"Oh, God! Where am I?" About the ‘solo-traveling legend' who crossed Taimyr on her own

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A TASS correspondent, Vera Kostamo, joined the crew of Mikhail Somov research/survey vessel to cover the seventh voyage in 2021 to its final destination - to the Wrangel Island, and back

MOSCOW, January 17. /TASS/. Every year, the Mikhail Somov research/survey vessel departs from Arkhangelsk, carrying food, construction materials, equipment and personnel. People working at hard-to-reach meteorology stations know the ship very well. Getting to a “polar shift,” or leaving for a holiday, or to receive supplies once in 12 months – this is what the ship is used for. A TASS correspondent, Vera Kostamo, joined the crew to cover the seventh voyage in 2021 to its final destination – to the Wrangel Island, and back. We publish a series of feature stories: about people, meteorology stations and the Arctic seas.

The Laptev Sea / The Kara Sea. The explorer’s nature

At Eurasia’s northernmost point – Cape Chelyuskin- works the Fedorov meteorology station. Here, to one side is the Kara Sea, to the other – the Laptev Sea. The rough climate and changing weather. In snow storms the wind may be more than 30mps, the air temperatures drop below minus 40. The station’s observations are vast: standard meteorology and aerology studies, and hydrology studies – since the station is in the Vilkitsky Strait. From the ice conditions point of view, this area is the most complicated part of the Northern Sea Route.

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Against the snow-covered shore the woman’s image looks very fragile. A light jacket, not for this weather, and a light hat. She is here to meet the [Mikhail] Somov. The final stage of her journey will be onboard the ship: from Cape Chelyuskin to Tiksi. From there – to Moscow by plane. She is Marina Galkina – a “solo-traveling legend.” To Cape Chelyuskin she has got across the Byrranga Mountains from Khatanga Bay. The total of 800km: some of them by a kayak, some on foot.

People onboard recognize Marina. They come up to her, ask for a picture, many questions are about the voyage.

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– That’s what I am. I can remember, in childhood, we come to the forest, and I – I must go further on, further. Was always curious to see – what’s there, behind the horizon. Most likely, it’s the explorer’s nature I have. I can do nothing about it – it simply lives inside of me, – Marina said. – I enjoy traveling, where I cross some long distances. To get the feeling of isolation. At times, I may wonder: Oh, God! Where am I?

The family had dreamed Marina would be a musician, but the girl enjoyed to climb trees to watch boys playing football. Her first voyage was on the fifth year at school. Though the ten-day trip was complicated, Marina was top happy when she returned home. Her grown-up expeditions began when she was a biology student at MGU (the Lomonosov Moscow State University).

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– The thirst for traveling is somewhere inside me. The Taimyr folder was ready quite long ago. I watch reports on somebody’s expeditions, analyze them. The most logical route began from the Verkhnyaya Taimyra River across the lake towards the Nizhnyaya Taimyra. It runs into the Kara Sea, and thus further on it was to walk along the coastline – and here you are on Cape Chelyuskin. I didn’t like that variant. It’s sailing all the time. I prefer to combine walking and sailing.

During the first trip on Chukotka, Marina walked from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean, rafted some wild river. About that journey she wrote a book “On My Own on the Edge of the World.” The route had been inspired by writer and geologist Oleg Kuvayev, she said.

“Some people endure more than others. Their sense responsibility is also much bigger. It may be nothing for others, but not for them… It’s like anyone must, you know. But if a person decides to live with a dream, his or her responsibility doubles. Because most people cannot be brave enough to follow the dream… or the common sense wouldn’t let them. Those, who follow the dream – they are like examples to follow. Or reasons for reproaches,” Oleg Kuvayev wrote in the Triple Polar Plot story. Most likely, these words are about Marina.

Of all the books by Kuvayev, onboard the ship there is only the Territory. Its original cover has been lost, but anyway you can never catch it at the library – somebody is reading it. The well-known quotes not once have pushed people to traveling and to working in fields.

The power of human spirit

Marina is not only a sole traveler. In every adventure she practically always appears the best prepared participant. That’s the way to do it – otherwise, she says, it will be too tough. For the recent ten years, in warm weather Marina has been jogging. Additionally, she goes into orienteering. On winter days, she skis about 20 km, on weekends – 50-60 km.

