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Feature Story December 11, 2002
Not Dead Yet
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 4 of 7
By contrast, -20, a temperature that many people in the States never witness, is considered warm. Snow clouds are always a good sign, because it means the temperature will be moderate.

The tent in the morning takes about 15 minutes to warm up, after which we'd fold up our bedding and get dressed. We'd breakfast on leftovers from last night's dinner supplemented by slices of buttered bread before the day had come into its own. By the time it was fully light outside, everybody started on the chores. Except for me, because I was generally too inept to get anything done. I would spend the time picking up discarded candy wrappers from the tent floor and burning them. The first time I tried chopping wood, I spent an hour and a half pouring sweat to do what a preteen Yevenk could in twenty minutes. But I wasn't about to lose a finger to pride, and took it slowly.

The deer were rounded up, fresh water gathered from a spring in the nearby river that still hadn't frozen, wood chopped, food for the dogs boiled over an outside fire pit, lunch prepared. When the bread ran out on my last day, Vanya made lepyoshkas, which the Yevenks claim are a national dish and are basically flour, water and soda kneaded and fried. Occasionally one of the sleighs, which were made from birch, would need to be repaired. The day after Slava killed the zubr, he spent the morning skinning and butchering it with a 5-inch blade. By about 11, we'd sit down for our second meal.

The food at the camp was pretty unvaried. Generally, it was a hardy soup of venison with pasta, rice or grechka and bread. Usually we'd munch on raw garlic and onions and there was some hot sauce to add flavor. One day the soup was made from a bird someone had shot and on the day after my hunting experience we feasted on a tender prime cut, but otherwise the each meal was the same. After eating, everyone drank heavily sugared tea and ate candies.

We would consume prodigious amounts four times a day. The body uses up huge amounts of energy just trying to stay warm and everyone was constantly active. I easily ate twice as much as normal, and I was relatively idle.

After lunch, if it wasn't unbearably cold, everyone would go out hunting and stay out till dusk. Right now it's sable season and a good, dark sable fur fetches 1000 rubles at the kolkhoz. A hunter rides alone on a sleigh to an area where he's spotted sable tracks in the snow and sets his dog loose. If the dog catches a scent, it will follow it back to the sable's lair. There, the hunter smokes the sable out, the dog chases it up a tree and the hunter shoots it with a 5.6 mm bullet that is little bigger than a bb. Squirrel pelts are only worth 50 rubles a pop, but if a hunter sees one, he'll pop it.

After returning from the hunt, everyone eats the leftovers from lunch and relaxes. Relaxing takes many forms, from work like carving new sleigh pieces and skinning a sable to reading whatever newspapers are lying around by the light of a candle and a kerosene lamp. Yevenks view newspapers mainly as a way to pass the time -- the oldest one I found was a Rossisskaya Gazeta from 1999 with a large spread about the union with Belarus -- and don't seem particularly concerned about the content.

But mostly we'd just talk, which Yevenks are great at. They draw out the first vowel of a word for emphasis, and Russian in their mouths sounds much softer.

At around 11, everyone would wash up by taking mouthfuls of water and drooling them over their hands and it was time for bed. Preparing for sleep is quite a production. It's not as if they're using North Face camping gear, and failing to properly insulate means you'll wake up in the middle of the night freezing. The first thing to remember is you don't want to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. After the first night, I learned not to drink tea around bedtime. The sleeping bag gets placed on the deerskin and then wrapped in several heavy blankets. Then, for good measure, your coat is spread over it and a piece of wood is wedged under it to keep from rolling off the skin.

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