Living and Dying in the Siberian Taiga
What does it take to survive in one of the world’s most remote forests?
Welcome back to a series of articles written by Patrick Carlson. Throughout this series, Patrick will analyze a piece of survival “literature” — be it a novel, a film, a game, etc. — and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. This entry looks at the documentary film Happy People: A Year in the Taiga by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov.
“A good wedge is a man’s savior. … As they say, you can take away anything from a man, his wealth and health and suchlike, but you can’t take away his craftsman skills. Once you learn a trade, you always know your trade for the rest of your life.” —Fur trapper Gennady Soloviev
There will always be a dark side to survival. But difficult collisions with the natural world can also bring out the best in us. In The Long Dark, patience and ingenuity play a key role in squeezing one more sunrise out of the unforgiving Canadian wilderness. Just as there’s anxiety in making a long trek between camps or pushing aggressively into an unexplored area, there’s joy in success. I did it.
In this way we can’t ignore the opportunities presented by challenging survival situations and the chance they give us to prove something to ourselves. We see a heartfelt and moving example of this mentality in the remarkable documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. The 2010 film, a collaboration between Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov, shows us the ebb and flow of survival in a place where craft, wisdom, and everyday bravery are not just helpful, but necessary.
Life along Russia’s Yenisei river follows the seasons, especially for the families who make their living trapping fur in the dense taiga forests that line the waterway. For trapper Gennady Soloviev, the land tells him a long and unbroken story. The quality of a particular day’s snow crust gives him insight into the activity of local wildlife as well as the hunters who might prey on them. Gennady knows people, too.
While there are clear signs of struggle in Happy People—alcoholism, separated families, and memories of war—there’s nothing apocalyptic about the spare existence of the men and women who make their homes along the Yenisei. As Herzog and Vasyukov represent their lives, the message is one of fulfillment rather than discontent.
The documentary doesn’t romanticize the isolation of life along the remote Siberian river. But the fur trappers and their families seem to gain as much utility from the remote wilderness as frustration. Some of the best scenes in the film put the trappers’ skills and exacting craftsmanship on display. In a way that demonstrates exactly what would be possible in a scenario like The Long Dark, we see what a determined person can do with a sharp ax, a hot fire, and a supply of good lumber. A friendly dog helps, too.
But there’s a side to Siberian survival that’s not so obvious from the joyful expertise at work in Happy People. A vast, planetary biome that stretches across the sub-arctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia, the taiga forests of Siberia have also served as a lonely refuge for people on the run.
In 1978, a group of Soviet geologists surveying a remote tract of Siberian forest for its resource potential made a surprising discovery. During a flyover the team spotted a small hut, 6,000 feet up the side of a mountain. After landing and hiking up to the area, the geologists found a family of six living off the land. But unlike the fur trapper Gennady, their story was not a happy one. As the geologists would find out after getting to know them, the family had come to this remote location, 150 miles from the nearest known settlement, as religious refugees escaping persecution under Stalin. In fact, the Lykov family had been living there for 40 years.
They were Old Believers, a sect of Russian Orthodox Christianity that had struggled to find acceptance under Soviet rule. Because of their faith, the Lykov family fled into the Siberian wilderness and cut off all contact with the outside world. Their metal pots and pans long-since rusted away, they were subsisting completely off the land and the family’s health—both mental and physical—had paid a price for this.
“Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible” writes Mike Dash. “Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.”
It’s a remarkable, but also dark, story and one you can read more about in Dash’s article at the Smithsonian Web site. His sources also point to more research on the Lykov family and its experiences surviving in the taiga. And once you’ve read Dash’s account, you can check out this story that looked in on the last surviving member of the Lykov family in 2013.
More than anything, both these examples demonstrate that what we get out of the wild areas of the earth is often times what we bring with us. Or what we can simply dig out of the ground.
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