Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Messenger from Heaven

As the 2018 Baikal Expedition neared the Russian border, we began to receive anxious messages from our contacts in Buryatia. One dated September 14 contained the following warnings: 1) “The temperatures are starting to drop really fast over here”; 2) “if you come to Russia, it’s better to leave your boat in Mongolia”; 3) “if you come and try to perform scientific research here, you guys and people who work with you will most highly get into big trouble”; and 4) “As far as getting the permission to float the river, it’s also doesn’t seem to be possible.”

Heeding this advice, we sent all of our scientific samples and collecting equipment south to Ulaanbaatar, and resolved to enter Russia as tourists. We would still arrange a few informal meetings with fisheries researchers, but we planned to avoid attention of any kind. Meaning no more stops on shore to administer questionnaires, and no more standing up in the drift boat, casting big streamers for the largest trout in the world. We would make our way downriver as quietly as muskrats (an invasive species in this region), then leave Siberia with all due haste.

It was not therefore a surprise to reach our takeout point at Istomino—a little village on the shore of Lake Baikal, just southwest of the Selenga Delta—and see nobody. Not a single soul. After all, there was a winter storm in progress—on the fourth day of October. The wind was blowing twenty knots, with gusts to thirty-five, driving waves over the near-shore sand bars and onto the grassy bank. A van that Anton had commissioned to pick us up had mistakenly stopped in Istok, the next village to the west.

While I’d been rowing into the sleet and snow, working hard at the oars, I’d felt damp but warm. Once the long hours of rowing were over, my body got cold fast. I knew that disassembling the boat would take some time, and also knew that I couldn’t properly wield a wrench while shivering uncontrollably. So I grabbed a waterproof duffel with my remaining dry clothes and headed for the nearest available shelter: a long wooden fence, head-high, a few boards blown loose by the storm but otherwise upright. I knelt there in the lee of the fence, grateful for any respite from the wind, and pulled off my rainjacket and waders. As my numb fingers fumbled with buckles and zippers, I kept my head down, as if that might somehow fend off the snow. A raven croaked above me, the first sign of life I’d heard since rousting a flock of mallards from a marshy patch of the delta, miles ago.

When I was a much younger man, black birds seemed to pay me an unusual amount of attention. Once, while reclining in a hilltop meadow on Martha’s Vineyard, a crow landed on my foot. The bird’s yellow eyes shone close and I could hear the rustle of the jet-black wings as they folded. The bird pecked and pulled at my shoe, as if trying to untie the laces. Then it began sidestepping along my leg, the head bobbing up and down with a curious undulating motion, drawing my attention to the dark, glossy hackles on its neck. The crow opened its beak but silently closed it, spread its wings but made no move to fly. It seemed to choke, then regurgitated a small stone, which bounced off my thigh and into the grass.

Now that my own hackles have long gone gray, the black birds seem to notice me less. But I still like to watch them and read about them. One of my favorite recent stories is Jamba Dashdondog’s The Old Woman Who Speaks with Ravens (Mongolian Children’s Cultural Foundation, 2011), which describes the birds as “messengers from heaven.”

The next croak came from just over my left shoulder. I was still struggling with my fresh layers, the dry fabric catching on my wet skin like silk on a rough-hewn board. Nevertheless I turned my head upward and toward the sound, expecting to see an intelligent black bird perched on a fence post. Instead I saw the weathered face of a skinny old man. He was wearing a Cold War–era chemical protection suit—with the olive-green hood, but without the mask.

The old man croaked again. The sound was sharp and urgent but not unfriendly. I greeted him in English and Russian while continuing to alternately shrug and wriggle into my raingear. Eventually I managed to stand up and face him, feeling as happily disoriented as anyone who has just completed the journey of a lifetime has a right to be.

