Voyage South


I knew I did not want to leave the tundra. As I stood with friends on the cliff next to the sand spit where the barge was parked, I leaned into the wind from the south. Something was welling up inside me. At the time, it came out as song—all five of us were belting as we watched dark blue storm clouds pierced with lightening in the northern sky and bronze sunlight dancing on the Kolyma River water to the south. The feeling relaxed somewhat during the excitement of un-anchoring and beginning the journey south. We celebrated Sue’s birthday with mushrooms Nikita Zimov had taught us how to pick, fish eggs, ice cream, and speeches full of camaraderie. It was amazing to realize how close I had become to these people out here in the tundra, sharing only a tiny barge in the vastness of sky, water, and wind. Out on the cliff, Jess had put it perfectly; one of the best parts was that it was just us—no one else existed here. The isolation could so easily have been hell had we not gotten on. But Jess was right. There is no one on this barge whom I would not be happy sitting next to at dinner, or with whom I would not wait on the beach for a change in the wind. We have learned to rely on each other for safety, companionship, and encouragement when our projects hit hard patches.

Core students return to the barge from their last hike on the tundra.

Core students return to the barge from their last hike on the tundra.

 

The welling feeling returned later, when I was one of the last up, standing on the deck watching the red sun sharply outlined in the north. We were leaving the tundra. I felt something inside me fall apart. Tomorrow there would be other people. Granted, we would have more personal space. But the cramped surroundings had been worth it for the meals taken together where we shared plans for the day, the unspoken energy we got from stormy weather, and the rollicking laughter at dinner after a good day. We got some space when we spread out during the day to our field sites. Since I was out in boats collecting water much of the time, I was ready (damp and wind-blown) by the time we gathered in the evening for sauna or dinner to be reunited with people. And now the pattern of life would change.

Sunset over the Kolyma River as the barge steams south back to Cherskiy.

Sunset over the Kolyma River as the barge steams south back to Cherskiy.

 

All these thoughts were there with me as we steamed south. I had known I would be sad when the project was over, but I hadn’t realized that the ending of the fieldwork would trigger it. Not only was our work good and the sights we had seen amazing, but we had become close in a way I had not anticipated. The tundra had forged us into a team. As the barge steamed south, I fell asleep grateful. I now know for future research to look for people who can form close knit teams, because I have seen how effective a group can be when collaborators become companions as well.