the parallel existences of indigenous life and nature in the tundra

Photography by Secret Compass teammates

Reindeer are like children. You guide them, graze them, protect them, they become your pride. They give you purpose, direction and identity, it is a primal, wild matrimony. 

It’s March 2020 in the Nenet Autonomous Region of Northern Russia; the Arctic winter begrudgingly recedes to the horror of spring. The ice road has melted and weathered Soviet trucks laden with goods are backed up on the edge of town, tundra lapping at the asphalt. The temperature has hit positive degrees and drivers wait nervously for the road to freeze again overnight. There is a chain across the road which I step over. An angry voice yells in Russian. The old gate keeper.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“Into the tundra. I’m meeting a friend on a snowmobile,” I reply. I walk into the night alone, to a meeting spot where snow covers the road enough for the snow mobile to breech. Here, worlds divide. Away from the asphalt, towns and cities of the civilised world a cultural microcosm exists. One where courtship with the natural world is everything. Where the key to survival is submission and perseverance. Where, if you don’t tread lightly, stepping off the hard-packed road underfoot into the tundra you and your reindeer sink.

This was not the first time I’d headed into the Russian Tundra, but this moment was bittersweet. I’d been guiding trips to Yamal in Northern Russia for a few years, this time I brought my family. My wife, my parents, their friends and my 7-month-old son, our firstborn. After a few nights in the chum my son became sick. His temperature rocketing to 39 degrees. Normally 39 degrees requires an  ambulance. Heat stroke is 40. With cold water we’d been able to reduce it to 38, and I now left him and his mum in a hotel in the town of Nadym to return to my own mum and dad left in camp. My wife doesn’t speak Russian and although we didn’t really understand what it meant at the time, Coronavirus had just been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. 

Our Nenet hosts, Vasily and his wife Nastya pull up on a snowmobile at the meeting point. Vasily and I are the same age, which has built a mutual respect over the years. Vasilly is short and stocky, kind hearted and always smiling; Natsya also short, a bit tougher than Vasilly and wearing ceremonial head dress; fur with amulets and jewellery down her back.

“It’s going to storm in a minute,” says Vasily. “Let’s go quickly. Sit down and face backwards.” A hand crafted wooden sleigh is towed by the snowmobile and I lie on my back facing the sky, my legs hanging off the end. As we take off the storm rolls in. Scowling winds, splinters of snow and the sky darkens. How can Vasily see the track leading to the forest? How doesn’t he get lost? Gazing through snow to sky as Vasily navigates, I wonder what I have done. How could I bring my baby out here? How could I leave him and my wife in town alone? Have I gone too far this time? But there was nothing else for it right now. Lapa, one of Vasiliy’s herding dogs, a Siberian Laika, stands all fours on my chest and gleams forward into the wind, unaware of conscience. Ice collects on her nose, illuminated by snowmobile’s brake lights. 

The previous year, sat in the chum, I had asked to buy a reindeer skin. Vasily looked around then asked me to sit up, pulling the skin we were sitting on out from under us.

“Here you go, take this.”
“How much?” I ask. Generosity unflinching, he replies.
“Nothing, take it.” Nastya’s hard eyes cut through the conversation.
“Do you know how long it took me to prepare that? take some money Vasya,” she scorns.
“Exactly Vasya, take some money,” I say. We agree on a small price and the skin we were sitting on drinking tea and vodka, comes home with me to Canada. 

The reindeer skin sat in my house for a year and the winter before travelling, we made preparations. We took our son Bill on a snowmobile and took ski-touring day trips; Vicki sewed custom covers for the baby carrier, an infant sleeping bag out of old down jackets, improvised a down blanket from waterproof canvas, and even a cartoon patterned balaclava modelled on early Arctic Explorers – but with replaceable covers under the mouth for when teething drool froze. We tested every piece of gear in the Canadian winter and let Bill play on Vasiliys reindeer skin to know he wasn’t allergic. We pushed vaccines forward and prepared a paediatric first aid kit. The maternal contingent of our group would be Vicki, still breastfeeding, my mum and two friends, all mothers and grandmothers, one a paediatric nurse, plus Nastya and the other Nenet women familiar with raising children in the tundra. 

Vicki grew up off-grid on farms in Northern Canada so was comfortable with winter wilderness. I speak good Russian and had been leading commercial trips to the Nenets for the last few years. I chose Vasily and Nastya because I knew and trusted them. We would be travelling with a local Russian guide, Dima, who I also know well. So the decision to take our 7-month-old son on what was essentially an winter camping trip to Northern Siberia, was not taken lightly. It was carefully crafted on the back of collective experience, our calculated risk mitigated by planning. But risk is joyfully innate in all adventure and for our sins, it’s the bait that lures us. 

Bill would of course remember nothing. But we hoped that by setting the bar high early, in the future he’d reflect and learn that the world is wild and wonderful and be inspired. But as I lie on the back of the sled returning to camp with a heavy heart, Lapa’s iced snout flickering in the brake lights, I question everything. 

