Human Journey

Russia’s River Villages: Hitchhiking the Great Lena

As our journey to bring the Network of Indigenous Knowledge into Yakutia in eastern Russia continued, we came face-to-face with the mighty Lena River. Departing Zhigansk, we made plans (such that we could) to travel down the extraordinary river, which would be much faster than by land in this rugged, remote countryside.

Reminders that we weren’t back home on the Yukon were subtle.In fact, we found our experiences on the Lena to be so similar to those on the Yukon that when we’d suddenly see signs or documents written in Russian or indigenous languages, we’d be momentarily taken aback. The landscapes and terrain of Alaska and Russia are often indistinguishable, as well. Of course, the two regions were conjoined twins that are now separated, so the similarities should not have surprised us, but they did anyway… repeatedly.

However, there is one major difference between the Yukon and the Lena. That difference is size. The Lena actually makes the Yukon look like a stream in many places, so naturally, the ships we saw on the Lena were huge compared to the barges and ferries we’re used to seeing at home.

Surprisingly, the smaller, privately owned boats, though very capable, are also very compact. They are similar in popularity to the UAZ-452 vans. It’s the one type of small boat that is widely used. This meant that the four of us and our gear would need at least two of the 16-foot boats to transport us along the Lena. So instead of going that route to visit the smaller communities, which would take double the time, we opted to hitch rides with the massive ships which move along this river, an advantage we believe was provided us by the local government.

Next: The Rough, the Gruff and the Friendly

Previous: Strangers in Strange Zhigansk

Read More by Jon Waterhouse

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.

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