Leaving Russia… not easy.
Like the work, our departure from the karst cliffs of the Russian Far East came upon us with "Kramer" panache. We had two hours to pack, clean and say our goodbyes. The refrigerator proved to be the most challenging: a pool of blood building on the floor from 15 pounds of wild boar and a 3 foot long red fish that had been given to us during our last week at the Reserve. Trying not to waste any of the delicious meat, we forced every bit into our stomachs, before leaving for Vladivostok. During that last week it was rainy and cold but we continued to meet people with warm hearts and energy that surpasses the gloom and chill.
Sergey Elsuvok, a 77 year-old retired ornithologist, has accumulated, over his 40-year career, the largest private collection of taxidermy birds in Russia. His collection holds 14,350 specimens, from over 350 species.
In 1960, Sergey arrived in Primorski Krai to work for a railroad company, as a machinist. From his modest salary (as low as 31 rubles a month) Sergey would collect his wages, purchase enough food for two weeks and head into the forest. It was there that he would live and keep a diary of his field observations. -- Even while serving in the Russian Army, he kept what he calls his "bird diary”.
During our visit, his passion and excitement, for his lifelong pursuit, carried him around the room, and up and down an old stool that he uses as a stepladder, to share his collection. He takes great pride in his work. If we had let him, he would of talked with us all day.
I sat in the back of an old Russian military truck on my way into the old growth forest of the Reserve's interior. As we moved across the tough terrain, the truck’s winch, with its 60 lb. hook, swung violently, threatening to detach itself, right next to my violently swinging head.
-- This was where I met Taisia Palkina. A person with the warmest hands I have ever held. - -
Sitting in the back of that truck, concerned with the giant hook that got closer and closer to my face, and more importantly - my camera’s lens; I was transfixed on Taisia's red hair. I spent the entire ride waiting to get the right photograph… As we arrived to our destination, the temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees centigrade. I hadn't bother wearing gloves because I was obsessed with Taisia's hair, and kept shooting for the photograph. But within 10 minutes I could not move my fingers. They were burning from the cold. I could not grip the boxes that we were assigned to carry into the forest. I didn't want to complain or stop to put on my gloves because I was with these tough Russian women, who, I might add, were not wearing any gloves.
After several attempts to offer me her gloves (fitted with pink flowers and butterflies) Taisia stopped, marched over to me, grabbed my hands (which were now completely stiff) and began to massage them back to life. -- I swear her heartbeat was in her hands. All I could say was spa-See-ba (Thank you).
-- The boxes we carried into the forest were designed to set beneath the Korean pines, to catch and collect seeds and needles for the Scientific Department's research.