.
Having stuffed my belly with the juicy flavorful meat of the Manchurian deer, I began my second round. I couldn't have known that the animal would not come, of course. As the end of the expedition drew closer, a bitter pained voice inside me grew louder - how can this be? I did everything right! The childishness of these thoughts amused me and I had to counter them by reminding myself that it's all part of the process when shooting wildlife. And this wasn't my first rodeo so I knew all the pitfalls before getting into it all. I had to fight the growing despair and remain professional to the end. This approach worked. Even when it became clear that no one was coming, I continued working just as I was supposed to. I calmed down and just enjoyed the process. And kept making pemmican soup (very tasty and filling).
Oh how I came to appreciate pemmican on this trip! Pemmican is a Native American invention, made from dried meat, dried berries and hard fat. All of the ingredients are ground, mixed and poured over with molten fat. After setting, the product is cut into pieces and stored. Quick and easy to make, it is even faster, if you buy the ingredients. Because it doesn't contain moisture, pemmican is very light, compact and has a long shelf-life. More importantly, it is very filling. European and American hunters and explorers fully appreciated this product, even adding to the recipe. For example, Roald Amundsen would add dried veggies to the mix. I too strayed from the original plain recipe and added several types of meat and berries, some dried veggies and pine nuts to my pemmican. It turned out so good i had to fight the urge to eat everything before the expedition even began! Spice can be added if the meat is prepared at home, store-bought stuff is usually full of spice already. Pemmican can be eaten dry, or boiled in a soup on its own as well with some extra ingredients. I tried every way of consuming it, they are all just fine. I had a variety of soup concentrates with me and despite their fine quality (with soup concentrates it is better to get the best you can, if you value your health) they benefited from the addition of pemmican. The soup was tastier, more satisfying and probably healthier for me. Now pemmican is on firmly on my expedition list.
That was how my days went - making soup, listening to the blue magpies, reading and waiting. Penelope didn't wait for Odysseus as faithfully I waited for this damn beast! Alas, it was all in vain. On the last day i resorted to shooting blue magpies. Oh well, the are pretty interesting too. Since I can't say anything about the animals, I will tell you something about the blue magpies.
When you work with bait, crafty opportunists can be very annoying, because they seemingly steel from the animals you are baiting. But I welcome them, because they advertise free food pretty widely and their hustle and bustle creates an illusion of safety for the more cautious animals. Even on simple garden feeders the sparrows and the tits arrive first and then draw in a more fearful birds that are less accustomed to humans. The bolder and more careless the first guests are, the more confident the skittish wild non-synanthropic birds become. After a while they will even draw in raptors. This concept is true not only for birds, animals listen for the calls of ravens, crows and magpies (or any other feathered scavengers). This is why I try not to spook them and prefer them feeding calmly. It is wise, however, to make feeding little more difficult for these freeloaders lest they get too bold and scatter the bait, but you still have to use their presence and calmness to your advantage.
The company of these birds didn't burden me and actually provided an opportunity to relax or distract my self from my constant vigil - should anything change, the magpies would alert me to it. Their voices are surprisingly melodious with a large variety of signals. These birds are quite smart and attractive, so observing them is pleasant. This elegant bird is also somewhat of a unique case. It is a textbook example of a zoogeographic phenomenon, because its area of habitat is split between two very distant populations. The two groups are separated by 9 000 km, with one living in South-Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, the other - in South-East Asia (7 subspecies). In Russia this bird can be found in the south of the Baikal region, in Transbaikalia and in the southern parts of the Far East. The exact reason for this separation is unknown, but several theories have been proposed.
Some scientists believe that during the Palaeogene period of the Cainasoic era the blue magpie inhabited the entire space from the Miditerranean to East Asia and the Ice Age split the area, dividing the population. Others have speculated that the European population was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers. That was disproved, because the European population was described in 1830 and already had significant differences from the other subspecies. These morphological differences could not have been acquired over the short period of a few centuries. In addition the fossil remains of a blue magpie discovered in the year 2000 in Gibraltar proved that the birds were not introduced, but inhabited Europe for a long time. The remains were more that 40 000 years old. In 2002 scientist from the University of Nottingham found significant genetic differences between the European and the Asian populations of blue magpies. Based on this research it was proposed to assign the European population its own taxon - Cyanopica cooki, but this hasn't been adopted yet. So how did the two populations split? For now, that remains one of nature's mysteries.
I was leaving my little tree house without any heaviness in my heart. A work process is what it is, and it will never be easy when you try to accomplish something very difficult. There will be fails, it doesn't mean you should quit. So it was this time. Sure, luck turned away from me, nature took its own course. But if nothing forces me to change my plans, I will return to have another go at trying to capture what I need. Lack of success this one time doesn't invalidate an adventure with a long road through a frozen taiga and 10 days of solitude in a fairytale house in a tree. Here's hoping that next time the local spirit guardian of hunters named Podia will guide the animals to me. Till then I say to this land and its hospitable people "Goodbye".