By signs and gestures, the old man gave me to understand that he was deaf and also without the use of speech. He watched curiously as I jumped up and down and flapped my arms, trying to warm my hands and feet. Then the questions started. He mimed the swing of a shotgun. Had I been hunting for ducks? I shook my head. Then he cast an imaginary rod and cranked on an illusory reel. Had I been fishing? No, I admitted.

Now it was the old man’s turn to shake his head. His eyes were bright with amusement. One finger corkscrewed under his stubbled chin. The message was plain: You, my son, are crazy.

I laughed and he croaked, but softly, a low chuckle. I ran back to the water’s edge and started in on the nuts and bolts that had held the boat together for fifty days and fifteen hundred kilometers. The old man lifted up a loose board and propped it against a gatepost, then shuffled off along the fence. By the time I looked up again, he had disappeared.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Trying Not to Count the Days

This is the math I do in my head: 1,500 divided by 25 equals 60. That’s the length of the Selenge River and its uppermost tributary in kilometers, divided by an anticipated average distance per day, meaning that after 60 days, I’ll be rowing an inflatable boat atop the biggest body of fresh water on the planet: Russia’s Lake Baikal.

Because 60 days is only 2 months, which does not seem long at all, I redo the arithmetic, starting at the river’s headwaters in the Ulaan Taiga, a sparsely populated region well-known among Mongolians for its shamans and reindeer herders, then continuing downhill, to that unknown place where the initial trickle will gather first into a brook and eventually become a navigable stream. 

At this point in my calculations, the expedition should be barely a week old, though no doubt our forced reliance on horses and camels will make it feel like a much longer span. Seven days, perhaps, before we can climb into the boats, before it’s all riffles and pools and very few bridges: the floating, Russian army-surplus monstrosity below Bayanzurkh, the concrete model near Mörön, the highway span north of Bulgan that I know only by hearsay.

Here’s another bit of math: of the river’s 1,500 meandering kilometers, I am familiar only with about 10 percent, a mere 100 miles or so. By that reckoning, embarking on this expedition from Mongolia to Siberia is akin to setting out on the road from Paris to Budapest and only knowing the way to Reims.

That is, it would be like that, if we were riding bicycles instead of rowing boats, along a route liberally populated with restaurants, hotels, and other travelers’ conveniences. But we’re not—and for that I’m grateful.


Instead of sampling roadside cafés, we will collect data on water quality, mayfly populations, taimen genetics, and angler effort, among other things. And my obsessive calculations? A symptom, perhaps, of both anticipation and anxiety, like a rookie guard mentally rehearsing plays before tip-off, or a teacher counting heads before a field trip.

For more information on the 2018 Baikal Headwaters Expedition, visit To donate, please go to

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In Defense of Orwell’s Toad

In April 1946, as Europe was recovering from the second war-to-end-all-wars, George Orwell published “SomeThoughts on the Common Toad.” Though an avowedly political piece, Orwell’s essay is neither a discourse on a vanquished Ubermensch or a treatise on future oppressors (at least, not on the surface). Instead it offers—and here I claim joyous use of the present tense—a defense of the human urge to find solace in the natural world and its unrelenting beauty. Faced with an urban landscape scarred by Hitler’s campaign of bombs—more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed in London alone—Orwell chooses to focus on the “vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site.” 

Less than a month later, the recently widowed Orwell would leave London for the Scottish island of Jura, where he would write 1984, the novel that evokes the battles of our current spring like no other. The book is about much more than Newspeak and doublethink, of course, but how can one not feel terrified at the prescience of sentences like these: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” And not simply terrified, but saddened too, a sadness approaching despair. 

Yes, we have given ourselves an unhealthy dose of Brexit and Trump and Wilders and Le Pen. But in some simultaneously parallel universe, the world has returned a veritable feast of migrations and blossomings, everything from ducks to daffodils. Now it is our responsibility to choose among them, to honor some and embrace others. As Orwell writes, “I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and—to return to my first instance—toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.