– Traveling on my own is good as I may follow my own pace. No arguments, no talks, less relying on support, and thus fewer risks.

In a company, of course, it is easier to live over bad weather.

– At times, it’s hiding inside the tent for three or four days. When in a company, we can chat, share emotions. Nowadays, I have a camera, and I share my impressions with the audience. I enjoy sharing the rare beauty. Demonstrating what people and their spirits can do.

Marina has never carried any communication means. This is how to get fully away from the civilization, she said.

– My friends have given me a satellite tracker, which in this expedition I have used for the first time. I am not much of a user of electronics, and all the time I was afraid to press something incorrectly or to miss the time of texting the coordinates and somebody might think: there’s something wrong. I prefer a different option: I give the tourist club my route line and say before which date I must return. If I am not coming – they’ll search. Anyway, on this route, with the tracker everything went fine, and I sort of relaxed.

Marina always has on her full accumulators for the camera. Whenever she meets geologists or herders, she plugs in to their generators.

On such long solo trips every gram in the backpack matters.

Marina makes the outfit and equipment all by herself. Using Russian fabrics. For example, a backpack of thin nylon is just 600 grams. Many things are universal and may be used differently. The backpack’s soft side is the boat’s bottom and could be a mat for the night. The water-proof pants are 450 grams, the water-proof jacket is 400 grams, the high boots – 800 grams, the tent – 250 grams, the canopy – 1.2 kg, the boat – 3.2 kg. The total outfit and equipment to travel including by water makes 18kg.

When Marina begins the trip, the backpack is more than 40 kilos. More than 20 kg of food, the rest are equipment and gas cans.

The menu is austerity: breakfast – 50 g oatmeal with butter, dinner – 60-80 g of rice of buckwheat and a spoonful of beef. Lunch – tea with bagels and drawn butter.

– I take a kilo of dried meat, covered with fat – pemmican, like the Indians make. Sunflower oil – half a liter per month, 800 g of powdered milk. Ten chocolate bars: three slices a day. Dried bread, salt, honey, tea, cacao. Sometimes, the conditions wouldn’t let me eat. For example, one day I rowed for 50 km, and on that day I did not have any lunch.

Cut off people for 44 days

A certain part of the route, Marina had to pull the kayak by the rope. The process is very tiresome – in snowstorms and near rifts, she had to unload the kayak not to tear up the bottom. She had to break the cargo into portions: at first, to carry one portion, then she returned to take another one. Besides, at some passages, she had to row against the current, and sometimes she had to pull the kayak for one or even eight kilometers.

– Before this expedition, I spoke to a man, who flies to reindeer herders. He said, on the Taimyr the herders are only to the south from the Khatanga River. To the north from it there’s only death, nobody lives. He tried to persuade me from this trip, was very nervous.

Marina realized traveling the Taimyr would be very complicated. Only on the 44th day of that journey she finally saw people – geologists.

– That was right on time, the storm was developing, and I would’ve been locked in a tent with no fun. I was lucky to spend that time in a wonderful company. It’s all very flat here, no place to find a shelter.

A true adventure, Marina said, is when not everything is preplanned and when there is room for surprises. She explored the route nobody had ever tried.

– “The unknown star is shining, Again we are torn out of our homes…” (a popular Soviet-times song) – back in childhood, I loved this song, though it is sorrowful. Everything is true in it. Whenever it is difficult, “The arguments seem absurd,” that’s right. In front of the eternity, any arguments and problems are nothing.

What is most complicated in traveling? Being far from the son and the beloved ones, says Marina.

– I cannot live without these trips. It is not about testing myself. On the first expedition, probably, yes. But what is there to test in me now? I only worry hoping I have enough force, health to make it. It is not about testing the spirit, – Marina said. – I cannot make it to the top. I do not overcome myself! I simply follow my aspirations. I look at a mountain and decide – no, I am not going, I’ll delay the route, it’s not worth it, the main goal is further down. And yet I approach the mountain. And say: well, I’d rather go, will manage in half a day, it’s not long. Yes, I go! And here I am walking happily upwards right to the top.

