This past winter the village of Terney made international news as the “epicenter” of record snowfalls. Nearly 2 meters of snow fell in a span of three days, paralyzing and isolating Terney and nearby villages for days and weeks. Not surprisingly, the deep snows were catastrophic for many wildlife species as well. But to determine the impact on wildlife, you have to be able to get out to the forests to observe what is happening. And that can be hard to do when you can’t even get to the center of the village with snowshoes!Our long-term research project on tigers – The Siberian Tiger Project - is supposed to go on, rain, snow, or shine. But as you can imagine, when serious weather hits, just surviving can be difficult, and conducting research can be nearly impossible. This spring, another epic weather phenomenon visited Terney. Below, Dale Miquelle, Director of the WCS Russia Program, describes his three days during record rainfalls in the village of Terney.
It had been cloudy and wet for weeks on end in Terney, but nobody was prepared for what was to happen on account of that. When a heavy rain started on June 10, the ground was completely saturated with water, and the rain had no where to go, which is how the flood started. I woke up to moderate rain in the morning of June 11, and didn't think much about it. When my wife Marina and I went out, it was clear that the rain was a bit heavier than normal - our gutters were overflowing, and we had to dig some quick ditches for the run-off to go out to the road, and not go through our garage. We had put in our septic system last summer, and the clay soil that was put back in was like silly putty - my boot nearly disappeared into the ground as I stepped in a soft spot entering our yard. But it wasn't until we went down the hill to the center of the village that we realized what had happened in the past 12 hours. The small creeks that run through town were raging: trees, barrels, and sundry objects whizzing by. We drove towards the house of Luba and Anatoly Khobotnov (associates of our program) near that creek, but I didn't think I could drive to their house - the road was under several feet of water. I started walking/wading in that direction but then saw that another, higher vehicle, was helping them evacuate - with the wheelchair of their grandmother the last to go into the car. I went back to Evgeny Smirnov's house, right next to the river, but it appeared locked up - Nadya must have already abandoned it (Evgeny Smirnov, my long-time co-coordinator of our tiger project, died last year, but Nadya, his wife, is still part of our greater “family”). The store we normally go to was surrounded by water because the creek above it had overflowed its bank and created a new channel that poured its contents out onto the parking lot. But we had our high waders on so Marina and I went in and bought supplies for the next few days, assuming that we could be isolated for awhile. When there's no bread on the shelf, like on this day, you know people are worried. Returning towards our house, the bridge near Smirnov's house was now closed by the police. The bridge was still holding up (still a few feet above water) but the ground adjacent to the one side of the bridge was being washed away. We were told that we should go all the way around on a back route (about a 20 km detour) to drive the 1 km to our house, but then heard that a bridge on that route had already washed out. Finally, they opened another bridge that is normally closed to traffic, and we got across the river, finally on the side our house was on. We went west (inland) to look along the main river upstream. Another small creek on the back side of our hill - often dry in summer, was raging, eating away at the side of the road, and roaring through a small bridge, also eating away at the soil alongside the bridge, undermining the road. Half the road had been hollowed out before the first dump load of rocks was brought. They must have dumped about 6 truck loads of rocks to stabilize that bridge.
Back on the hill, we were trying to decide what to do with Vanya Seryodkin, our tiger project leader. We had admitted him to the hospital yesterday, when he called for help, unable to stand without dizzyness and nausea. His symptoms were leading us (and the local doctor) to think it was most likely Hunta virus (often picked up from mouse urine or excrement in the cabins throughout our study area), which can become deadly serious. Afraid that he might get stuck in Terney, we sent him off in a vehicle driven by Zheny Giskho to Vladivostok, before the bridges collapsed.
We returned home, I got something to eat, and then we located Nadya Smirnov (Nadya's kids were not in Terney to help). She was at a relative's up on our hill, but very distraught, and worried about all her belongings in her house. We took her key and returned there. The river had risen substantially in the past two hours, now overflowing the road, leaving the raised bridge just next to her house as an island. We drove through the flowing water and parked near the bridge. I changed into a bathing suit and sneakers, and Zheny, our son (in waist high waders) and I waded to her house - about chest high on me. Inside Nadya’s fenced yard, firewood and her wooden boardwalks floated everywhere. Her wooden veranda was starting to float away from the building, but I could not push it back into place, so we opened the door from the ground and climbed in. There was about a foot and half of water in her house. She had elevated as much as she could before abandoning the house, but everywhere shoes, socks. buckets, and magazines were afloat. Then I noted two boards floating in the kitchen, and stopped Zheny. The root cellar boards had floated away, and somewhere there was a hole in the floor. Neither of us had any idea where, but no desire to drop into that hole in this cold water. I gingerly stepped forward, checking every step to make sure there was boarding under my feet, until I found the gap. When we had figured out the dimensions of that hole in the floor, we started to haul out valuables - carry it to the door, hand it to Zheny, jump down into the chest high water, take the object from Zheny overhead, and haul it to the truck, fighting the current the last 5 m. Marina, always one to be where the action is, forced Zheny to carry her piggy-back into the house, and also almost fell through into the root cellar before I could grab her and pull her back. We hauled out the computer, the television, and a few other valuables (I actually made the regional news, hauling the TV out to our car!), and then put everything we could up as high as possible. It turned out that we were there at the peak of the flood, but we could not have known that at the time. I was pretty well chilled by the time we got out of there, but we still spent the rest of the afternoon driving around Terney (not across any bridges, so we wouldn't be stranded) looking at the disaster. The amount of water running in what are normally tiny little creeks was simply stunning. Amazingly, only one bridge was washed out.
