I have submitted to you an excerpt from my recently released (May 2019) non-fiction book “RUSSIA: A JOURNEY TO THE ARCTIC” about my adventures of staying at a remote Siberian weather station. If you feel this is worthy I would be honoured and give you permission to use it. – Larry Ritco
Overview of Victoria Weather Station
The camp itself, known as the Victoria weather station, is situated on the eastern shores of Baydaratskaya Bay. The GPS coordinates for the site are approximately 69° 0ʹ north and 67° 30ʹ east, as it lies just inside the Arctic Circle, with that being approximately 66°.
Baydaratskaya Bay is in northwestern Russia, just east of the Ural Mountains and west of the Yamal peninsula, home to some of Russia’s largest oil and gas reserves. It has extremely harsh environmental conditions where temperatures of -50C can occur in winter, and 80% of the territory is covered by lakes, swamps, and rivers.
The snow-covered terrain is flat, frozen, and treeless with no vegetation and perhaps a snow depth of one foot or so. Snowdrifts of four or five feet surround the camp buildings.
This is polar bear country. Although they are rarely seen, all individuals including the drilling crew, who leave the camp area must be escorted by someone with a shotgun. Later on, I was to disregard this rule, but thank the Lord, he protected me from my stupid decisions, and I didn’t encounter any of these beasts.
The sun sets briefly each night for a few hours, so the days are long and bright. After a few days here, there will be almost continuous sunlight twenty-four hours a day as the sun wanders clockwise, staying slightly above the flat, distant horizon.
We never did see the aurora borealis (or the northern lights if you prefer) during our stay at camp Victoria, nor, for that matter, anywhere in Russia. However, I have heard that this country is a great place to see them, especially with us being so far north. Being late in the season, with the long daylight hours and milder temperatures, probably were the reasons why we never saw them.
Camp Victoria consists of a few old wooden and tin buildings. The main building, facing east away from the shoreline, holds the weather station facilities, communications equipment, and is the sleeping quarters for the two or three weather personnel who run it. A small kitchen no bigger than an apartment sized kitchen will keep the cook and his assistant busy the next few weeks as they will feed the twenty-three personnel in camp.
The dining room is small, one table and six chairs. We would take turns when it came time to eat, but the Russians were kind and usually allowed Ray, Peter, and I first seating. A small window about three feet by three feet faces the bay towards the northwest and is permanently frosted up and frozen on the outside. An old, brown cloth depicting the sickle and hammer hangs on the wall near it. It will be in this room where Ray, Peter, and I alongside Arthur our interpreter, would sit many evenings as one of the Russian drillers entertained us with his fascinating Russian tales about life in Russia and his experiences and adventures. Sometimes we all partook in the discussions concerning religion, politics, world events, or sports, but more often than not, it was Mesha who would lead us with his stories, which helped melt away our cultural differences.
A large utility room, or storage area, near the front porch entry, stores all the miscellaneous stuff; outdoor gear, coats, boots, crates of food, and drilling equipment.
In between the weather station and the generator building stands the forlorn, but much depended upon, outhouse. With four simple walls, a roof, and a hole in the ground, it is in dire need of replacement. The first hole drilled by the drilling crew would be for the new outhouse.
Twenty yards north of the weather station is the living and sleeping quarters for everyone except the weather personnel. The metal, rectangular trailer, approximately ten feet by forty feet, sits elevated a couple feet off the frozen ground on temporary wooden ties at its four corners. There is an upright ten-gallon, metal oil drum that is used as a step into the building, located halfway.
As you step up, the first thing you see is a small utility room, about five feet wide and seven feet long, with a simple sink, counter area, diesel fed heater, and a stove in it. This is the wash area, and the room is filthy by all standards. A dirty towel hangs on a nail. A few pots and pans hang on the walls, and there is a kettle for boiling water for coffee or tea. A metal cherry pail above the sink serves as the water supply container for washing. The drip-fed diesel heater consists of a supply tank with a metal tube extending downward to a heating basin and fire. A valve on the tube controls the drip, and thus the heating, as the drip feeds the fire.
To the left, as you enter, is the sleeping quarters for Ray, Peter 1, and I. The ten foot by twelve-foot room has one electrical outlet on one of the thinly insulated blue walls, and a naked lightbulb on the ceiling. A small window on the west side overlooks the bay. The room is sparsely furnished with two old beds, a creaky cot with a thin, dirty mattress, a small chair, and two small tables. This room would soon be home to some of the most hotly contested chess matches as Russia battled Canada: Andre versus Larry for the chess championship of the Arctic Circle. They would be fighting for honor, glory, and valour for their respective countries. Their reputations, what little they were, were at stake.
On the right side of the building is a room approximately ten feet by twenty feet, which the Russian drillers would call their sleeping quarters. The Russians kept to themselves and were quiet. Blankets nailed across the top of the doorways of both sleeping quarters provided the privacy of each section.
…in camp there is a castaway dog that the Russians have named Gypsy. She is a medium-sized dog with a black and white coat and looks somewhat like a Border collie, the kind you find rounding up sheep in Australia. She is probably bored here, since there are few sheep to tend to. No one knows where she came from, perhaps a previous weather employee owned her, or maybe a reindeer herder lost her, or left her behind. But she is friendly to everyone, and it seems her only duty in camp is to be the official greeter to everyone and welcome them, friend or foe (no discrimination here), and perhaps escort us to the outhouse in a particularly stormy blizzard.
In summary, Victoria weather station is lonely, remote, and primitive. It is inaccessible by boat or airplane. There are no towns for hundreds of kilometers. The lone link to the world is a helicopter that flies in sporadically approximately every three days with food, mail, and supplies. Sometimes a Russian herder with his reindeer-driven sled would come into camp and barter meat for canned goods, but otherwise, the camp is isolated. There is no television or radio for entertainment.
In the days to come, we will live off simple meals that the cook makes, consisting mainly of porridge, bread, coffee, and tea for breakfast, soup and bread for lunch, and macaroni or rice and a small amount of meat for supper. Sometimes if an evening meal was particularly bad, we made sure to check that Gypsy was still around. She was. Tail wagging, big smile on her face, she always managed to dodge the pots and pans of the cook.
This is an all-male camp with just the one female…Gypsy…the castaway dog.
RUSSIA: A JOURNEY TO THE ARCTIC (Copyright 2019 by Larry Ritco)
Author can be reached at 250-485-5006 or firstname.lastname@example.org