White Sea

Life on the arctic circle

When Anya told me about her sister’s holiday house at the White Sea a couple of years ago, my first reaction was: ‘cool, but here is that?’. Following a quick look at a map, my reaction was ‘let’s go!’. As a first timer, I was advised to go there in summer, and at last, as everyone’s schedule permitted, I met Anya in Saint Petersburg to make our way to yet another remote part of the world.

‘What for?’ one might ask, I wasn’t too sure myself, but the idea of living in such a remote part of the world, mostly untouched, living off the land was appealing to me.

Near the border with Finland, north of St Petersburg

The White Sea is situated across the arctic circle and is connected to the Barents Sea. Although in Russia, it is technically in Karelia which includes north eastern Finland.

The journey

After a brief weekend in Saint Petersburg where I got further acquainted with the history that brought Communism to the world, Anya and I got on a sleeper train headed north. We travelled 16 hours to Loukhi, where we stopped for a couple of hours before hopping onto a train for railway workers going to Murmansk.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Stalova, the worker's cantine

We got on the next train in the company of a local retired engineer who worked on rocket designs in the late 70s. For 2 consecutive hours, he told Anya and myself the story of his life, while eating bread and drinking vodka from a pocket size bottle. With a very limited understanding of Russian, I watched Anya patiently listen to this man with a dark tanned skin and surprisingly bright blue eyes. The train stopped in the middle of the tracks for no apparent reasons, he thanked us for the conversation, jumped off and walked straight into the forest.

Eastern Approaches by the formidable Fitzroy Maclean was the perfect literary companion on this journey as I discovered new parts of Russia’s vast countryside.

Fitzroy’s fascinating adventures in politically strained foreign territories are tirelessly thrilling, and some of his recounts of traveling through the Soviet Union felt surprisingly close to home. “A dead flat plain covered with grey-green moss, occasional clumps of silver birches, and an occasional magpie sitting on a stump.”

The train continued and after passing the polar circle🤘(полярный круг) we finally reached our station.

Uzkyi, the last stop on our way to our destination.

We started walking into the forest and quickly found Anya’s sister and brother-in-law who helped us carry or luggage. A tractor drove us 5 km through a thick landscape of beach and pine trees on a bumpy road. The mosquitoes began to feast. 24 hours after embarking our first train, we had finally arrived.

Black River

Black River - Черная река

Situated on a long estuary leading to the White Sea, Black River is a 450 year old village founded by 3 different tribes. Today, it is composed of 35 homes, a church and a banya. It has a handful of temporary residents, 4 permanent residents (only two of which have remained sane, I am told) and a small scientific community. It also has one church and a priest with a long untamed grey beard who I met a couple of times in the forest during his barefoot-topless jog with his dog.

Despite his wrinkles and tanned skin, I am told Oleg is only in his early 50s. Winters are tough out here.
The local banya is used throughout the year but comes in particularly handy during the interminable winter.
Anya, by the estuary

A unique arctic ecosystem

A biologist from Moscow called Andrei set up 30 years ago a small research station in the village where him and his students study the local ecosystem while water and land remain unfrozen. Despite having a fairly common arctic fauna and flora, Andrei tells me that the White Sea is unique in that is is completely unaffected by anthropogenic disturbance - in other words, it remains practically untouched by any human activity (apart from slight changes in temperature distribution throughout the year).

In a village 30 minutes away by boat, we found a diving center where students students from all over Russia come every summer to study the ecosystem and dive in glacial water to watch star fish, Beluga whales and other sea creatures.

Local biology research lab
Cranes, preparing for their migratory travels before the winter.

Living off the land

One of the few things to do out there is fishing. Fishing in rivers, on lakes, in the sea. So we tried all of these more or less successfully.

One morning, we left early during high tide and went out into the sea. Using monstrously large worms that looked like prehistorical creatures (which they are) as baits we caught a variety fairly small Треска (Atlantic Cod). Skype was so excited he dropped a few out of the boat, reducing our total count by a significant amount. We battered and fried our catch of the morning for lunch with Oleg on an island where he likes spending time in the summer, following which we went picking mussels on a neighboring island. Our afternoon was quite uneventful as all the fish seemed to have gone for their siesta. The next day Oleg showed us a photo of a bear swimming where we had been fishing that afternoon. It would have been cool to meet him.

Living within the wilderness demands to be equipped.

Another day we set up some nets in a lake (Black Lake - I’m seeing a recurring theme here) 7km from the village. Dima and Oleg (another Oleg - that one from Kandalaksha) drove our boat to the lake while Anya and I walked. When Dima announced that he had packed 11 nets, Oleg joked that he should kill him for it (lol) as it is very hard work. When I asked but not just set up a few and keep the others, Oleg explained that it would be silly - just like paying for two prostitutes but only spending the night with one (not the analogy I would have chosen, but I got it). Oleg has an answer to everything. Before they got to work, we had lunch on a little island. It included recomposed meat in the shape of a sausage and contraband vodka. The next day they went to collect the nets with over 10kg of fish in them while Anya and I went looking for starfish.

Transporting a motor boat through the forest? No problemo.
In addition to our bread, non-descript meat in the shape of a saussage, boiled eggs and snickers bars, we were treated to some contraband vodka from a nearby distillery.
Smoking trouts

Food is an essential source of comfort in these wild parts and at this time of the year, it is thankfully quite fertile. Part of our time was dedicated to finding mushrooms and berries. Russian also men invariably seem to always have access to vodka supplies which they happily drink copious amounts of on any occasion. It is typically accompanied by kolbasa - cured meat sausages or salo - cured pork fat.

Pelmeni - the Russian dumpling.
Drying racks for preserving foraged mushrooms, fruits and vegetables.
Russian sushi (a.k.a. cured fish on bread)

Gulag Territory

This part of the world also hides a darker side. Between the 1920s and the 50s, the White Sea was a popular location for Gulag labour camps, which were used as powerful tool for political repression under the Soviet regime. These camps - typically setup in extremely remote areas - were lawless places where criminals worked side by side intelligentsia (the soviet class enemies) in forests, mines and at sea. The Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea were actually home to one of the first Gulag camps to be setup following the 1917 Revolution.

Gulags in the region.

Textures of the wilderness

Looking back

Our return to Moscow brought us back to Loukhi where we got on a 25 sleeper train to Moscow. The journey was punctuated by irregular stops in train stations where locals sold cured fish, berries, alcohol, ice cream and other essentials.

Smoked eels and other water creatures.
This delicacy is literally a frozen carton of whipped cream.

Reflecting on this unusual journey, I became aware for the first time how daunting the stillness of life could be. Time would sometime go by as nothing had happened, which led to an unprecedented feeling of isolation amplified by my linguistic disconnect with local people. However, this journey also highlighted the resilience of life in such unforgiving and austere environments.

Dima told us that 30 years ago, when he used to travel to Black River as a child, puddles and lakes would already start freezing at night in late August/early September. In these parts of the world where the winters are so harsh, local habitants seem to be welcoming global warming - and they are not the only ones. As the ice melts both inland and at sea, the new trading routes opening up in the north pole, the discovery of new fossil fuel reserves and the genesis of vast arable could contribute to boom in the Russian economy in the coming decades.

With dramatic political, environmental and social shifts on the horizon, Russia has a fascinating future ahead, and discovering this part of it has only heightened my desire to explore it further.

The Russian claims to the Arctic region which significantly overlap that of neighbouring nations such as Canada and Denmark. Source: Durham University

August 2019, with my love Anya