Song of Siberia

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Tunguska, Siberia, Russia — Epicenter of where the Tunguska event took place in 1908.

By the Expedition Apocalypse production crew
I awoke on the floor of a rough-hewn cabin, sandwiched in with seven other sleeping bodies. My hands were swollen with dozens of mosquito bites. The door was barricaded to protect us from the predatory bear circling outside. Just another morning in Siberia, at the site of the cataclysmic yet mystifying Tunguska explosion of 1908.

Conducting scientific research in the Tunguska wilderness (or following scientists here to document their efforts) is no easy task. First there’s the travel. It is 12 time zones from New York, just about as far away as you can get in the northern hemisphere. The trip required five long flights (two overnighters), the last one an hour-long ride sprawled on top of luggage and equipment in a Soviet era MI-8 helicopter. When it dropped us off at Lake Cheko and flew off into the distance, we were truly alone.

Getting around inside the Tunguska Zapovednik (that’s Russian for nature preserve) can be grueling as well. What seemed simple and easy on a map — a ten kilometer hike from Lake Cheko to Mount Stoikovich, near the epicenter of the Tunguska blast — turned into an exhausting eight-hour death march that took us into numerous swamps (ice cold water up to our knees) through nearly impenetrable thickets, across raging rivers, and over spongy peat bogs.

Then there’s the bugs.

Much has been written about the mosquitoes of Siberia. Suffice it to say that they are numerous, bloodthirsty, and aggressive. Did I mention bloodthirsty? Ditto for the deerflies. The result is a constant, irritating whine in the air (I like to refer to it as the “Song of Siberia”) and a never-ending effort by the insects to eat you alive. Shirts and hats with netting, clothes sprayed with chemicals, bottle after bottle of deet (dyeta in Russian) at best slow down the foraging hordes. On one occasion cameraman Scott Simper slapped the back of an exposed hand and then plucked off the corpses of 22 mosquitoes he had killed with the single swipe — a personal record.

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Lake Cheko

At Lake Cheko we were following one team of scientists researching Tunguska; we hiked into the epicenter to observe another. When we arrived we discovered that a bear was terrorizing the camp (one of the armed guards that are mandatory when working in the Tunguska wilderness had already taken a shot at him) and we all crammed into two cabins built by Russian scientist Leonid Kulik on his early expeditions in the 1920’s. The only problem was balancing the urgency of a nighttime call of nature with the fear of bear. Fear won, at least until dawn.

For all its harshness, Siberia is full of beauty and mystery. In early July it never really gets dark, and the noctilucent clouds over Lake Cheko at 2 AM, with the fog rushing in off the Kimchu River, is a sight to remember. Down at Churgim Falls, the river cuts through hundreds of feet of basalt lava, exposing millions of years of geology and creating a spectacular view. So it was with some regret that I watched the helicopter coming in ten days later. I was glad to be heading home, but sorry to leave this remote wilderness that few will ever be lucky enough to visit.

Video: “Mystery Explosion of Nuclear Proportions”

Don’t miss an all-new episode of Naked Science, Expedition Apocalypse, this Thursday April 8 at 8P et/pt!