Long Journey Across Siberia

In one of the most ambitious drives ever undertaken, native reindeer herders attempt to rekindle a traditional way of life

  • Bryan Alexander
  • Mar 01, 2001

AS DAWN BREAKS at the edge of a forest in northwestern Siberia, smoke rises from a tepee-style tent. Inside, Gallina Vello tends a wood-burning stove. It crackles and spits as she shoves another log on the fire, while a kettle of freshly made tea hisses on top. One by one, six men and three women sleeping on reindeer skins on the floor begin to stir. After a morning meal of raw fish, bread and hot tea, the men strap on skis and head into the forest to round up their draft reindeer, and the women break camp. Three hours later, they head north from the town of Numto across snow-covered tundra in a procession of 13 sleds pulled by 31 reindeer, with three dogs trotting alongside.

Thus begins their first leg in one of the most ambitious reindeer drives ever attempted. The group will rendezvous with a similar party of herders delivering 1,000 reindeer from the north, then drive the animals farther south in a journey that altogether will move the herd nearly 1,000 miles. The purpose is to reestablish the sustainable use of reindeer in Siberia's Khanty-Mansiysk region, where oil and gas exploration has changed the dynamic for native people and left them without a viable way to live. As a photographer of northern peoples, I am along to cover one segment of the journey.

Khanty-Mansiysk is an area of northwestern Siberia nearly the size of France. It is home to about 18,000 native Siberians from three different cultures - Khanty, Mansi and Forest Nenets - who have herded reindeer here for centuries.

Reindeer are well suited to the region's severe climate, where winter temperatures can plummet lower than minus-50 degrees F, and traditionally the animals have been invaluable to the peoples of northern Siberia. A reindeer's key defense against the cold is an exceptional winter coat that has a fine underfur combined with long, hollow guard hairs that contain thousands of tiny, insulating air cells. For people, reindeer provide food, clothing, transport and shelter.

Problems for Khanty-Mansiysk's reindeer herders began in the late 1960s when vast deposits of oil and gas were discovered there, setting off an almost unregulated oil rush. Authorities viewed the native people as nonproductive and worthless, and many were forcibly relocated to villages built for them. Others retreated into the northern marshland.

Russia has always practiced a quick and dirty style of mineral development. Soon drilling derricks, pipelines and roads carved up the region, and oil spills polluted lakes and rivers. Reindeer herding became increasingly difficult, and the number of reindeer in the region declined rapidly, from more than 54,000 in 1980 to fewer than 12,000 at the beginning of 2000.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic problems only made things worse, particularly for those living in rural areas where unemployment among native people was practically 100 percent. Many families were forced to return to a more traditional existence, surviving on fishing, hunting and trapping - combined with reindeer breeding.

The problem with reindeer raising is that an average family needs at least 50 of the animals to survive, and there are no longer enough reindeer to go around. So the local native peoples' association called Save Yugra (Yugra is the traditional name of the area) teamed with the Union of Reindeer Herders of Russia, and together they organized this remarkable reindeer drive.

The plan was to assemble a herd of 1,000 animals from the northern part of the Yamal Peninsula high above the Arctic Circle, then drive them south to the Khanty-Mansiysk region. This was probably the first great reindeer drive to be carried out since 1929, when a group of Norwegian Sami (Lapps) were hired to drive a herd of reindeer across Alaska to the Mackenzie River in northwestern Canada. That drive, over mountainous terrain, took five years. This one was projected to be completed in just six months.

The sled I am riding is skillfully driven by Vikka Piak, a 15-year-old Forest Nenets girl. She has been hired to cook and help around camp. The three reindeer pulling us are named Gull, Ptarmigan and Lazy.

It is now February 10, five days out. Our route has taken us northwest through a fairy-tale landscape where the boreal forest, or taiga, begins to give way to more open land, or tundra. Willow groves coated in hoar frost sparkle like jewels in the winter sunshine. I spot a variety of birds, from a large grouse called the capercaillie to tiny Siberian tits. Vikka is quick to identify the tracks of wolverine, fox and ermine.

Traveling by reindeer sled is a wonderfully quiet and peaceful way to see the North, with just the sounds of the reindeer's hooves on the snow and the tinkling of bells on their harnesess. Vikka tells me that her aunt had died a few months before, and according to Forest Nenets tradition, her family should not be using bells on its reindeer harnesses for a year. However, because this is a special and important journey, her father had given her permission to ignore the custom.

