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Feature Story December 11, 2002
Not Dead Yet
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 3 of 7
Slava is in his mid-40s, while Vanya and Stas are both in their early 20s. They all spoke Russian for my convenience, but weren't Russifying their names on my account. Yevenks don't have names like Leaping Salmon or Light Foot. When the first Russian missionaries arrived here, they assigned Slavic names to the natives, and eventually they stuck. Slava's wife and toddler had also lived there until recently, only moving to the village once winter turned harsh in November.

The family had a medium-sized herd of 55 domesticated reindeer, about half of which belonged to the kolkhoz, or collective farm, based in Ust Nukzhe; each hunter had a dog. Before the guys head back to Ust Nukzhe for New Year's, they'll have to drive the deer up to a stada in Yakutia, where the rest of the kolkhoz's herd reside.

The Yevenk's native religion, which has fallen into obscurity, treats reindeer as a counterweight to people, sort of a ying and yang. Even without the religious aspect, reindeer remain integral to their survival in the taiga. A Yevenk with a large herd is considered rich, and the animals provide everything from food and clothing to transportation. They only kill animals from the herd if they've completely run out of food, relying instead on the larger wild reindeer that they hunt.

The herd was remarkably easy to care for. Every evening, they were let out of a 5x5 meter corral and wondered off to rummage for lichen under the snow.

Their search leads them slightly further from camp each night, until the Yevenks decide to pitch camp somewhere else. Rounding them up in the morning is as easy as getting behind the herd and making some noise. The reindeer group together and start moving in the opposite direction. They are lured back into the corral with a reindeer bone rattle, where they are fed salt and left for the day.

While the reindeer all looked the same to me, the Yevenks were careful to rotate which reindeer were harnessed every day. In fact, Slava claimed to know the personalities of the entire herd.

"Reindeer are like people," he said without irony. "There are smart ones, dumb ones, mean ones, stubborn ones."

I have my doubts about how smart they can be; when riding a two-deer sleigh, the lead deer only understands three commands -- go, faster, and stop -- all communicated by tugging on a rope. Once a reindeer has been broken in, it can also be saddled. Stas compared the process of breaking them to a rodeo that lasted all day long.

One of the weirdest reindeer quirks is that, due to some mineral deficiency, they love to eat urine. By the end of the week, the campground looked as if it had been shelled because the reindeer would munch on our piss, even rooting though the dirt under the snow to make sure they didn't miss a drop.

Life at the camp was very regular, even though nothing was done on a schedule. Around 7:30, a good hour and a half before the sun rose, somebody would light the oven as quickly as possible and jump back into his bed. The reason for the hurry was that the temperature inside the tent was the same as outside -- anywhere from -20 to -45 Celsius in the first week of December -- and everybody slept in boxers.

In the taiga, cold takes on an entirely new dimension. It's not just the severity, but also that there's never more than a piece of cloth between you and it. I had never realized that real cold is palpable. When it drops below -35, the cold forms a mist and hangs over everything. Thankfully, I never got to see what below -50 looks like, when visibility is only a few feet.

Every time someone ducked into the tent, a cloud of cold rolled through the flaps and you could see the exact moment it would hit you. One morning, when a particularly dense haze lay over everything, it was probably -45. At that point, no matter how warmly you're dressed, the cold eats through everything, numbing even your thoughts. In just a few minutes outside, all your extremities have lost all feeling. The dogs just lie there balled up with their noses tucked into their bellies. They don't even bark when someone approaches. On days like that they don't go hunting.

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