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Indigenous Water Testing in Remote Russia

Jon Waterhouse and The Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK) recently went to Yakutia in eastern Russia to help distribute the tools and knowledge necessary for water testing. NIK is about connecting people who are, by nature and place, environmental stewards of their homelands, and in this case, connecting with the peoples of the Sakha Republic...

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These lovely traditional Yakut dancers greeted us in Zhigansk. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Jon Waterhouse and The Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK) recently went to Yakutia in eastern Russia to help distribute the tools and knowledge necessary for water testing. NIK is about connecting people who are, by nature and place, environmental stewards of their homelands, and in this case, connecting with the peoples of the Sakha Republic around the immense Lena River.

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

With the recent political tensions between Russia and the U.S., it might have seemed crazy or even dangerous to the casual observer to undertake a mission between countries. However, Jon and his team always venture forth on the faith that things will align—and they did. After landing in Moscow, the team was shocked by the almost jovial attitude that greeted them. Shop clerks, policemen and the government officials that had requested to meet with them were nothing but friendly and helpful, and Moscow itself was welcoming and open.

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

Traveling to Yakutia from the U.S. is a far longer trip than most people on Earth would immediately grasp: After having left their home in Alaska, traveling to Moscow by way of Washington, D.C., the team would nearly be back in Alaska again by the time they landed in Yakutia, having almost circled the globe.

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

The team’s first experiences of Yakutia were also highly positive. First, they visited a school where they would relate their mission to the children and take “selfies” (evidently, very popular in Yakutia). Then, friends of the teacher with whom they visited invited the team to their farms and lodges, which boasted amazing feasts, dancing, and visits with scores of rescued foster youth, all of whom were healthy and well-behaved.

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Jon in a classroom, discussing geographical relationships with Yakutsk students (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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We were totally surprised by a welcoming celebration in Yakutsk! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

As an opportune side trip, the team also visited the Permafrost Institute on invitation from a man named Valentine, who has worked with NIK for several years. Here, they learned that the Russians are thinking about pre-melting the permafrost under newly constructed buildings to make their foundations more stable, and are currently conducting tests for the idea. They also learned from the facility’s leadership that not all permafrost contains methane, which is a welcome thing to hear amidst fears that it could be released and accelerate global warming even more.

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At the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

After the Permafrost Institute, Jon and the others began their long, strange trip to the heart of the Sakha Republic, which straddles the mighty Lena River. Their first port of call was Zhigansk, an odd and unique frontier town with pipes running through the air and an endless supply of Russian 4WD vans. From here, they began hitchhiking down the Lena River (or up, if one views it on a map and sees that it flows north into the Arctic). They met many hunters and trappers, and the striking similarity between Yakutia and Alaska often left them thinking they were back home. The many captains of the immense tanker and cargo ships that they solicited passage from were gruff and stern, but always were revealed as hospitable and eager to please once they were chatted up a bit.

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Perch is common on the Lena. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The team’s first stop in the Sakha Republic, once they finally arrived, was at another school, this one host to the children of the indigenous people. Many of them had never seen an issue of National Geographic before, and marveled at it. Though the location was remote, the team was deeply impressed by the level of education and appreciation for art evident in the children, as well as in all of the Russians they had met.

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The team introduced Valentin to National Geographic (the Russian version)—he and his classmates had never seen this and were astounded by its magnificent photographic content. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The children and their elders were eager to learn how to conduct the water tests that NIK was offering up, and perhaps even more eager to join the Network and collaborate with other indigenous peoples across the globe. The people in the Sakha Republic weren’t the only ones looking to join, either; Jon learned of many more groups that wanted to make contact as soon as possible.

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Students learning about the system they’ll be using to collect water samples from the Lena. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Once all of the official business was concluded, Jon and company were invited to nearly endless feasting and dancing. Here, Jon caught up with old friends he had made on previous trips, and renewed the bonds of friendship that characterize the Network’s activities.

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Celebration and dance, Sakha style! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The team’s return trip home would take them back through Moscow, in which they had more time to stop and marvel. They expounded on how Moscow has distinct “new” and “old” sides, and how each is a rich treasure, not unlike the whole of Russia.

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Moscow has two distinct personalities—the old and the new. They both knocked us out. What a fantastic city! (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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Ah, lovely morsels! (Photo by Mary Marshall)


Read the full series of “Russia’s River Villages”:

Water Quality in Yakutia

A Tale of Two Countries

Yakutsk Hospitality

An Icy Grave

Strangers in Strange Zhigansk

Hitchhiking the Great Lena

The Rough, the Gruff and the Friendly

Art and Science Still Reign

Sakha Celebration

Rushing Back to Moscow


Read More From Jon Waterhouse

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Meet the Author

Robert Coburn
I've lived and traveled all over the United States and the world. I've been in Germany, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. I've completed sustainability projects in the latter two countries and studied and written on advanced theoretical biology and technology topics, like artificial life and the search for alien organisms in strange places. People say I am very funny and entertaining. I suppose I am. I am very passionate about a lot of topics and great at analyzing things to an interminable depth. I'm highly imaginative and daydream a lot—not on the job, mind you. Writing has always been my primary focus and greatest area of expertise. I'm currently involved in writing a monograph on first-line HIV treatments, as well as a fictional novel. My interests include biological and geological history, travel (but who doesn't say that, right?), weight training, nature, photography, romanticized historical movies and books, exploration and investigation. I help National Geographic explorers and grantees to publish blogs live from the field, and write original posts covering their work as well.