In camp the following day the sun peeks shyly through cloud and there is little movement. We may migrate in a day or so. Vasily’s father Yeylo, is building a new sleigh and my father and his friends, the same age as Yeylo, mill around. Yeylo is also short and smiling, calm and personable, he is the head of the clan, but has taken a back seat to Vasily in direct management of the camp, though still holds influence. Five chums in our brigade, each with the family of one of Yelyo’s sons or a relative. Camp sprawls 100 meters in an open valley edged by trees, all chums uniform in the wilderness, facing the same direction. Snowmobiles, sleighs and piles of wood litter the landscape. Reindeer shuffle in the snow nearby and families buzz with chores. In winter, the brigade comes south to the forest tundra, before their annual spring migration across the frozen Gulf of Ob to the far north of Yamal Peninsula; The End of The World. There are no trees on the peninsula so before they leave the forest each year they carry out repairs and new builds of everything that requires wood. Timber is cut and carved with a hatchet. Notches are chipped and holes are gorged by a rudimentary hand drill with reindeer bone handle, twisted by leather string. The legs of the sleigh are bowed up and a fire is set to hold the form. 

“How was the winter?” I ask Yeylo working on his sleigh.
“Weak,” he says. “My brother died.” He had been snowmobiling along the shore and he went in. The surface he was travelling across would usually be frozen, but too warm this year, the surface couldn’t hold him. “They said he lasted a long time, because his malitsa [traditional fur coat] swelled and kept him floating, but he died by the time they pulled him out. It’s a dangerous time now.”

In another conversation, Vasily also talked about his  concerns with the weather, “Maybe in 10 years The Gulf won’t freeze. We won’t be able to go north.”
“What will you do then?” I ask.
“Stay here and live in the forest.”
“But the Hanti live in the forest, they are your enemy.”
“Yes,” he laughs, “we will have to make friends. This year the first permanent grazing farm and cattle yards were built with government funding. Maybe we’ll do that.’ Vasily is clearly upset but he accepts they’ll need to adapt if they are to survive. “We won’t be able to fish in the north anymore, we will have to buy fish or swap for meat,” he says.

That afternoon, having driven all day on snowmobiles across the open tundra to shop in Nadym, an exhausted couple, visit for tea. The trucks backed up on the edge of town when I met Vasily hadn’t made the ice road so no supplies got through to their town of Yar Sale and prices had sky-rocketed. 

We’ve also got the warmer weather to blame for Bill’s sickness. When the temperature is lower wood stoves are fed vigorously through the night and the chums are warm. When it’s warmer outside, the stoves are not fed and the temperature inside the chum drops overnight.

“Can we put more wood on the fire at night?” I ask Nastya.
“No, it is too dangerous, we might sweat.” Sweating in the tundra can be deadly. So while Bill’s body was warm, the air was too cold for continued breathing and he picked up a cough.

We have phone reception so updates come regularly. Bill’s cough has gone but his temperature is high. Vicki is trapped in a hotel room with a sick infant while international news and social media spirals into chaos with Coronavirus. We arrived in the Tundra on the 10th March, the pandemic was declared on the 11th. With every update on Bill’s health we receive incomplete snippets of Corona-fear. We can’t piece together what is happening nor foresee what’s ahead. Border closures and travel bans seem dramatic, panic buying in supermarkets seems ridiculous. From the civilised calm of the tundra, the world seems to have turned to chaos. We feel separated from the rest of the world as we look at the situation unaffected. We dread to leave the safety of the wilderness. We don’t believe in Coronavirus yet, and it seems unrealistic that Bill has it, but the thought lingers.

In the days previous, we go to a makeshift corral. Five kilometres by snowmobile to a space in the forest where we help build fencing with long rolls of felt cloth tied between trees. The reindeer are herded through the felt runs, picked apart, tagged and vaccinated. Men from other family groups join to help, and perhaps take back a reindeer they had lent or forgotten since last year. Nenets recognise reindeer by face, astonishingly they pick them from a crowd.

Driving our group to the corral on the snowmobile there are only vague landmarks on the horizon, lines of bald snow or wind drift where I should turn left or right into the forest, and only after a few return trips I begin to recognise features. This is how Vasily navigated the storm.

“Vasily never gets lost,” Nastya told us proudly, ‘he has a GPS in his head,’ she laughs. Driving to the coral we come across Yeylo, sitting alone in the valley with half the herd. We stop and talk. He’s a shepherd, looking over the remaining reindeer waiting for the herd to be sorted. Years alone in his landscape, he has come to know it with a sharp eye. Its moods, its sounds, its habit.

The last day at the corral has finished and we return to camp early. Some of the men returning with reindeer hog tied in their sleighs. I’ve seen the killing before, so offer to sit in the chum with Bill and let the others watch. As we lay on the skins in the chum someone calls faintly. I hear again, and again, Patrick, Patrick, then Dad pops his head in.

“Vasily is calling you mate, you better come out.” I wrap Bill in blankets and we bounce out into the daylight. Everyone is standing in the snow, Vasily and Yeylo, have a reindeer lasoed by the throat about to strangle it.

“Patrick,” Vasily begins. ‘This reindeer is for you and your family, so that you travel safe and everyone has good health.”

