Leaving ten-million Moscow, the easternmost great city of the Atlantic world

To fly, in a barn-size Ilyushin 96, into the Siberian vast

High and wide

A third full

Most look Slavic, more men than women

Cops, businessmen, military in mufti, Siberian couples, rucksack hikers, very few kids

Mysterious, immense Russia to be crossed to the Pacific

Moscow-to-Kamchatka flight, the western Russian taiga to tundra to the Siberian ranges to the Sea of Okhotsk

Before the railroad, ventured only on foot, on horseback, by telega, drogi or droshky, or from the sea around the Cape of Good Hope

Much as North America was crossed

Conestoga for telega, and Cape Horn for the Cape of Good Hope

This trip an ultimate psycho-geographic undertaking

The Ilyushin 96’s windows the viewing screens

Climbing from the Moscow region and over the Urals, the westernmost wilderness is puddle lakes with the mid-June snow melt not yet absorbed and drained

The surface from ten thousand meters perhaps seventy percent lacustrine water with no evidence of anything that is not totally wild

Ob’ River country there below

What must be the Tyumen Oblast

The Ob’-Irtysh alone has a drainage ten times the Rhine’s

Is a thousand kilometers longer than the vast Paraná before it swells La Plata

Move around avoiding sun-side window glare and cloud-cover groundscape voids

Window to unoccupied window

To the best views, to peer down on the big mountain systems, to gawk as far as possible up and down the river courses

To try to follow traces on the wilderness below

Long, long all-light midsummer passage out along the ten-hour Eurasian taiga-tundra arc

To Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Over the splatterlake taiga, empty tundra and the broad and jumbled ranges of Yakutskaya

And those vast river systems with names like exotic women

Pechora, Yenisey, Lena, Yana, Indigirka

Where all the way east on the way down into Kamchatka over the Sea of Okhotsk, skirt the upper reaches of the Kolyma River country

Empty grandeur

Pure geography

Without the act of doing it, there can be no perception of what it is overflown across nine time zones of Eurasia

Very rarely the trace of a pipeline or truck track, buildings only a few times and then only hamlets, yurts, or forlorn sheds

Much totally vacant grassland

With the texture of the rises, gullies and flats spread relentlessly


In the endless evening arctic summer-solstice light

The gray early-summer reseda of northern steppe

Then scrub conifer bush

Then the snowy taiga

The surface geography procession of deep wilderness Halfway there, the daily westbound Aeroflot Ilyushin 96, Petropavlovsk to Moscow, passes impossibly close with a startling whoosh

Huge twin planes with intersecting courses like two ascending and descending gondolas counterbalancing on a funicular

Hurtling flat out

On the horizontal of the Eurasian ultimate

In vivid clarity at over ten thousand meters, both flights in mid-journey probably traveling near the 900 km/hr top speed for Il96s

So the intersect at something like 1,800 kilometers an hour

A quick slam like a fast train into a tunnel

Shaking our plane violently in the turbulence

The other Il96 came out of the nowhere into which we continue to plunge

Crews no doubt look forward to the daily encounter

Pilots are hotdogs beneath their methodical attention to skills or they wouldn’t be pilots

Putin uses an Il96, plenty of room with the cabin seating nine abreast

A plane large enough for its country

They feel like horse barns

With an open vault, overhead luggage racks only along the fuselage’s sides

Bound now for the foggy, volcanic Pacific Coast

Big timber like coastal BC and the Tongass

As in Alaska, turning to stlanik in the farther inland in the North

Low-growing elfin cedar and dwarf alder, a meter to two meters high, impenetrable, once in it must search for paths through, go around, the ultimate thicket

Stlanik and muskeg to tundra

In two sailboats we’ll take coastal course on north along Kamchatka to barren Chukotka

Kamchatka, considerably larger than Texas

Chukotka, nearly three times the size of Kamchatka

Thoroughly off away from the cluttered world’s psychobabble occlusion

As if, like stlanik, self-centered neuroses are decumbent in the face of all that weather, all that space, all that open sea

Russians acknowledge this

They don’t think of Chukotka, Kamchatka and what lies south to Vladivostok and the slim North Korean border, as being in Siberia

It’s their Far East

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, its second city after Vladivostok

And the second largest city in the world unreachable by road

A quarter of a million people in a city spread over volcanic hills

Three snowcapped active volcanoes within sight of its port

The latitude of Dublin but with Eurasia’s weather pushing across overhead

Long dramatic landing path, slant down into rusty blue vitality of green alder bush

A flattening rush of peaks, snowfields, long glacial valleys, tarns, slopes, down into the level willow-birch bush

Come to ground at Petropavlovsk’s Yelizovo

Into town on a road of speeding trucks swerving widely to miss potholes

In the back of a right-hand drive old Mitsubishi Pajero from the boats’ agents

Its seatbacks badly broken, Nadia and Serge in front jawing away

Thirty kilometers into town with long views of snow-covered volcanoes the whole way

Almost everything on wheels, or treads, in the Russian Far East is Soviet military surplus or right-hand drive rundown trucks and jeeps shipped north from Japan and South Korea

Mazda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Subaru, Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia

Off on side roads and in turnouts along the crowded Yelizovo-Petropavlovsk road, a Saturday morning serial road market is going on from truck beds and jeeps

Summer vegetables, wild berries, and the goods, implements and tools that rural taiga-dwellers need to get along

Nadia shouts back that we should stop on the way to the port for rye flour for Diablesse, the other boat

Diablesse: Johan the owner, Mike the skipper, Ben the mate, Steve an engineer, Gennadiy the sled-dog owning guide

Leonore: Dave the owner and skipper, Chris his son, Joe the mate, Kate the cook, Pavel the interpreter, me

Diablesse a 28-meter centerboard sloop, Leonore a 25-meter ketch, the first private boats to make it to the Kamchatka coast in years

They’ve been sailing in tandem up from Hokkaido

The store’s inventory and its clients where we stop for flour before going to the boats is remarkably similar to two visited a month later in Nome

Again, what it takes to live at the edge of the Arctic, the clothes, the hardware, the rigging, the tarps, the tools, the sundries, the food

Still the feel of a soviet era grocery hall, with unexpected alternatives, yet a good deal like what it would be as a western European discount store

Driving on to the port, Nadia is intelligently voluble about what goes on in Petropavlovsk

Leonore and Diablesse are tied up stern-to side by side

Trim and almost otherworldly this far north

Vitus Bering’s Avacha Bay out beyond their bows with the three volcanic peaks in view

The stupendous Avachinsky Volcano steaming away above the city, the inactive Koryaksky Volcano on Avachinsky’s flank, and the symmetrical Vilyuchinsk Volcano across the water

Avacha Bay was the site of a Crimean War Russian victory over French and British ships

Was where in the 1870s an American out of Seattle served as Petropavlovsk’s mayor

We cast off early with crisp and clear with Avachinsky Volcano rearing off the stern

Into the morning calm with murres, pelagic cormorants and a few sea ducks

Vilyuchinsk Volcano dead ahead

Swing to a course east by northeast for Cape Shipunskiy

Bound for the Arctic Ocean, and after almost three thousand nautical miles toward the Chukchi Sea, and western Alaska

Sail off at four and a half knots while up in the bow locker working on a solenoid problem

Through a flock of crested auklets

Crested auklets all in pairs, in Beringia through the earlier months of the year from Baja California

As sandhill cranes come in great numbers from New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua to nest on Russian tundra

Near the dozens of salmon-crowded watercourses draining the two-thousand-meter mountain country of the treeless, empty Chukotka-Kamchatka borderlands

All dead ahead in the month before Nome  

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