GHOSTS OF THE BARENTS by Mark A. Krupa
The colossal MI-8 Russian helicopter circled our Varzina River camp once, then landed with the grace of a bloated prey bird. One by one, a dozen para-militaries with masks and machine guns emerged and eyed both the guests and staff with solemn intimidation. Like a scene from James Bond, a handful of officials followed the soldiers and headed towards the camp manager Igor, a stalwart, balding man with impenetrable eyes, who looked like he could talk his way out of anything. Today, this reputation would be tested to the limit…
Meanwhile, our guests, veteran salmon anglers from Great Britain, stared at the militia men and each raised an eyebrow (which, in the secret language of the British, means that one is overwhelmed with emotion…). As the men officiously introduced themselves, I found myself contemplating such notions as - life, death, and the Gulag... It’s amazing just how existential one can become when facing the barrel of a loaded machine gun in a foreign country. Fortunately for us though, this was Russia. Although miles from civilization and in the heart of a salmon war zone, there was a mediator - a language more universal than sex or the UN - Vodka! So, as the boys with their toys negotiated the latest para-legal conflicts, I joined the libation debate, realizing that this was going to be a long summer...
For the second consecutive year I was on assignment photographing the Russian arctic while acting as camp host of a fishing camp in the northern Kola Peninsula, east of Murmansk. However, unlike the previous summer where things ran relatively smoothly, a growing dispute over the exclusive fishing rites at our river-camps escalated during the winter, and today we witnessed the climax.
A dejected Igor later emerged from the negotiations with our ultimatum: leave by four o`clock tomorrow... or else! The following day, like refugees, we sardined into our flying fortress and headed off to the Rynda, one of the other remaining camps, where I was to spend the rest of the summer. Welcome to Brave New Russia... where multinational entrepreneurs, American dollars, ex-KGB, and of course, the Mafia, all collide into a Molotov cocktail – a tangled web over one of the most lucrative recreational fishing markets in the world.
With the fall of the former Soviet Union, the Kola Peninsula became the Atlantic salmon Mecca of the world; the last frontier where sportsmen could pursue the `fish of kings` in virgin waters. Fly fishing for salmon is a tradition that over the centuries has been refined into an art form. Many venerate the Atlantic salmon; even Winston Churchill once described it as `a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.` But for the past century, commercial harvesting and over-fishing has taken its toll, depleting most western rivers. Today, the few remaining prized waters of Quebec, the United-Kingdom, and Scandinavia belong to private clubs, and are often inaccessible to even the richest of clientele. In the northern Kola, the salmon grow to trophy sizes and the camps provide daily helicopter taxying to secluded river sections, making the whole experience very attractive to adventurous anglers. Sometimes, too adventurous... Especially for the president of our camps - Bill Davies.
Bill was an ex mobile-home salesmen who, upon experiencing a midlife crisis, decided to... learn Russian, go to Russia, marry a Russian and establish an exclusive fishing camp that would cater to such renowned anglers as Jack Hemingway, Jane Fonda and Ted Turner. In 1989, Bill had requisitioned two veteran fly-fishers from Montreal, Gary Anderson and John Gregori, to explore these unknown rivers and find out which ones were most lucrative. Since then, John and Gary have returned each year. Soon, they joined me at the Rynda camp, and together we were determined to not to allow any conflict spoil our sojourn.
One morning, we requisitioned a guide and decided to explore the sea pools of the Rynda, in order to accommodate a large group of anglers scheduled to arrive the following week. After the two hour hike down stream from camp to the estuary, the unforgiving wind made fly casting miserable. We soon longed for shelter and an early lunch. The gusts of wind pushed at our backs the whole way down, as if trying to lead us to something... Finally, after the last river-bend, there it was: the ghost town. Since the Cold War, the Kola Peninsula had become one of the most militarized zones on the planet, off-limits to all, including non-military Russians. The natives of the area were promptly relocated, leaving a score of abandoned villages to decay as modern military bases were being erected.
It was low tide. The smell of sea salt chilled the air as we crested the knoll where, overlooking the Barents sea, the scattered remains of several wooden cabins lay groaning in the wind. One of the most sturdy of the shelters had visibly been reinforced by a rag-tag combination of planks. As our guide, Nicolei, approached the construction he proudly announced: "Dis... my haus". Nicolei spoke little English, but we communicated well enough, as I knew a mish-mash of Slavic words which become Russian after a few vodkas. Once inside, we lit a fire to dry our wading boots and waited for both the wind to diminish and the next tide to push in fresh salmon.
