Russia’s River Villages: A Tale of Two Countries

Jon Waterhouse and Mary Marshall take the Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK) and its citizen-science effort to monitor water health deep into Russia. Along the way, amid sanctions and tension between the U.S. and Russia, they find a more peaceful journey and more friends than they ever imagined.

Ok. We can admit that given the current political climate between Russia and the U.S., a decision to fly from JFK to Moscow to begin a month of work within the remote Lena River Watershed of Siberia might make us look a bit “nutsy.” After all, over the summer, political tensions were on the rise as sanctions were quickly being put into place.

But for the four of us, two scientists (a Yukon Canadian and a Russian-American transplant with dual citizenship) and two Alaskan drop-outs, it was a no-brainer—pun intended. We are not political, and we know the lofty goal of NIK and this trip needed to happen regardless of political circumstances… provided we could get into Russia without our visas being revoked prior to our arrival, that is. We’d worry about getting back out again later.

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Russia bound! Mary, Kate, Jody and I are ready for some cultural and scientific “edventure.” (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Mary and I are always anticipating the alignment of the planets. We rely heavily on some lucky star action, so we were faithfully pre-packed for this trip to the Lena and anxiously anticipating the arrival of those visas. And, as luck would have it, we just happened to be waiting by the door like a pair of tail-wagging golden retrievers when they showed up. Of course, the fact that the two governments didn’t balk at our intentions and that the visas came through without issue did put us in a state of mild shock. We recovered quickly, however, and in August, we seized the opportunity to finally work on water-quality and social science with the good people of the Lena River in Siberia. Jody, Kate, Mary and I thanked the many hand-wringers around us for their worry and concern over the timing of our trip and totally went to Russia!

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Urban beauty; the Moscow River flows freely beside Red Square. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

While passing through airports from Alaska to Manhattan to Moscow, TV monitors gave us only brief glimpses into the situation in Ukraine and the deteriorating relationship between Presidents Obama and Putin. With no preconceived notions—and no clue about the reception we might be receiving by those outside the scope of our work—we felt we were well-armed with hope and open minds.

We had a long road ahead of us, literally. Eventually we would continue east across the whole of Russia to reach the Lena, but before that, we were asked to meet with a few key officials of the Russian government in Moscow. Dare we decline? No way! We are nothing if not opportunists.

Before I go on, let me add that after landing (but prior to actually being admitted into Russia), Mary took a chance by bringing out her Nikon to photograph the architecture of the airport—one of five international airports in Moscow. The uneventfulness of Mary’s risk prior to her passport being stamped set the tone for our entire time there. Not once while in Russia were we restricted or reprimanded regarding photography or anything else for that matter. Even the atmosphere when we visited Red Square and the Kremlin was friendly and relaxed. Police watched over tourists throughout the zone but there was no air of the over-zealous scrutiny one may have expected.

Oddly enough, being at the Kremlin felt very similar to visiting the Capitol in Washington, D.C. This was hugely surprising to the four of us—even Kate, herself a Russian!

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A lone Kremlin guard. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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Our first meetings with government officials in Moscow went swimmingly! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The government requests to meet us would require a day or two in Moscow. After an all-night flight to get there and completing the meetings, we boarded another all-night flight to begin our journey four time zones east of Moscow in the Sakha Republic, the vast and crazily remote region of Siberia which is home to the river. We had no idea just what awaited us there…

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Map of Russia—here’s what our eight-hour flight looked like. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

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Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.