We watch as the lasso – made of reindeer leather – chokes the life out of the reindeer. It takes a final breath and its eyes roll vacant and its neck goes limp. The head slumps into the snow. Vasily has honoured the reindeer to my family and the fact that we travelled so far to visit with our newborn son. He knows the peril of journey. This dedication is uncommon, Dima hasn’t seen it in his ten years visiting. This is why I wanted to bring my family to Vasily. A sincere gesture from a generous man, I am deeply moved. As I cradle my boy a tear rolls down my cheek and drops to the snow by the lifeless head of the reindeer.

Dima explains a theory that the killing of the reindeer is the central place in Nenet culture where men’s and women’s business cross over to become one; family business. Men are responsible for raising the reindeer and protecting and providing for their families. Women are responsible for raising children and looking after the home. Gender roles in Nenet society are traditional and necessary. Each member of the family contributes. Men and women take pride in their roles, each task an interlocking thread of fabric. If one strand is missing the garment may run, the fabric spiralling undone. Each task is structural and supports other surrounding tasks, all of which are required to survive. If one person’s job is not done properly, consequences can be severe. If the fire is not lit by the woman in the morning, the chum is cold. If wood is not collected by the man, the woman cannot light the fire. Roles are respected and equally as important.

One afternoon Vasilly and Nastya go out and my Dad and I come back to an empty chum. We take some time to light the fire, it goes out, and we relight multiple times. The fire eventually roars, but with more attention than it deserved. Vasily returns to the chum.

“I saw smoke so I knew you were alive,” he laughs. He lays back on the skins, tired from herding. “Life’s tough without a woman,” he says. “It’s hard to light the fire, it’s hard for me.”

Nastya calls on the mobile to check if we’re all ok and what we are eating for lunch. “Two minute noodles and whisky,” Vasiliy jokes. She laughs, but we did have two minute noodles. Social responsibility gives members of the family unit purpose and is a proven formula for survival that they have followed for centuries. The reindeer unifies their roles and how that courtship is managed is integral. The reindeer gives the Nenets purpose, identity and direction. A symbiotic relationship, the Nenets care for the reindeer and the reindeer in return provides for the Nenets. In slaughter, the reindeer is immortalised. Every part is used; bones for tools, skins for clothing and housing, sinew for sewing, meat for eating, blood for drinking. When a slaughtered reindeer turns out to have been newly pregnant, the foetus is sacramentally placed high off the ground in a tree. They cannot be eaten by the dogs, they should be taken back by the weather, by the wilderness. 

The reindeer Vasily has just killed for his guests, my family, lays motionless in the snow. He makes the first cuts. Opening knee joints to the underbelly first, careful to lift the skin but not pierce the stomach so its contents and the blood are not wasted. Once opened, intestines are pulled out – traditionally the partly digested grass contents are used to tan hides because of the stomach acid it contains, today it is fed to the Laikas. The stomach is opened and the knives come out. With Vasily I drink some warm blood with salt and cut chunks of raw meat off the reindeer. I taste fresh liver, kidney and meat as I hold my son. The reindeer blood is rich and warm, my body absorbs is immediately and it gives me strength. This is the moment we travelled for.

Five reindeer were killed that day across the five chums in our brigade. The following day Nastya sits on the edge of a sleigh where the reindeer was killed. There are piles of bloody meat surrounding, and a draping skin. She has the head of the reindeer in her lap and is skinning it.

“The skin from the head is sacred and can only be used to make the soles of the men’s shoes, that’s our tradition,” she says. “So there is reindeer between man and earth at every step.”

That they protect the reindeer and their steps be simultaneously guided by the reindeer, speaks of a parallel existence that only an indigenous life can know. Nature provides the Nenets all that is required for survival. They of course in recent years have adapted to modernity, but they still only take what they need, constantly moving so as never to over graze an area beyond rekindle. Their survival depends on their courting of the reindeer, on their dance with Mother Nature. 

Nenets currently practice one of the purest cohabitations with nature on the planet. An understanding we have lost in contemporary society. They read the land in a storm, they carve, cut and sew everything they need and use from the land as it provides, embracing just four modern inventions; snowmobiles, chainsaws, petrol generators and mobile phones. Before these, all wood was cut with an axe, all herding and travel was done by sleigh only, there was no generator fed light bulb at night and no phones to call relatives or with which to use the internet. But Vasily has been taught to build a sleigh from hand by his father Yeylo, and so he can if he needs, survive with nothing but what he takes from nature or what his reindeer provide. An ancient and beautiful stewardship where existence is deeply intertwined with the environment and the herd. 

Contemporary society could do well to re-learn this intimacy. How can we steward a planet we have no connection with? That we don’t know or understand at a primal level? We have drifted so far from how we learnt to survive. 

As I leave camp with Bill his temperature dissipates, brought on it seems by teething; one thing we hadn’t anticipated in our risk assessment. Vasily comes quietly smiling and hands us a gift; children’s kisi [reindeer booties]. Bill will grow into them and wear them in the snow of the Canadian Rockies. When he learns to walk there will be reindeer between child and earth at every step and if nothing else, he will be able to look back and understand what it means to tread lightly.

Find the full details for our 2o21 Nenets expedition, here.