The weather has been perfect. We have barely seen a cloud since we left. The temperature most days is between minus-11 and minus-18 degrees F - cold but infinitely more bearable than the heat of summer when this frozen expanse will be transformed into a marshland infested with mosquitoes and blackflies.

Most days we travel at a leisurely pace, stopping every hour or so to rest the animals. During these times, the reindeer scrape away snow with their broad hooves and uncover lichens to eat. These carbohydrate-rich plants are the staple food of reindeer during the winter months, and the animals, which have an acute sense of smell, are able to detect them under three feet of snow.

The first part of the trip is to take us to the location where we will collect the reindeer the other herders have driven south. The meeting point is a place called Lake Horr-Yuganlore, and at our last campsite before reaching it, Vassilly Piak, the leader of our band, is in a good mood. We are now just 19 miles away.

There is a great deal of speculation among our group over when the reindeer will arrive. They could easily be delayed by bad weather or deep snow, maybe show up a few days late, or even a few weeks. One problem is that we have no way to contact our counterparts driving the herd from the Yamal. Neither we nor they have a transceiver or any other form of communication.

Soon after dawn the following morning, Vassilly and Andrei Moldanov, the two most senior men in our group, leave to look for signs of the herders from the Yamal. Two days later, Andrei arrives back at camp and excitedly reports that he has linked up with the Yamal herders. The reindeer have almost reached the lake.

On the morning of February 15, we wake at dawn as usual. This is the day we will take over the herd, and there is a sense of excitement as we leave our camp in a convoy of reindeer sleds for Lake Horr-Yuganlore. Our animals keep up a steady trot - without our heavy camping equipment and supplies, we are able to travel quickly along winding forest trails. Reindeer may appear slow and ungainly, but they can trot at an impressive 25 miles per hour, and, if alarmed, can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour at full gallop over short distances.

After two hours we reach open land. There in the distance, we see the herd grazing, and behind them the distinctive tepee shape of a Forest Nenets' tent. As we approach, several figures emerge to greet us. Their leader is Haeresaevyaku, and his group is comprised of five men, two women and four children. They look tired, and I suspect they are relieved to be handing over the herd.

But first the reindeer must be counted - not an easy task. At a narrow at one end of the lake, men from each herding group sit in twos about 300 feet apart. As the herd is driven slowly past, one man counts the animals in tens while the other writes down the numbers. There is a surprisingly small difference between the totals, and in the end, it is decided that the official tally is 955.

After the counting, we all head back to the Yamal herders' camp. Inside their warm tent, the atmosphere is lighthearted and celebratory. We drink vodka, and over a meal of fish and reindeer meat, they relate stories from their trip.

It is only then that I began to fully appreciate the magnitude of this project. Most of the herd has come from the Kharasovey area in the northwest of the Yamal Peninsula. The Yamal herders had begun their long trek south six months earlier - in August. The animals had been driven 500 miles down the peninsula to the community of Yar-Sale, a journey that involved crossing ten major rivers. At Yar-Sale more reindeer from the eastern part of the peninsula were added to the herd. Then Haeresaevyaku and his group had driven them another 280 miles to Lake Horr-Yuganlore.

Along the way, the caravan had crossed the River Ob at its estuary where it is 43.5 miles wide. The Ob is a formidable obstacle at the best of times, but the herders and nearly 1,000 reindeer did it on newly formed ice during the polar night in dim twilight. They then had to work their way south through forests and tundra to the rendezvous point, an arduous journey that alone took them two months.

Now it is our turn, our responsibility. We have to drive the reindeer another 75 miles to a corral at Osinovka. There the herd will be divided into groups for three different areas centered around the towns of Beloyarskij, Surgut and Khanty-Mansiysk. The animals destined for Surgut and Khanty-Mansiysk have the longest journey of all. By the time they reach their destination, they will have completed a 994-mile trek.

Despite his new responsibility, Vassilly seems relaxed. He casts an experienced herder's eye over the animals now in his charge. "They are in very good condition," he proclaims.

Andrei is concerned that we might have difficulty keeping the herd together. As spring approaches, reindeer instinctively migrate. We would be driving these animals south.

Despite his reservations, the first day goes well. We drive the herd from Lake Horr-Yuganlore back to our campsite. In the tundra, it is relatively easy for the herders to keep the reindeer together. Later on, the duty becomes more difficult as our route takes us along winding forest trails and then down onto the frozen Lavaya Het-ta River.

