What Was It Like?
Spending a month on the Ob River, Russia, in 1994 was certainly one of the
more extraordinary field projects in which I have participated. I was a recent
hire at GSO, a green assistant professor, and thrilled that the Office of Naval
Research had provided me with funding to spend a month investigating man-made
radioactivity deep in northern Siberia. The flight to Moscow was uneventful,
apart from the in-flight article warning Western travelers of the dangers of
flying on Russia's major airline, Aeroflot, the same airline that would later
carry our scientific party to our destination at Salekhard. This remote village
east of the Ural Mountains is where former Russian dictators had exiled countless
ill-fated souls. Upon arrival, we were invited to a celebratory banquet, though
I didn't have much appetite for the spread of raw fish, raw garlic buds, raw
onions, and the ubiquitous vodka.
Our ship, a Russian fishing protection vessel, had no lab to speak of, a tiny cabin with four bunks, and only a single toilet hole in the deck equipped with old paperback novels that were not suitable reading material. Meals consisted of boiled meat and starch, except breakfast, which was always raw sturgeon, black caviar, and vodka. To appease my hunger, I drank a lot of Chai tea, made with the same river water that we were sampling for radionuclides. I have never seen so many mosquitoes, horseflies, and black flies, and I was born in northern Canada. The temperature during the day was surprisingly warm (70o-80oF), considering that we were just north of the Arctic Circle, and I enjoyed the cool, sun-filled nights and the breeze when we steamed down the river.
But my most memorable experience was on the return Aeroflot flight from Salekhard when, shortly after taking off, I noticed an amorous couple. They were probably in their early forties. They were laughing and playful, drinking a syrupy red liquor from a 40-ounce bottle, devouring a greasy cooked chicken with their fingers and depositing the bones and remaining carcass in the seat-back magazine holder in front of them. It was the perfect ending to a long, strange trip.
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