I feel a kinship with Vladimir Arsenyev, the Russian topographer who explored Primorye a hundred years ago. We both know the secret places of these forests: the rivers where salmon spawn and the rocky outcroppings where tigers den. Arsenyev left an indelible mark not just on me, but on people across the province, with an entire city, a river, several museums, and multiple streets named after him today. Tourists from across Russia periodically follow in his footsteps, traveling to Primorye to spend time in the forest experiencing it as Arsenyev did. These excursions are so popular that the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, territory that Arsenyev transected long before those forests became protected, is clearing a narrow hiking trail this summer that traces Arsenyev’s path up and over the Sikhote-Alin Divide.
I see Arsenyev everywhere in the land: as I drive from the village of Ternei north to monitor Blakiston’s fish owl nest sites I see a rockslide where Arsenyev found the graves of Chinese hunters, and pass the spot where, suffering from an upset stomach, he was inadvertently made more ill by an overdose of opium.
One of the attributes I appreciate most about Arsenyev was his honesty as an author. In 1906 he led a dozen soldiers on a six-month expedition to the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, described in his 1921 book Across the Ussuri Kray. This account, partial source material for Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Uzala, is peppered with his missteps. He gets lost a half dozen times, hides from strangers in the forest, injures a friend in a hunting accident, and has his composure splintered by a bear charge.
Below, Arsenyev describes leaving a base camp for a late afternoon hunt with his dog. When he decides to turn back due to heavy rain, he suddenly realizes he has no idea where he is:
I did not recognize any of the mountains around me. Which direction should I go? I fired twice into the air but did not hear any signal shots from camp in response. I decided to drop back down into the valley and follow the flow of water as long as I could. There was a glimmer of hope that I could find the trail by dark, so, without wasting time, I got underway with Leshy trudging dutifully behind.
After thirty minutes the forest began to darken and I could no longer discriminate a rock from a hole, or a log from level ground. I started to stumble. The rain intensified; it was coming down strong and evenly now. I paused after about a kilometer to catch my breath. The dog was also soaked; he shook his coat and whimpered softly. I decided to remove his leash. This was exactly what he had been waiting for: he shook the rain off one more time, promptly bolted off, and disappeared from sight. I was overcome with a feeling of abject loneliness. I unsuccessfully tried to call him back. I waited another minute or two, then headed off in the direction he had vanished.
It’s an eerie thing being in a forest full of wild animals, without a fire, and during bad weather. The knowledge of my helplessness made me walk carefully and pay attention to every sound. My nerves were taut. Even the rustle of a falling branch or a mouse shuffling through the leaves seemed exaggeratedly loud, causing me to whip around in full attention. The darkness finally became so complete that my eyes were useless. I was soaked to the bone; water streamed from my cap and down my neck. I groped blindly in the dark and managed to work my way into a tangle that would have been tough to negotiate even in daylight. With searching hands I found uprooted trees, stumps, rocks, and snags, and somehow managed to find my way out of this maze. Tired, I sat to rest, but was overcome with cold. My teeth chattered and I trembled as though with fever. My exhausted legs demanded respite, yet the cold commanded me to keep moving.
I started to climb over a log and tripped into a ditch on the other side. Suddenly I heard the crash of breaking twigs off to my right, accompanied by heavy breathing. I tried to shoot, but the muzzle of my rifle snagged on a vine. I cried out in a horrible voice I did not recognize, and at that moment felt an animal licking my face—it was Leshy.
Two emotions mingled together in my heart—anger at the dog for scaring me so, and joy that he had returned. He ran off a little bit, then doubled back, only calm once he was sure I was following. We walked like that for a half hour. I slipped and fell suddenly, hitting my knee on a rock. I groaned and lay there on the ground, rubbing my hurt leg. When the pain in my leg subsided I got up and kept walking in the direction that seemed a little less dark. I hadn’t made it ten paces when I slipped again, then again, and again. I began to feel the ground with my hands. I emitted a cry of joy: I was on a trail. I went ahead in spite of my exhaustion and the pain in my leg.
“Now I won’t die,” I thought.
That Arsenyev, safe and warm in his Vladivostok office years after these events, wrote about his fumbling and fear instead of glossing it over is the sign of a confident person: someone who made mistakes, recognized them as such, and was not afraid to admit it. Arsenyev’s writings are not the catalogue of triumphs by a narcissistic adventurer that one might expect from expedition memoirs; they are impassioned odes to the wilderness and peoples of the Russian Far East.
Jonathan C. Slaght’s translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1921 book Across the Ussuri Kray (Indiana University Press, 2016) is an unabridged, uncensored, detailed account of Arsenyev’s 1902 and 1906 expeditions. Augmented by several hundred annotations, two maps, and nearly forty photographs, it is available August 29, 2016, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and elsewhere.
Russian topographer Vladimir Arsenyev’s team crossing a Primorye River in 1906
Credit: Image courtesy Indiana University Press
The author crossing a channel of the Serebryanka River, a place explored by Arsenyev in 1906.
Photograph courtesy Amur-Ussuri Centre for Avian Biodiversity