But the wind did not let up... It howled around the broken windows and crawled in through the cracks with a wailing murmur. While watching the waves of the Barents sea die on the jagged shoreline, we poured round after round of tea spiked with Russian cognac (which I suspect is mainly MI-8 helicopter fuel). It was then that I noticed the strange ‘wall-paper’ surrounding us. Most of it was old Russian newspaper pages dated from as far back as 1932! Even though this cabin was probably a fridge most of the year, I couldn`t believe that the clippings were so well preserved. As Gary lit another cigar, I probed the cabin for more treasures, and sure enough between two news clippings was a cardboard box, semi-stapled to the wall. On it was written in English ‘US. NAVY’ and underneath was marked ‘SUGAR’. With Nicolei`s help we found out that the box came from an ally cargo ship during World War Two. It seems many ships were torpedoed by German U-boats and the wreckage washed up on shore. The native villagers never let anything go to waste. Nicolei revealed that he was born in this village, but was forced to leave when every one was relocated. Each summer, he returns to relive his childhood and guide for tourists, earning him enough American dollars to survive the year.
During my first visit to the Kola, I was immediately taken by the remarkable Russian guides. Most were well educated, and skilled outdoors men, renowned for carrying inhuman amounts of equipment on their backs and still being able to retrieve a drowning fly-fisher being dragged downstream by a salmon.
They also seem to know a lot about bears... For example, the night before the militia arrived, I went fishing with Sergei, our youngest guide (who learned English from listening to black market alternative rock music.) We had ventured about a mile downstream when I signaled Sergei that a bear was crossing to our side of the river less than a hundred yards down. As soon as I pointed out the creature, Sergei dropped his fishing rod and sprinted back to camp. I chased after him. Trying not to choke with laughter, I explained in vain that I had seen many grizzlies in Canada and they were quite friendly... Sergei crashed into the kitchen, opened a bottle of vodka, drank half in a single giant gulp and declared: "Mark, dis no Canada. Dis Russian bear. Russian bear... Very hungry bear!"
Perhaps the greatest charm of the northern Kola is that it is a land of extremes. Last year, for the eight weeks of summer, I did not see one second of darkness. For photography, I particularly enjoyed the midnight sun, and the thick fog that can roll in instantly, grounding all helicopter activity. Without forests or mountains to divert them, the northern Kola rivers flow through the volcanic tundra rock forming an endless series of canyons and falls. Amidst this barren vastness, the presence of modern military technology is a sharp contrast. Many a morning I had been awakened by the sound of a sonic boom, as MIG jets performed periodical training runs.
Other than salmon, caribou are the most prolific denizens of the peninsula. From the helicopter, one can witness thousands gathering over a horizon of ice and snow. But when flying over civilization, one is smitten by the decay which fouls this pristine arctic landscape. One day, leaving from Murmansk in a thick fog, we were forced to follow the coast line, which led us over the harbour. Murmansk harbour looks like a warship burial ground: a graveyard for rusted, half-sunk frigates and submarines anchored in a slough of industrial waste. The entire waterfront seems to bathe in a perpetual oil spill, as shimmering purple-blue tongues of petrol smear the sea like pastels on a black arctic canvas. Within this separate reality, a cross between the North Pole and Mad Max, the eccentric salmon anglers arrive weekly, to escape, and to chase their dragons...
John and Gary are among those chronic `dragon chasers`, who have travelled almost every where, but many colourful tales come from their adventures in the Soviet-Union days of the Kola, when they were perpetually being monitored by the KGB as potential spies. Blond, blue-eyed women would appear consistently around them - speaking perfect KGB-school English - asking them about what it is they were doing here, exactly... For Russians, the notion of spending 7 000 $ US a week to drag a few fish on the bank and then release them is a concept so foreign that not even the `Krazy Americanskis` could dream it up. Surely, it must be a cover for something else...
In the land of the midnight sun, one can easily loose track of time, but when the last of the cognac was finished I knew a few hours had elapsed and still the wind pinned us inside the cabin. I could have stayed there until morning, listening to John and Gary`s stories, and watching the waves of the Barents crash on shore. But soon the familiar humming of a chopper overhead signaled that it was time to go. We scrambled outside, only to be whisked away back to camp.
The next day would prove more eventful, fishing-wise. We headed far upriver to be dropped off at a series of waterfalls that looked like salmon heaven… It was. We hooked several fish, and eventually John tangled into a large specimen that took half an hour and all three of us to land. I finally grabbed its powerful tail and hoisted it on the bank. The following photo session was among the most memorable I have experienced. That night, we began celebrating early as many other anglers had also caught large fish. However the party was somewhat soured by the arrival of a helicopter with Bill Davies` Russian partner who announced that, due to a series of legal conflicts, the camps were closing for the year, and we would have to depart in the morning. Once again we were whisked away...
On the somber flight back to Helsinki, despite brief conversations with some of the world`s most renowned anglers, I kept to myself and my glass of vodka. As we were half-way to Helsinki, a turbulent wind came scraping on my window pane, which shook the jet and toppled my glass to the floor... It`s just wind I muttered… Only wind and nothing more...