From Russia, with Love
It's difficult to know how to start this article about the Nadezhda Hope Sled Dog Race in Russia. You want to write about the race itself, you want to write about the people and the ones you've met. You want to write about the villages you've been to. You want to write about your new-found friends whom you've traveled with, and how you have become very close. You want to write about all the beautiful country you've traveled through in the past two weeks. You have to start somewhere, the only problem being, it's all connected to the Socialist government.
So that is where we'll begin. I had the opportunity to meet a young lady at the airport in Provideniya. She had shed some light on some of the things I was thinking about concerning the government. The government owns you, the government owns what you do. The government owns the fish and game. The government owns how and what you do with the fish and game. The government provides you with housing and in some cases, water and sewer and electricity. The government pays you to hunt and harvest the fish and game.
It all goes collectively somewhere to be processed and then sold back to you. The only things you can harvest are things like ptarmigan, rabbits, etc. along with smelts, tomcods, herring. Anything bigger? Government. But people are, for the most part, happy!
To try to fathom that, imagine generations upon generations of people living under government control. So it eventually evolves into a way of life. There are government officials everywhere and in most villages. If in fact you are a foreigner they have to — and will — know where you are at all times. That's kind of it in a nutshell and so we can begin.
We have arrived in the country of Russia. We land at an airfield next to the city of Provideniya. The place is enclosed in razor wire. From our side on the tarmac it looks drab and plain. A concrete structure surrounded by barbed wire everywhere. Dang! Just as I imagined from scenes in a movie. I was just telling Kenneth or Yvonne, even the water looks Russian! The process through customs is interesting.
Our passports are checked in the airplane by one of the many military personnel running around in circles. We are then escorted off the airplane and into an area with some chairs. This is where the wait begins. Some sleds are checked but mine hasn't been selected. There are a couple items of controversy: a knife and an axe. The waiting game has just begun to get longer.
We are there until the agents decide maybe supper and the time clock are important. The knife and axe controversy extends into the next day and we are forced to wait again. We have already lost a day due to weather. It seems that one Buck sheath knife that belongs to Miriam is the culprit to the Soviet officials. We have no idea why. I have a knife in my sled that is damn near the size of a machete. The Buck knife in question will be sent to Anadyr for inspection and we still don't know why. Anyways, we are finally able to leave. We have a lot of miles to go to get to the race start. We have to drive the dogs to Lorino as the race starts in a day or two. Our first leg to Yanrakynnot is fairly uneventful, although a bit windy. We spend the night there and head out in the morning. The dogs get the first taste of Walrus, which they will be eating for the next week and a half. The government provides all the walrus meat for us and the rest of the racers participating in the race.
The next morning it is quite windy leaving Yanrakynnot and turns into a severe ground storm with winds at 50-plus mph. I have a couple of frostbit flanks on some dogs. We barely make it to Lorino in the evening and find out we are to start the race in the morning at 8 a.m. What a blow to the ego as we thought maybe the dogs would get a little rest before the race.
The country getting here is awesome. Through mountain passes and over mountains and then a bunch of beach travel into Lorino. You would think that all this country you are traveling through is desolate and untouched by man but throughout the countryside we are reminded that the military has been here at one time or another. Way up on some of these mountains are remains of old stone buildings and radio towers. It is unreal. The beaches going into Lorino are littered with whalebones — a carver's goldmine!
The walrus cutting begins, you cut it up with an axe, then cut it into bite size pieces, feed frozen or start a fire and cook it. You then cut more for your race snacks to the next checkpoint. This is done at each checkpoint. It is a time-consuming task and very physical. Walrus hide in some cases has to be three-eighths of an inch thick. The race begins at 8 a.m. and there are 27 teams in this event; 22 Chukchi mushers, two American teams and three Norwegian teams with one of those being driven by an exchange Russian musher.
What a wild ride for the next 10 miles or so. The race route has been altered due to some severe weather in spots so we are headed back to Yanrakynnot and then to Provideniya. We have to pass at least 22 teams. There are no real "passing" rules, you just do what you've got to do. It is a lot of fun. The Chukchi dogs are all very friendly so passing is not too much of a problem. Sometimes you go past six or seven teams in one pass because they are trying to do the same thing.
The trip to Yanrakynnot is good because the wind is at our back. In Yanrakynnot the walrus-cutting saga continues except that I have gained a friend who helps me cut the meat. A man named Sasha has attached himself to me and will become invaluable throughout the race. We are scheduled to leave again at 8 a.m. for Provideniya.
We start off last again — can't quite figure that out as the Chukchi mushers leave in the order they have arrived. Oh well. The run to Provideniya is beautiful. No more wind and the reception there is awesome. I get to meet some new folks and cut up more walrus. I am fortunate to pick a chunk that is still frozen, there is some that are pretty-well thawed out.
We foreigners have decided to build a fire on the beach to cook up some of the walrus meat for the dogs. I get to Eskimo dance for the first time in my life and it is fun! I make a lot of people laugh. It is a lot of uphill walking to the college where we stay for the night. We are scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. for Yanrakynnot.
The dogs are doing very well and have been parked in their harnesses. No one has chewed anything yet so I am happy. It's a first race for many of them so they are doing excellent.
Pick up next week's Sounder for Part 2 of the Schaeffer's adventures in Russia.