Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A day in the life (Kamchatka field)

Yesterday (1 Feb 2017) I met with a group of young scientists at the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (it had different name/s back in 1998) --we will meet weekly to practice English and to learn more about international science.  The group ranges from (field) volcanologists to mathematical modelers; I forgot my camera....  I am excited to get to know them and will write more in a future post.  Yesterday we introduced ourselves, Tanya introducing me first in a long encomium (in Russian). Later, I told some of her story (in English, slowly and distinctly spoken), and of our history together. So I decided today to post an essay I wrote some time ago--back in 2000 or so, I call it "a day in the life" -- from our first Kamchatka field season in 1998.
This was our 1998 crew, twoard the end of a 35-km backpack out of our Stolbovaya site.  From left to right:  Vanya Storcheus, Roman Spitsa, Jody Bourgeois, Sasha Storcheus, Tanya Pinegina

“A day in the life”  from Jody B’s 1998 Kamchatka journal

            The Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian "Far East," is one of the most seismically and volcanically active regions in the world.  It is also one of the most remote.  Until about 10 years ago, Kamchatka was off limits even to most Soviet citizens, and visits by non-aligned geoscientists virtually unheard of.  With détente and perestroika, Kamchatka opened up in the 1990s, although bureaucratic paperwork, continued military sensitivity, complex logistics, and the unstable Russian economy were still significant hurdles to overcome.
            In the summer of 1998, for six weeks, I worked with Tatiana (Tanya) Pinegina on the Kamchatka Peninsula, just north of the triple junction, on the Bering Sea coast. We were looking for historical and prehistorical tsunami deposits in a frontier area.  My trip was supported by University of Washington Geological Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as the ingenuity and dedication of Tanya and her field crew.  Tanya, a researcher at the Institute of Volcanic Geology and Geochemistry in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, spent a month in Washington State in 1997, hosted by Brian Atwater (USGS, UW) and myself, so this was a return exchange. 
            Tanya's well organized plan to work on a shoestring budget was the single, most important contributor to the success of our field season.  We took public buses, hired local cars and motorboats to transport our gear, and backpacked and paddled to two remote sites.  Berries and fish we caught were important components of our field fare.  I've chosen one day from my journal and field notes to typify the experience.

