When Emotions Take Your Breath Away More Than the Frost
Beringia, the traditional Kamchatka dog-rig race. The competition for kayurs — dog drivers — was held for the first time in January 1990. The idea of the race had been proposed by the Severnye Prostory Magazine. Since then, Beringia has been more than just sport. It is the restoration of national traditions. It involves humanitarian aid and gifts for children, brought by the kayurs. It is also a long-awaited festival for the residents of remote Kamchatka villages. Elena Golovacheva, a participant of two Beringia races, including the one held in 2018, describes her experiences, the emotions she felt, and her opinion about Beringia's chances of becoming the driving force behind the nascent event tourism in Kamchatka.
– You have participated in Beringia twice already. Did you manage to go the distance both times? What has changed since your first attempt?
– In 2014, I came as a journalist accompanied by a filming crew. We were making a report on the race to be shown later on the Gubernia Channel. We ran the entire distance, when came to 1,022 kilometres then, half this year's distance. We only travelled along the eastern shores starting near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Koryaki from the volcano and the finishing line was then in the village of Tilichiki. Now, the distance also partially passes through the eastern shore; the starting line was in the village of Milkovo, while the finish was in Markovo, Chukotka.
– How many days did the race last then and now?
– This time, we had precisely 39 days to complete the race and I'll never forget a single one of them. I don't remember the previous race time but we had significantly less time, about three weeks. Taking into account all stops and the days when we had to wait out a blizzard due to foul weather. As I and other Beringia participants remember, the forced blizzard stops were the longest ever — we had to spend six days in the village of Kamenskoye, Penzhensky District. Over those six days, the weather was wild; we could not move on northwards, and even within the village it was difficult to go from one building to another due to poor visibility. Naturally, the race promoters would not let us go in such rough weather.
– Could you, please, tell us in more detail what the process of participating in Beringia looks like for someone who has never driven a dog sled. It is clear what a driver does — they have the dogs and the equipped sledge. What happens around them and how can you take part in the race without being a kayur?
– The escort group comprises several categories. It is made up of strong guys on snowmobiles that accompany the race along the entire route and are prepared to move in to assist at any moment. They are given principal responsibility. Serious and dangerous situations did occur, when the guys had to move out even during the night, when communications were lost, when the kayurs stopped along the route because of rough weather and had to be saved. We were accompanied part of the way by all-terrain vehicles and had the opportunity to store and transport some personal items with them.
– Was it possible on the most difficult section of the route?
– It's the other way round, they accompany us on the easiest section as it had a traversable track, there's a road. But as soon as we moved further north, where there are no roads or highways in Kamchatka and never will be, we carried all our things ourselves. The equipment kept breaking down — because of the difficulties and various hardships.
– And who cooks?
– A chef with kitchen volunteers that assist him.
– Do they also go the entire distance as a part of the team?
– So, this is how you can become a part of Beringia.
– Yes. You submit an application and any nomination can be approved. It is another matter that applications are sent in from every corner of Russia; so many wish to it try out themselves. You need a medical certificate. Anyone can enter the race but you need to understand it's not for tourists; it's not just some fun trip on snowmobiles with splendid views. It is an extreme expedition where only select persons are chosen. Not everyone is capable of enduring it as it is very difficult both physically and psychologically.
–What is the daily routine during the race?
– Firstly, there is an evening meeting when the results of the previous route are declared and we are told whether we are going on the road, and if yes, at what time. The starting time can change but only due to weather conditions. Say, we start at 8:00. At 7:00, all kayurs must have gathered their dogs, put them in the harness; by 8:00 they must already be moving out one by one, starting every 2 minutes. For this reason, all things must be packed, the camp taken down, and breakfast is scheduled for 6:00. So, the cook gets up an hour before all that. People need hot water. So, large pots of water were boiled on an open fire. Everyone fills their thermos flasks; there must be a lot of hot water; everyone takes a snack. Bread must be cut. It turns out that people eat a lot of cured pork fat during these trips. Something that gives energy, with high stores of it. The entire day is spent covering the daily mileage.
– The meal on the road is a bit spartan: hot water, bread and bacon.
– Breakfast was substantial: there's porridge. We had a selection of food. The race had promoters, some of them even supplied several boxes of lemons. We ate huge amounts of lemons — the body understood that it required vitamins. Then the lemons froze: where and how could we store them en route? In the end, we had to throw them away.
– Does each kayur team cook for itself?
– No, cooking is centralised, a chef cooks for everyone. But the kayurs prepare the dog food independently.
– Do dogs eat fish?
– Dogs eat what their kayur considers necessary.
– So, it could be any food?
– Yes. The dog food is called "opana". What does it look like? When a kayur arrives at the finishing line, the volunteers must have some semblance of a camp already prepared, and have a fire burning. The kayurs carry the dishware used for cooking, usually large pots, in their sledge but more frequently they are put in the cargo sledge. Water is heated, then the kayur adds whatever ingredients necessary: each dog menu is developed individually. Some use fish, meat is fancier and more expensive. Everyone takes their financial situation into account. Sponsors provided fish but it was fish heads and not of the highest quality. There were times when the cargo and food failed to arrive altogether, and the racers were outraged; they suffered and worried. Because they needed to help the dogs recover. When we had 100-kilometre runs, it was a matter of survival.
