My journey begins with All Over Traveler when I arrived in late autumn. The tundra was empty and vast to the horizons. There were only dark chums that were to be seen that were of pyramid shape with the tendrils of smoke rising from their tips that stand out against the crisp blue sky. I couldn’t see a reindeer yet, but I can hear dogs barking while they were running in between a chain of sleds. I looked around, expecting a reindeer but it was only tundra that I could see. And, as far as my eyes could see I only found brown earth and azure sky.
As I started walking for further land exploration, I could experience difficulty walking before the snow falls and the land froze. It was too difficult to wake and I was getting tired too quickly, I could feel much pain in my knees. In October, it was my first morning in the chum, the reason I woke up was the unfamiliar surroundings. When I sneaked out from my sleeping back, I saw a fur headcover of Lena, and above me were dangles boots and clothing that were made of fur as well as reindeer hide. I was overwhelmed for a moment by acknowledging that the next 50 days will be spent by me in these tight quarters with this family.
Making their living in small chums that are constructed of reindeer hides as well as log poles, and usually separated from their nearest neighbor by a snowmobile drive of their nearest neighbor, every winter the nomadic Nenets herders trek along the ancient migration routes across the vast Siberian tundra along the Yamal Peninsula. Many Nenets families maintain their traditions, and adapt them, when it is necessary and useful, as a response to the increasing pressure of their changing world, herding hundreds of reindeers and making their daily survival in extreme arctic conditions.
It was November 10th and it’s been weeks since we have been waiting for snow. We needed to migrate to our winter camp where the reindeer herd will be having enough food and their family Lena can make their settlements with their new infant. However, the baby’s birth is impending and snow has been slow to arrive. As with all births, making plans on this timescale can come out to be tricky. Leonova, Lena’s husband, and Lena are having hopes for minimizing the duration that Lena is away from domestic responsibilities since winter migration comes with women and men both to have their whole engagement with the activities for long-term survival and daily sustenance, both.
The plan for Lena has been to contact the Helicopter Department at Salekhard hospital as she is near to her delivery date. The helicopter will then escort her daughter and her to this hospital where she will making a stay for approximately two to three weeks to deliver her child and make a recovery before she returns by train, snowmobile, and sled back to the chum, and the duration of this journey approximately will be of twenty hours.
Whereas, regardless of her physical condition, Lena has been continuing to have an accomplishment made with her wide range of daily responsibilities. She is always the first one who wakes up in the morning, and she is always the last one who sleeps at night. Every morning, she is seen making a fire, untying the dogs from their place in the chum, and letting them outside, and then she sets the table for breakfast. After they all are done eating, Leonv leaves for his work with their reindeer herd. And, once Leonva has left, Lena, in this frigid temperature goes outside for cutting more firewood that is a task that I offer my help with, but I was amazed after discovering that I almost was incapable to perform that task. While even in her 9th month of pregnancy, Lena lifts the ax with a deftness that I can only wish for having and so I am forced to leave chopping to her.
It is the 18th of November, and during the past three days the ice layer has thickened Leonva says that he would like to start migrating in a couple of days, and since my arrival, this will be the sixth time that this family has attempted to migrate. For the preparation, there is a requirement of several hundred reindeer that must be herded into a tight circle for traveling. This also requires Lena to help in handing the dogs on leashes as they circle the herd, dogs barking. While the men lasso the herd, Lena assists in circling approximately a thousand reindeer, managing a large dog that is tethered to a long leash for several hours to keep all the herd together until lassoing concludes. ‘
We were told by Lena that she will be contacting the helicopter to pick her up a day prior than was planned, as she feels that her delivery is impending. We plan on migrating now and then when we will be set up in the new camp, the helicopter will come to retrieve Lena to make the transfer to the hospital. The railways that have been placed along the ancient migration routes disrupt the migration patterns, but it also provides an unintended benefit. Within two kilometers of the tracks there also lies a cell reception, and the Nenets families now typically set their camp up within the short distances so in an emergency they could access cellular services.
It is the 20th of November now, and it is two in the morning of the day when we were supposed to start with the migration. I was waked up by Lonva and was told that Lena is experiencing pain in her lower abdomen, and it is believed that these are the contractions. Lenovo has made the phone call to the village from his mobile phone and has asked them to make a contact with Salekhard.
