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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


A Good Old-Fashioned Death-Defying Expedition

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: outdoor recreation, exploration, adventure, wilderness, Russia, Siberia, environment, Russian Life, Keith Goetzman,

Siberian gulag graveyard 

The modern wilderness expedition is typically a heavily sponsored, satellite-uplinked, closely tracked affair, with the expeditioners often just a distress call away from rescue. Magazine stories chronicling these canned adventures often rely on dramatic overstatement to punch up their otherwise predictable narratives, so it’s a breath of fresh air to read an expedition account that truly takes you to the edge of adventure and to the limits of human endurance.

“Crossing Kolyma” is the understated title of Russian Life magazine’s incredible story of two men’s 10-month, 2,000-mile trek through remote, far eastern Siberia in 2004-2005. Author Mikael Strandberg and his travel partner Johan Ivarsson set off on their journey with a fair bit of hubris, intending to live off the land by hunting and fishing and, having been “born, bred, and still living in the Scandinavian outback,” to outperform the legions of city-born adventurers who have left the short history of polar travel “a record full of frostbites and death.”

Their main aim for the trip was a cultural one, “to widen the western world’s knowledge about the Russian and Siberian way,” writes Strandberg, who is keenly aware of the region’s history as the site of Stalin’s infamous gulags. Their trip, however, soon turned into a fight for survival and sanity as they endured impenetrable forest, a typhoon-driven flood, menacing bears, frostbite, and frozen stove fuel at temperatures as low as -70 Fahrenheit.

Mikael Strandberg in SiberiaHere’s a typically bleak scene from mid-journey:

Strandberg and Ivarsson ended up spending a month “thawing out” in the Yakut settlement of Srednekolymsk, then forging on to their final destination in Ambarchik Bay.

Amazed by Strandberg’s account of this epic trek, I tried to find out what he’s up to these days. His website reveals far more about the personal aftereffects of the Kolyma trip than he lets on in the magazine story:

Strandberg wouldn’t be the first high-stakes expeditioner to find the transition back to “normal” life challenging. Perhaps the psychological toll of Kolyma was greater than he ever let on, and perhaps the lingering memory of the Siberian cold is what set him on his next great journey: a camel trip across Yemen.

Source: Russian Life (article not available online) 

Image copyright Mikael Strandberg; used with permission.