5 August 1998, Soldatskaya Bay, Bering Sea coast. 
We get up fairly early, around seven, emerging from our sardine-like sleeping arrangements--five of us on a 1.5 by 3-meter platform in a 3 by 3-meter cabin dug in to the river bank.  The storm has abated, our clothes have dried, the river has dropped, the surf is quiet.  Breakfast, cooked by Vanya on the outside fire, is kasha, with (instant) milk and freshly picked blueberries.  The boys drink tea, and Tanya and I have weak coffee--we are running low, as we had to wait out the storm.  Vanya will stay in camp for the day, to guard from bears, to gather wood, to keep camp and to prepare food.
            We pack and dress for a long day.  I am still struggling to learn how to wrap my feet in partyanki, rectangles of wool used rather than socks by Russian field workers (soldiers, geologists, fishermen), before stuffing them in my rubber hip boots--standard footwear for the wet grass, marshes, and streams we commonly encounter.  This day we aim to the center of the embayment, heading ultimately for the 35-m-high terrace about 2 km from the shore.  After crossing the river mouth on foot (tide is low), we stop and pick "princess" berries (gnyazhnika--a kind of ground raspberry)--we are never in too much of a hurry to pick berries, this exercise providing not only part of our sustenance, but also one of our small pleasures. 
            The weather is pleasant, mostly sunny, the flowers are spectacular in their variety of colors and sizes.  Mosquitoes not too bad today.  First, Roma and Sasha excavate small trenches on the lower beach ridges.  As we work toward the back of the coastal plain, the trenches exhibit older and older volcanic ash layers, and some ‘candidate’ (potential, up for evaluation) tsunami deposits.  Before we reach the high terrace, we bushwhack through shrubs, hop over bumpy patterned ground, and traverse a spongy marsh.  We collect a pot of water from a slough, as there will be none up on the terrace.  Along the terrace front I can see five or six bear trails--places the grass has been flattened, recently.  We climb the slope and cross an open field to the edge of a birch grove, choosing the site for a 3-m-deep excavation (shurf), which Roma lays out.
            While Roma digs, Sasha builds a fire and boils water.  Tanya and I chat, write notes, pick berries, think grand thoughts, discuss ideas.  When I excuse myself to go off to the bushes, Tanya says, "Jody, don't go far, here lives bear."   Before describing the excavation, we recline in the tall grass and eat lunch--the last of our bread (somewhat moldy), freshly caught salmon and its caviar, prepared last night, caramel (boiled condensed milk, sgushyonka), weak tea.  A small shower blows over as Tanya and I describe the trench, then Roma and Sasha fill it back up, and we head north, toward another terrace.
            Sasha typically leads the way.  A volcano seismologist who grew up in the Russian Far East, he has spent much time in the wilds of Kamchatka and Siberia.  We follow a bear trail, for the most part, but veer right where the bear veered left, away from our terrace.  Soon we come to a slough we cannot cross, and we backtrack--Sasha's a good pathfinder, but the bear knew better.  On the next terrace, we repeat our actions.  I sketch a view of the mountains to the south--they seem to be tilted up and back toward the west--this area is very active tectonically, with many uplifted, relatively young terraces, and some deranged drainages.  Before dropping off the terrace, we pick more berries, mostly crowberries (shiksha) here, getting fatter and riper as the weeks pass.  You can strip 15 or 20 with a few swipes of your hand.  I wonder how the bears do it--Tanya says they eat the whole plant and spit out the branches.
            We head back toward the beach, crossing small sloughs by leaping, stepping on overhanging shrubs, bushwhacking till we find narrow spots.  Tanya picks another excavation spot, and Roma starts to dig.  Sasha is suddenly at my side, saying, "Jody, bear!" and turning me to face west, toward the terrace, orienting me to get a view.  I have not yet seen a Kamchatka bear (myedved), though I have seen many bear signs—bear trails, bear beds, bear footprints, bearshit.  I strain to look in the distance when a large brown head pops up above the shrubs, not more than 15 meters away, and then it is gone!  Sasha says he saw the bear, then the bear stood on its hind legs and looked our way, and now the bear, a big, old (light brown) one, is hightailing it away from us.  I want to see the bear some more, but Sasha tells me no, I don't, because the bear has smelled or heard us and is going away, afraid.  If it comes back, it only means trouble.  We carry whistles, bear flares, and two guns, but never have used them; these bears are solitary by nature, and here they are unfamiliar with and afraid of people. 
            We finish the trench description and head on, one more slough to cross.  We jump over a narrow spot, and then find ourselves on an island, with a wider channel yet to go.  Sasha leans over the slough, steps on unstable vegetation, makes the leap, successfully.  He takes Tanya's outstretched hand, and she reaches back to me for balance, making the leap, successfully.  To make a long story short, I tried next, and ended up waist deep in the slough.  Tanya and Sasha pulled me out, and I got down on all fours to dump the water from my hip boots.  The day was nearly gone (it was after 8 PM), so Tanya decided to send me and Sasha back to camp, while she and Roma did one more excavation. 
            I was wet, but not miserable.  When we got back to the river mouth, though, the tide was too high for us to wade across, so Sasha had to pump up the small rubber boat.  Big enough for one, we used it for two, as a ferry on these small rivers.  The pumping seemed to take forever.  A seal watched from the water close by--probably the seal who took bites out of the flounder and salmon caught in our nearby fish net.  (I always called a watching seal nyerpa nol-nol-syem – 007).  All we had as a paddle was a small shovel, but it was not far across.  Once on the other side, Sasha went on ahead to tell Vanya to stoke the fire.  When I arrived, Vanya helped me remove my boots and wet clothes, and gave me a big cup of kompote--berries boiled in sweetened water.  I warmed up quickly, eating some lukewarm salmon/rice cakes and noodles, trying to enjoy the spectacular sunset.  Sasha went back to ferry Tanya and Roma, and they returned with more fish from our net. 
As the sun set, around 10:30, the mosquitoes got thicker, and I retired to the sleeping platform, not even bothering to undress, and quickly dozed off.  Next thing I know, I am awakened by a rumbling, shaking sensation--an earthquake.  No one else has yet come in to the cabin to sleep.  Tanya starts yelling, "Jody, quickly, stand up!"  "Jody, quickly, come!"  I wonder, is she afraid the dug-in cabin will collapse?  Slowly I realize she is evacuating us to higher ground, in case of tsunami.  I am sleepy and tired and cranky and do not want to get up.  I "reason" that the earthquake was not big enough to make a sizeable tsunami.  I forget all the advice I tell folks living on the coast--if you feel an earthquake, don't wait, go to high ground!  I forget about all the people in Nicaragua (1992) and Peru (1996) who did not feel their earthquake (or barely felt it) and whose tsunami flattened their houses.  I only slowly remember that recently, two tsunamis in Kamchatka with high runup were amplified by earthquake-triggered landslides.  I reluctantly pull on my boots and follow Tanya and the others across the moonlit terrace to higher ground.   I begin to understand how easy it is to ignore warning signs of a tsunami, especially when it is nighttime and you are in an exhausted state....
            We chat in the chill night air, and hear a distant rumble but feel no more shaking—a landslide?  aftershock?  Waiting a respectable amount of time, we then return to our sleeping bags, calm down and finally fall asleep.  The next morning, there is no trace of a tsunami on the beach, but there are new bear tracks covering our footprints from the day before.

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