Not likely, you understand, he wouldn’t go as far as that. But we must nourish hope where we find it, as strange as that may seem. At some moment between 1946 and 1948, during repeated bouts with tuberculosis, Orwell had this thought: “In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result being that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked upon as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favored groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.” (The architects of President Trump’s 2017 budget blueprint appear to have taken these words as gospel.)

Sounds crazy, yes. Crazy and plausible. Which is much preferable to crazy and hateful, or crazy and demonstrably false. Both of which have been in depressingly abundant supply.

And by crazy and plausible, I don’t just mean Orwell’s reference to “deliberate policy.” I mean the notion of looking to dystopia for hope. Before inventing Winston Smith, Orwell created another hopeless nostalgist, George Bowling, the anti-hero of Coming Up for Air. This George admits, as a first confession, “that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison . . . . And the other confession is that after I was sixteen I never fished again.” Which was not true of Orwell himself; he fished and caught lobsters while in Jura and—so sure was he of his imminent recovery—his favorite fishing rods were leaning against the wall of the hospital room where he died at the untimely age of forty-six.

George Bowling explains his deprivation like this: “Because that’s how things happen. Because in this life we lead . . . in this particular age and this particular country—we don’t do the things we want to do.” But we don’t live in Bowling’s age (the late 1930s), Orwell’s prophecies are not yet a done deal, and neither is the previously unimaginable convergence of Russian plutocracy and American idiocracy.

Orwell would have disliked the idea of himself as oracle; he rather preferred the role of “pamphleteer.” In other words, he wished to move his readers to action, even if that activity was no more revolutionary than enjoying a strong cup of tea or another pint at the pub. Such things, after all, are what remind us of our truly common heritage, the bonds we share as creatures who live and yearn and die. If we want to raise the odds of that “peaceful and decent future” ever more slightly, then all of us in this particular age and this particular country need to do those particular things that we want to do. Now—before everything is, as George would say, “cemented over.”

I don’t advocate the sharing of inconsequential pleasures as a source of distraction from the news cycle or a respite from active resistance; I do it to prime the well. The small is not the enemy of the good. Without raindrops, there would be no river; without yeast, there would be no beer.

So enjoy a walk in a chestnut wood. Listen to the trilling song of a common blackbird. Plant a few nasturtiums in your window box. Me? I’m going fishing.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Another 36 Hours in Lisbon, Revisited

Thanks to the vagaries of budget airline itineraries and the American holiday schedule, we’ve found ourselves arriving in Lisbon again and again and again. Roundtrip from Tangier, one-way via Casablanca, on a forced layover from Rome—you name it.

If you are indeed lucky enough to have a night or more in the city, make your way up the hill from the Martim Moniz station to Santa Maria Maior, where Marília Silveira of Chez’L Lisboa Mouraria will greet you with a welcoming glass of port. Once a psychologist, Marília turned to innkeeping as a more direct way of “making people happy.”

After dropping your bags in the attic room, descend to Cervejaria Ramiro. Join the eager crowd, who will be talking animatedly, shifting their weight hungrily from foot to foot, doing their best to balance that ticklish combination of patience and expectation.

Judging by the name alone, you might guess that this place is a family beer hall, but that represents only a small portion of its DNA. On the night we first ate there—Thanksgiving 2015—we sat at a large table with strangers from as near as the next Metro stop and as far as Taiwan.

Although you could order beef, what you really want is shellfish: oysters, shrimp, cockles, and so on—they’re all fresh here and prepared in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the individual flavors. If you’re feeling flush, splurge on a plate of carabineiros, an unusually large scarlet prawn that tastes richly of lobster.

The next morning, set your sights on the sixteenth-century tower of Belém, about five miles south and west from your room chez Lisboa.

The pleasant two-hour walk along Lisbon’s waterfront will provide both grand views of the River Tagus and sufficient appetite for an expansive breakfast at Pastéis de Belém. (Hint: Get there early to avoid the sometimes insanely long lines of tourbus passengers.) Though the throngs rightly gather for a taste of the iconic custard tarts, it’s worth experimenting with the bakery’s savory options as well. Both pair well with coffee and Moscatel de Setúbal, a fortified wine with the winning flavor of sunlight and raisins.

