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Life and Death in Kamchatka

Updated: May 1, 2020

The native Kamchadals are pretty plucky folk. The aboriginal peoples (there are about five different tribes, but let’s not go into specifics) comprise only a few thousand these days, courtesy of the Russkies sending out the Cossacks a couple of centuries ago to take over the peninsula and wipe out the locals in the process. The quarry? Hairy gold, as in fur.

The Russki-Cossack invasion met with little opposition, as the nomadic natives were generally easy-going, benevolent, generous and non-aggressive folks of good faith, witness their tradition of dealing with the aged and infirm. If you were too old and tired or sick to keep your end up in the nomadic lifestyle and reindeer herding, a younger cove despatched you with a quick stab to the vital organs.

Supposedly, the natives were so skilled at this that death was instantaneous. Once despatched, a speedy immolation followed, grave-digging being a bit of a chore in permafrost climes, and the caring natives balked at leaving their newly slaughtered loved ones lying around as wolf-fodder.

Similar skills were employed in the business of sabling (as in killing furry rodents). First, find a large tree and carve out a section 14’’(H), 4’’ (W), 5’’ (D), the bottom of which is just low enough for the sable to shove his head in if he stands on tippy-toes. Get a smaller branch off another tree and whittle it so that it slides easily down in the aforementioned slot. Construct a rudimentary four-figure trap mechanism just above the bottom of the slot and attach bait. Mr Sable strolls up and chomps on the bait, whereupon the trap mechanism releases the wooden head crusher and rodent ceases to function for all purposes except the fur coat department (the pelt being undamaged in the process of head-banging).

The Kamchadals were also fairly experimental in house building, with their winter and summer houses being 1 to 5 miles apart. The winter abodes (zimovie) were located under the shelter of forested hills, the summer lodges (letovie) near salmon runs. Fish bladders, being translucent, were sown together with dried reindeer sinews to form patchwork windows for log yurts, which were chinked with dry moss. Roofs were thatched with grass or overlapping tamarack bark. They also built fish storehouses – conical log tents – for drying salmon (salmon were so prolific on Kamchatka that they could be hauled out of the upper reaches of rivers by hand).

On the fashion scene, sealskin boots were worn over reindeer skin knee-highs, with fur trousers (fur to the inside, gentlemen) and a knee-length double-fur over-shirt, plus a fox skin hood with a face border of wolverine.

Or one could don a reindeer skin coat, ornamented with silk embroidery and trimmed at the wrist with glossy beaver, plus a face flap and hood. With such outerwear, Kamchadals could survive for weeks in temperatures of -40F.

Transport by dog-sledge was another wonder of innovation. The sledges were pulled by a team of 7-15 dogs (i.e. domesticated wolves). The sledges were 10’’ long, 2’’ wide, with a frame of seasoned birch timber, the skeleton being covered in dried sealskin, mounted on curved runners. The sledges weighed 20lbs, but could carry weighty loads. A sledge with a team of 11 dogs could cover 40-50 miles per day with a load of one man and 400lbs cargo. The harnesses comprised a thong of sealskin and the team was controlled solely by voice, the only mechanical aid being a stick with a metal hook to be used as a brake, or for discipline if the dogs decided to go wolf.

Apart from reindeer and salmon, Kamchatka is also home to black and brown bears, wild sheep, ibex and aquatic fowl, wild cherries and twenty varieties of berries. When the bears have had their summer fill of salmon, they turn vegetarian in the autumn and scoff about 20lbs of berries per day. There were slim pickings in the vegetable growing field – only potatoes, carrots and turnips can be cultivated at these latitudes.

All in all, living on Kamchatka is not for the faint-hearted.

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