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Siberian Arctic: Descending the Yana River

AFTER WE ENDURED the legendary cold of the Siberian winter, the summer heat almost did us in. The sun shines all day and night on the Yana River, and at midday the mercury can climb over 105° F.

You might think that would be better than a temperature of -75° F, but you would be wrong. At -75° F, there are many things you can do to make yourself warmer. You can add another layer of clothes, build a fire, move around, eat fatty foods a whole long list. But there is not a thing you can do to protect yourself from the heat, other than dive into the water as the elk do to escape the clouds of mosquitoes, horseflies, and gnats that swarm at the water’s surface. At night or rather during the portion of the day we set aside for sleeping we took shelter under our mosquito nets, which we had carefully set out in the shade. Our dog Otchum also disliked the heat and would dig himself a burrow to sleep in.

The ground thaws only to a depth of twenty to thirty inches and the permafrost underlying it holds many carcasses from the Ice Age. We unearthed mammoth teeth, a tusk, and various bones.

The Yana River, which would carry our boats down to the Arctic Ocean, loops through the tundra, cutting away at its banks so that whole sections collapse at a time, sometimes uncovering permafrost that has been frozen for thousands of years. We crossed areas so wild we thought we were about to enter a forgotten land where the mammoth still roamed.

Although we were traveling through space, we were also exploring time, an immemorial and mythical time in which history played no part, and to which Nature alone could give us access. Though slight, our access was of great value as though Nature granted us a rare privilege by allowing us glimpses of the secrets of the earth she so jealously guarded.

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