But what if you have only a three- or four-hour layover? In the afternoon or early evening, ride the Metro to Cais do Sodré, then find your way to the chefs’ counters at the Mercado da Ribeiro, where some of Lisbon’s best culinary talents serve fine-dining plates at takeaway prices.

To give yourself time to eat, you’ll want to make your choices quickly. We particularly recommend Marlene Vieira for her tempura green beans and duck-and-asparagus risotto, but you really can’t go wrong.

And if your brief layover is in the morning? Then you should forget about eating at the Mercado, because most of the restaurants won’t open until noon.

But you might still want to make the trek to Cais do Sodré, about forty minutes from the airport.

Your reward? Repeated iterations of painter António Dacosta’s “I’m Late,” an homage to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit. (Perhaps because I’m no longer a commuter, I find myself increasingly appreciative of subway art.)

A few steps away, you’ll find a wide range of cafés—some adjacent to the Mercado, others by the river—where you can fortify yourself against the next flight . . .

Note: My earlier post on Lisbon appears here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Forecast for Taimen

One of the best things about taimen, the world’s largest and most idiosyncratic salmonid, is that they are related to trout. This is a bit like saying that one of the best things about tigers is their kinship with tabby cats, but the connection is undeniable.

When you see one coming full length for the fly—the green jaws, the broad shoulders, the red tail—the conflict between what you think you know about trout and what you are about to learn provides an excruciating tension.

As you might guess, taimen prefer wild rivers and wild country. One of the rivers where I work, in the valley where Genghis Khan was born, is as undomesticated as they come. By long-term agreement with local, provincial, and national governments, there are no hatcheries, no hotels, no dams, no mines, no commercial logging, and no motorized boats along its banks.

In September 2013, when Sage Flyfishing’s technical service manager visited the river, the weather was far from tame. A series of cold fronts had frog-marched across northern Mongolia, and the leaves on the currant bushes gleamed damp and red. Although the once-in-a-generation flooding had mercifully subsided, the water was still high. In fact, a resupply vehicle from the capital Ulaanbaatar had become bogged down many miles from our first camp, while attempting to ford what is usually a shallow tributary.

On the atypically muddy steppe, upland buzzards, saker falcons, and marsh harriers hunted the mice that had fled their soggy burrows. And yet, after the second day of our trip, I wrote this in my journal: “An ordinary day of fishing. Meaning fun—with lots of action.”

Our log for the day shows that eight anglers hooked twenty-seven taimen, landing eleven. (This count does not include missed strikes, which happen more often than many anglers like to admit.) Of the sixteen individuals that escaped a photograph, one extremely large fish fought downstream for at least five bends of the river before the hook pulled. Another taimen, not nearly as large, was landed after the rod exploded into three pieces on the hookset. (Yes—it was a Sage.) We also were graced with a trio of Amur trout—an endemic species with thick, coppery flanks—and a solitary Amur pike.

In the dining ger that night, Handaa, our camp manager, presided over appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Between courses, she instructed us in the ritual style of toasting, in which each invocation is punctuated with a dip of your ring finger in the vodka: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for the winds, and one for yourself.

Later, some of us sipped red wine, while others (who should not remain nameless) indulged in extravagant concoctions like apple-tinis and lemon drops. Out of the din of conversation, I heard this twosome wisely dubbed “a hangover sandwich.”

A few guests at the table had been friends for many years, while some had just met. But the world of international flyfishing is small enough for coincidences to become routine. Because the guy from Sage has worked in Chile, he and two of our Chilean guides had several acquaintances in common. And because his father had been an industry rep, it was no surprise that one of our other guests, a former New England flyshop owner who has come to the river nearly every year since 2004, recognized the family resemblance.