– Did you always spend nights in settlements?
– No. This year, we spent five nights outdoors. We spent four of them in military tents that were very difficult to heat up. It is ok sleeping near the stove but it tends to go out. I personally could not sleep a wink.
– And how do the people who prepare the camp manage to get there before the kayurs?
– The teams have different schedules. There are volunteers that trail the group and pick up the lost things, for example, if the dogs have scattered shoes, they pick them up. It is of crucial importance to leave the town clean when you leave.
– And the ones that lead the way. Do they lay down the track?
– Yes, using GPS, sometimes with the help of the locals. There are places in the north that no one on our team had ever visited, and so we had to get a local guide who frequently goes between the communities on snowmobiles. The local is accompanied by race supervisors, equipped with GPS. We need GPS to make the tracks, set the routes, and then to register records. At the finishing line, Alexei Svistunov, Editor-in-Chief of the Book of Records of Russia, registered the record. He checked the GPS, the tracks had been set, the declared route had been completed, with the right mileage and everything. There were cases when the racers took a wrong turn, went in the wrong direction and had to double-back on themselves. We had portable radio sets; if the terrain and location allowed it, we could make contact, and volunteers on snowmobiles would come and take us back to the route.
– Are there doctors and rescue workers on hand at Beringia?
– Medics move along a parallel route. We had two vets and one doctor for the racers. In most cases, vets were some of the first to arrive to a settlement, to thaw out the drugs.
– Was it very cold?
– No. You get used to it. At first, your face freezes mercilessly, but then it seems that each day is warmer than the last, so it's OK.
– Did you smear yourself with fat, ointment?
– No, I never once had frostbite on my face because I always covered it. I knew where I was going; it wasn't my first Beringia. I had a balaklava with me.
– Tell us what you should wear.
– I was on a snowmobile (according to the rules of the race, only the kayurs use dog rigs). You do not move a lot while riding it, and there is a huge risk of freezing and falling, especially since it becomes even colder because of the wind. This is a particular risk when you are moving along the shore. I had several jackets and several pairs of trousers. Naturally, thermal underwear was a requirement, everyone had some. There is a rule that the optimal amount of clothes is three layers. But in fact some people wore four, or five, or twenty-five. I had a special snowmobile jacket that I would put over a usual jacket, so that everything would be covered, and the wind would not penetrate through. Your clothes must be waterproof: when you ride, you get covered with snow. It is best to have spare dry clothes. Once, a blizzard struck on the road, and we had to make an emergency decision about spending the night in the forest, so we dug a hole in the ground right there. Those who had a change of dry clothes were very lucky.
– Were you one of those?
– No, but everyone clubbed together to help each other. So we were able to avoid falling ill and managed to continue the following day.
– Did you come across wild animals on the road?
– Yes. You see numerous footprints. I noticed a lot of foxes and birds.
– What about bears?
– Bears were still hibernating at the time. But we passed their hibernating dens, rode practically over their heads. Sometimes I was scared to stop somewhere, especially near rivers where the ice was breaking. You understand that the noise could wake an animal. In Chukotka we were passing areas where there were wolf populations. They did not scare us though. Why should they? We had 200 dogs with us. They are not so stupid as to attack.
– Are the racers armed?
– Naturally. We had rifles; each expedition member had a knife.
– How many dogs must there be in each rig?
– Up to 16.
– Are there any spare dogs?
– No, there are not.
– And can a dog be removed?
– It can. But if you take one out of the race, you write it down in a form and the vets record it. It is a race, a sporting event, conducted according to rules.
– Have there been cases when one was removed?
– Of course, frequently, for health reasons. Sometimes the kayurs gave up. If the dogs refuse to move, what can you do? Or the judges would make the decision to pull a kayur from the race since there are regulations that clearly state that dogs require at least eight hours to rest and recover. If a kayur is running late and this interval is not observed, it is a severe violation of the regulations and grounds for being removed from the race.
– Do the residents of the places where the participants spend nights participate in Beringia in any way?
– Naturally. For the locals, it is a huge festival, an event, and every community wanted to arrange a small concert. The kayurs, in turn, say some words of support, gratitude, arrange some small performances — dance, and play musical instruments. It is a cultural exchange of sorts. Beringia has major social importance. Intitially, it used to be a humanitarian mission, to take books to remote schools in the north that could not be reached in any other way.
– What kayur did you accompany, and where did you come in the race?
– We travelled independently from the kayurs, we accompanied the race group as a whole. The snowmobiles were not divided into teams. It used to be the case that kayurs could take a volunteer assistant with him, and volunteers were assigned to kayurs. But it is a luxury few could afford.
– What do tourists get from participating in the race?
– This race is a unique event in the region, the country, and, to be honest, anywhere in the world. It is a demonstration of the willpower of the Russian people.
– Would you participate again?