However, during the night the helicopter cannot fly so they have set the arrival for daybreak, and at this time of the year, it doesn’t occur until almost 10 am. We were advised by them to send for the nurse at the closest trading station but the reception here is faulty and we no longer can get through, even if we attempt to make the communication with my satellite phone. In the end, Leonova started walking in moonlit but bitter cold two kilometers to the train tracks where he can encounter more reliable cell service and while he is on his way back, he alerted his relative Igor, whose family’s chum is nearby. Igor then takes off in his snowmobile to pick up the nurse who approximately is two hours away. By 3:30 am, it was clear that Lena needs medical support and Leonva is worried.
He wants to make communication possible with the helicopter department again and wants to convince them to make the night trip the logic he had was that the full moon will be providing the light for the flight, and since the chum is nearer to the railways, then it can be catered as an easy landmark for the pilots to follow until the flashing of the snowmobile lights that Leonva will use to guide the helicopter to the chum.
We are all awake now and we are waiting. Not one to panic in a crisis, Lena then starts packing her belongings carefully. In addition to her personal belongings, she starts packing the sewing tools, scraps of fur, and small fur so that she still can work while she is admitted to the hospital. When Lena was ready, she turned to me and Zalphira, who was my translator, and asked us what we are going to do when she will be gone.
And this is exactly when it hits me, the fact that without her, we surely can’t survive. We need her even for the most basic acts of surviving in this landscape we need her, we need her for making sure that there is always a fire to keep us warm which means not just placing the fuel in the stove but also with no other fuel, which determines how and where to find wood when it is buried under snow and ice. When in the near vicinity the supplies are exhausted, how we will be traveling to the outlying areas to search and collect more. This is only one basic thing that Lena tends to do daily.
But, thankfully we have an answer to what Lena asked. We hope to make our travel by helicopter and accompany her to the Salekhard. Barring this opportunity, we also will hire a truck and will drive the twelve hours to the village by snowmobile and sled, where I will be documenting my birth experience of Lena in any way I can.
There’s nothing left to be done now, but to sit and wait for the next two hours and all try to get some rest. I again woke up to the sound of a starting fire, even though she is experiencing contractions, Lena has made her commitments with her responsibility as a host, a mother, and a wife. While we are here still anticipating and resting, she gets and places more wood on the stove for warming the water for tea. It now is seven in the morning, and it is still dark outside. And, we still are wondering whether it will be a nurse to arrive first or the helicopter.
We didn’t have to wait long to have an answer, as we have taken our first sips of tea, in the distance, there was an increasing buzz of a snowmobile that could be heard. A few moments later, after traveling for several hours on a box sled, Galina, the nurse made her arrival. No time was wasted by her in communicating with Lena at first and she firmly asked why she didn’t pay a visit to the hospital a month before, and then she checked Lena’s blood pressure and asked about the last ultrasound Lena had to check the baby’s position. After a full checkup, Leonva and Galina set off for the railways to attempt another communication with the helicopter department.
It finally was 10 in the morning, and we could hear the helicopter hovering over our heads. The pilot circles us twice and finally prepares to make his landing possible. After marking the helicopter’s landing, two of the officials and nurses jump and approach Lena and start loading her and her daughter, Christina into the helicopter. Christina pulls back, frightened, but then her father walks the family to the opening and sees them off. I didn’t get permission to accompany her and just like this, they were gone.
When we entered the chum, it felt empty, not only of bodies but it was also missing the spirit and the energy. Outside, the sleds were packed and were ready to travel for migration. But, without Lena, we cannot move. It will be two weeks at least before she will be returning with her newborn child and Christina. Migration was postponed and everything was unpacked.
I and my translator realized that we possibly cannot stay and survive without Lena. And, I also wondered how Lena’s husband will be managing without his partner, how he will be preparing food, and keeping the chum from freezing when he is supposed to be out with the reindeer herd for long hours?
This was the day we had prepared for migrating, and instead, this turned out to be the day when the couple’s child will be born. As the sun was briefly over our heads, I understood that the journey I will be taking now, even if it is not planned, is something I am prepared for. We will be traveling for eight hours by sled, and then snowmobile back to the village where Lena will be giving birth. I will be waiting there and will gather stories.