We have a minimum of four guides on every trip and, in the service of fun, each guide tries to fish with every angler at least once during the week. On the day that I rowed for the Sage guy, he cast a 400-plus-grain sinking head and a huge epoxy fly that, together, cut through the wind like a ballpeen hammer and crashed the water like a depth charge. That rig drew strikes from two healthy taimen and we managed to coax both into the net. His fishing partner began with a floating line then changed to an ordinary sinking tip and went without a strike. By the end of the day, the wind was strong enough to drive the boat back upstream and the current lines were filled with willow leaves.

That unpredictability is part of what makes taimen fishing addictive. Like humans, they can be close-mouthed and sulky one minute, then irrationally exuberant the next. No matter what the weather conditions.

And though weather can sometimes feel like it’s happening specifically to us, cruelly and personally, it can also remind us of our collective smallness in the larger and more mysterious world. What does it mean when, on a morning so warm that you sit as far as possible from the woodstove, someone else says that he can feel snow coming?

Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, that season’s unusual weather will be a net positive. The surge of water tumbled many willows and poplars from the banks. More wood in the water means more nursery habitat. And more nursery habit could eventually mean more trout and more taimen.

To put it in geek terms, the flood was an outlier: a stray point in an expansive data set. As the planet warms, the resulting effects on individual drainages can vary considerably; given our current failure to foresee the bigger picture, I plan to devote myself to further close observation. The river is ancient and ever-changing. All I can say after ten seasons in Mongolia is this: it never gets old.

On the final afternoon of the trip, six days and many dozens of miles downstream, a harrier stooped on a mouse pattern just as the leader unrolled on the forward cast. The bird stuttered above the river, attempting to snatch the fly from the air. The angler exclaimed with surprise and I shouted with delight. Neither of us really wanted to hook a harrier, but we needn’t have worried—the bird made one last, half-hearted stab as the mouse hit the water, then wished itself back into the sky.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pretty in Print

Two recent publications that can’t be read online: the first in Gray’s Sporting Journal’s fortieth anniversary issue, the next in Songs of Ourselves, from Blue Heron Book Works.

If you can’t get to a newsstand, here’s what the opening spread of the Gray’s story looks like on an iPad.

The painting is by Alberto Rey and—in case you were hoping to add it to your collection—is already owned by the University of Virginia.

The story itself is set in Mexico and Montana. Although it’s absolutely fiction, the narrative roughly chronicles the puzzlement I feel both when stalking bonefish on the flats and trying to understand the so-called new economy. (Remember Touch America?)

My contribution to Songs of Ourselves, on the other hand, feels like a big departure from my usual work. Subtitled America’s Interior Landscape, the book wants to identify an idea that I’ve been searching for from Morocco to Mongolia: “the thing that makes us American.” As I was telling my sister today, my bit—which I called “The Journal of Infectious Diseases”—is “basically a memoir in the form of a collage.”
According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the most common reason for travel among tourists who contract cholera is—you guessed it—a visit with the relatives.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The River in Books, Books on the River

Following on the spate of media coverage inspired by the 2013 Nobody’s River Project, the Amur basin and its headwaters have now found their way to National Public Radio, which reviewed Dominic Zeigler’s Black Dragon River this past weekend.

This isn’t the first book to chronicle a long journey down the Amur. I’ve read at least two others—one was published in 1860, the other in 2005.

NPR’s review was a bit garbled on the topic of fish: “The river’s waters swarm with life. The Amur is home to a hundred-twenty fish specimens, ‘a primal soup, thick with wanton life and death. Myriad fish gorge on the tapioca pears of fish eggs caught up and down by the current.’”

My guess is that they meant species, not specimens, and pearls, not pears. But who knows about “caught up and down”?

For more on Amur fish and fishing, I recommend two books available free online: Fishes of Mongolia, underwritten by the World Bank, and Amur Fish: Wealth and Crisis, published by the World Wildlife Fund.