As for the big predators, the bears, Marina came across them on the Chukotka. It was fine. Here, on the Taimyr, the bears are white – polar bears. Meeting them is likely closer to the sea. But the most dangerous animal has turned out to be a sick or starving Arctic fox – it has attacked Marina a few times.

She was caught in a cyclone, which stayed for three days. She was not sure the tent would survive – there were no stones around to press it firmly. The wind was so fierce, it wouldn’t let her sleep.

– By the end of the route, I was walking. I was almost out of food, out of force. I noticed the weather was in cycles: a few days of storms give way to a few lovely days. I didn’t feel like staying in the snow amid the dirty tundra. At some places, I could not find a spot to put the backpack – mud wherever I could see. Plus the bears could be nearby.

Marina says, she always remembers that death is just behind. She got the feeling at the age of 16, when she made the first jump with a parachute. From that time, she tries to live every day to the utmost.

– Correct, I do miss some important events in the lives of my folks when on expeditions, but I can’t help it. This is mine. I must be here – this is what I am.

Four months without sun

[Cape] Chelyuskin is severe: black rocks, white snow, grey sea. Many houses, where no more people live. Sometimes bears stay inside. A meteorology station.

In May, 1742, Semen Chelyuskin wrote in the diary: “It’s overcast, snow and fog. We come to the cape. This cape is rocky, of medium height, around it the ice is flat, with no rocks. Here I name the cape: Eastern Northern. I’ve erected a tower – one log, which I have brought.”

The most complicated period in work and life on the cape is the polar night. Four months with no sun. Thank God, in winter the bears prefer to hunt off the ice and do not come close to the shore.

The station’s manager Dmitry Bodrov has come to the Arctic incidentally, if such incidents are possible at all.

– I met the station’s previous manager, Sergey Okhrimenko, on the Valaam [Island]. He worked at a meteorology station there, and I visited the island as a tourist. We chattered, he told me about the profession. It has been my dream since childhood to work on the pole. I decided to go to Chelyuskin [Cape] for one year, to see what the North is like. So, here I am for the 13th year already – I see the North and I’m unable to leave, – Dmitry said.

For the first two years he worked without holidays. Says, he was overwhelmed with the North. Everything seemed so weird, like on the Moon.

– It’s not easy to say why we are here. In the Arctic, you can feel how unusual life can be. There, on the Mainland, you are a part of a big mechanism. You run to the office. And here – it’s like on another planet. To an extent, you realize how important this job is, how important it is to be in the right place – it’s all together, a combination of reasons. People in the North are very different. With no egoism, everyone is helpful, people are more honest and open. Mutual support still exists here.

As for the scenic views, Dmitry has got used to them. It is tough on the cape between September and June, when everything is under the snow blanket. From mid-November to mid-February stays the polar night. A glimpse of the Sun appears on February 14 for just a few minutes.

– Looking at our conditions from the point of view of a person living in a city, it seems this life is impossible. But in reality, we get used both to the darkness, to the snowstorms, and everything seems fine. The psychology gets adjusted, we do not suffer discomfort, – he said.

People working at meteorology stations keep neutral relations with polar bears. The people try to repel the predators from the stations as soon as possible and try having minimum communication with them. Once, a bear-mother with cubs kept lying some 20m from the station’s porch. This life next to each other continued for one month. The mother would not allow the babies to the people, pushed them away from the doggies’ bowls. This was her way to protect the cubs from the male bears. She was confident – they would not dare to approach the station.

– People, who decide to stay here to work, are introverts. A person, who has got used to active communications, would not make it here. We have already discussed everything we could, we know everything about each other. That’s why we talk business, and banter a lot. Humor saves us, – Dmitry said. – Our profession is specific. It’s not that I feel so, I know so. Normally, whenever in the city if I tell people what I do and where – they get astonished. Wouldn’t believe, and say – you’re kidding.

The delivery of supplies for the station off the Mikhail Somov are about to be completed. The last flight brings aboard the expedition and crew members. Out route continues still further eastbound.

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