We were awoken the next day, Saturday, by a frantic phone call - a mother asking where her son Oleg (a friend of Zheny's) was. They live on the "island" next to the main river, and it was time for that river to peak. Yesterday it was the small creeks that were rushing madly, but they all ran into the Serebryanka, which was now cresting . A breakwall that had been built to protect houses on the "island" - a small plot of land near the river - was being breached by the high water, and all hell was breaking loose there. Oleg’s parents were intent on saving their pigs and cows, but already had water running through their house, which was quite a bit above ground. They didn't know how to get out and save their livestock (pigs apparently being their most urgent concern!). Zheny had gone out late last night, as we were going to bed, "for 20 minutes." We now found out, at 7:30 am that he never returned, except around 4 pm to change clothes. We got dressed and went searching. We found him in a dry spot of downtown. He had spent a good portion of the night trying to extract Oleg’s car –stuck in the flood - and had managed to kill his battery in the process, so he had slept in the truck to make sure no one stole parts or the entire truck. We hauled them both over to the edge of the island, where there were two rowboats going back and forth, hauling people and belongings. There was nothing we could do except wait at the rising river’s edge, and help people arriving by boat. Finally, a real rescue squad arrived (sent from Vladivostok), and managed to get their boat and engine running, and finally came back with Oleg's parents, and of course the two pigs. Dogs also jumped out of a boat, and now drunken with happiness at being on high ground, took to harassing the pigs. We took the Mom to some relatives, and then came back and hauled the two pigs up to our office, and penned them into the wood shed. I can't say it’s the first time I've hauled pigs, but it’s the first time I've hauled such BIG pigs. Oleg's father was so happy his pigs were in a good dry shelter - it was hard to imagine someone so concerned about pigs.
Meanwhile, I'd been worried sick about our two capture teams in the forest. Our goal this spring was to capture and outfit tigers with GPS collars – the first time we’ve had permission to use such devices. Therefore, our capture season was especially important this year, kicking off a new era in our project. Our two capture teams set snares in remote portions of Sikhote-Alin Reserve (Shandoey and Koorima), and then basically were sitting and waiting, living in remote cabins, checking snares on a daily basis. We have communication by Satellite phone, but even in the best of times, communication is difficult. John Goodrich from one team had intended to leave Terney on Monday (today was Friday), and would try to walk out today, walking the ridgeline (the main trail in the river bottom being under water). But the other group had been silent for a day, apparently with the phone battery dying. I only knew that one of them - Kolya Rybin - had already hauled one pack the 14 km to the drop off point the day before, and just barely made it back to the cabin. In the late afternoon I drove out towards the cabin they would be at if they had walked out. I stopped at the last household before the reserve, where an old friend and his wife live, isolated from the world, and where he acts as a forest guard for the reserve. "Don't even think about trying to drive the road to the Koorima cabin" he said. "You'll be under water. Besides, there's no way they will get across the river." The problem was, I knew my staff out there, and believed that at least one of them was foolhardy enough to try, which was why I was worried sick. But there was nothing to do, so I returned home.
While I was out at the Koorima River, I had sent Zheny (our son) in his truck to try to meet John Goodrich on his way out, but John knew there was no guarantee they would get to the meeting point, so when he got there with no one waiting, he found the local bee keeper who lives down the road, and talked him into driving John towards Terney. Zheny ended up waiting for John at a bridge that had washed out near the town dump, which John managed to get across and brought back to Terney by Zheny. When I had not returned by 9:30 pm that night (getting locations on radio-collared tigers on the way back), Marina panicked, and sent John out to find me in another car. Fortunately, he spotted me before he got out of town. Now, as John conveyed how the water had surged in the Shandoey area where they were trapping, I was no longer worried about his team, which were safe, though partially isolated on an island of dry ground. But the Koorima group had me plenty worried.
The next day, as I was heading out of town towards Koorima again, I finally got the call. They were across the major branch of the Koorima river and were on their way. They had three more rivers to cross, but if they got across the Koorima, they would probably get across the other three. Zheny Gishko, already back from driving Vanya Seryodkin to the hospital (where he was being treated for Hunta virus) went off in the Landrover, arriving at the Koorima cabin shortly after them. They were completely soaked, had left two packs 7 km away, but were alive, and had some stories to tell.
Now, having returned to haul those last two packs out, having sent a team to open snares again in the Shandoey area, only to close them down again in two days due to reports of impending rain, after pulling most but not all of our gear out of there, after coordinating another evacuation of another sick staff (Clay Miller, an American, also with hunta-like symptoms) and getting him admitted to a hospital in Vladivostok, and still looking at grey, soggy skies, I am wondering: What Next?