The herd has little problem coping with the river's steep, icy banks. Reindeer are remarkably surefooted with powerful legs ending in large crescent-shaped hooves that provide good support and traction. These hooves also act as paddles for swimming and help propel the reindeer through the water at speeds up to six miles per hour.

The only casualty of the day is a reindeer that has sustained a bad skin tear caused by a herder's over-enthusiastic dog. Vassilly gives Vikka the task of tending the wound. After warming the flap of loose skin by blowing on it, she painstakingly sews it up with a needle and thread.

We rest the herd near camp on a large area of tundra where the animals can feed. A day later - February 17 - we are on the move again. Vassilly breaks trail as we head out of the forest and across the tundra. The women fall in behind, maneuvering trains of reindeer sleds laden with our equipment and supplies. The men follow, slowly driving the herd and rounding up stragglers.

The sight of 1,000 reindeer trudging across the frozen tundra in the winter sunshine is spectacular. Conditions are near perfect. The cold and wind have hardened the snow - to our advantage since the reindeer won't sink as deep and tire as quickly. Every couple of hours we stop to rest and allow the main herd to catch up. Over the remaining journey, we will push forward one day, rest the next.

The stable weather of the past three weeks had lulled me into thinking that clear skies are the norm for Khanty-Mansiysk at this time of year. I get a rude awakening when a blizzard hits, reminding me just how ferocious winter weather can be in Siberia.

Soon the driving wind buffets our tent, and the reindeer milling around outside are coated in a layer of snow. Inside, the wood stove keeps us snug, and we pass the time sleeping, drinking tea, eating and playing cards. When the wind dies down a little, Vassilly and one of the other young men decide to go hunting. They return at dusk with an arctic fox and a large capercaillie that Gallina cooks for dinner.

The storm delays us a day, but on February 21, the weather improves enough for us to push to Osinovka. It is overcast and relatively warm, which makes the snow softer. We stop to rest the animals more often than before. At mid-afternoon, Andrei points to a forest in the distance. It is Osinovka.

We leave the herd grazing on the tundra and continue to the edge of the forest. I had thought that Osinovka might be a small village, but as we get closer, I discover it consists of only a large corral and a log cabin. It is 25 miles from the nearest community.

Even so, as we make camp in the shelter of the forest, people begin to arrive from all directions. Mostly they are from the local communities of Numto and Yuilsk and have come to collect the reindeer that they had applied for. By dusk, more than 50 people have gathered. A party atmosphere soon develops.

That evening two local government officials arrive from Beloyarskij, and by the light of the oil lamp in our tent, they and Vassilly work out the final details of the reindeer distribution. Most people will receive between five and ten animals, depending on the size of the family and how many reindeer they currently own.

The following morning we awake under a leaden sky again, and soon snow begins to fall. Everyone gathers in the corral to hear Vassilly's directions. Now it is time to divide the herd among the three districts, the total number of reindeer for each area being made up of a combination of bulls, females and calves. Young men go out to gather the herd, and soon the corral becomes a hive of sorting and counting.

The next morning the whole process begins again. The allocation includes reindeer for everyone in our group, and all seem pleased. Vikka beams. She has good reason: money, as well as five new reindeer to take home to her family.

Later in the afternoon, a group of herders arrives by helicopter with sleds, camping equipment and supplies to drive the reindeer destined for Surgut and Khanty-Mansiysk. These animals still have another 155 miles ahead of them.

Whether this project will achieve its objective and improve the lives of native people remains to be seen. The scheme does have its critics. Among them is Jerimey Aipin, a native Khanty and a regional head of the native people's association. He questions the wisdom of introducing tundra reindeer into a forest area. Forest reindeer are bigger than tundra reindeer, and their longer legs and larger hooves make them better equipped to cope with the soft, deep winter snow of the taiga.

Whatever the outcome, this project does show that native people from different areas of Siberia can work together toward a common goal. To organize and successfully carry out this 1,000-mile-long reindeer drive is in itself an achievement.

Moving the animals is also a hedge against further declines caused by energy development. "We could also lose our reindeer in the Yamal," Dmitrij Khorolya, president of the Union of Reindeer Herders, tells me. "By sending them to other regions, we will know that one day, when the time is right, they could be brought back and reestablished in the Yamal."

Bryan Alexander has made 11 trips to Siberia. For more than 30 years, he has been photographing and writing about northern people. He traveled with the reindeer herders in February, 2000.

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