Siberian shakedown

The infamous helicopter (Photo provided)

In the fall of 1998, I hopped onto a state Department of Environmental Conservation helicopter at the Lake Clear airport. We were heading up to Lake Colden to work on rebuilding the interior ranger cabin that had burned down the previous March.

The pilot asked me, “Have you ever been in a helicopter before?”

And I thought back to 1993, when a group of wilderness friends and I joined adventurer Paul Schurke on a two-week rafting expedition on the Chukchi Peninsula of far-eastern Siberia. The plan was to stay in a Siberian community a few days before and after a rafting trip on one of the numerous rivers above the Arctic Circle.

We started the trip by flying from Anchorage to Kotzebue, then to Nome. The 230-mile last leg was in a nine-passenger Piper from Nome to Provideniya. The airport, located 7 miles from the small community of 3,000, can best be described as Third World.

We stumbled into the crowded airport — and its mixture of Russians and native Chukhi. It was a dusty, dirty old wood-frame building with people elbow to elbow. The odor was similar to a boys locker room, and we felt like aliens as we watched a young boy pee into a chamber pot in the middle of the terminal. Even weirder was that we were in as remote an airport as there is in the world, yet suddenly a Chukchi kid walked by wearing a Chicago Bulls basketball T-shirt celebrating their third NBA championship.

We met our guide, Vladimir, and his companion, an English teacher who would serve as our translator. We walked across the airport to our waiting Aeroflot helicopter. In the background we saw new-looking, spotless military transport planes. Our helicopter, however, looked different. Very different.

The helicopter had been hand-painted a dull baby pink and baby blue at least a decade previously. The entire upper fuselage was stained with black exhaust. The Aeroflot airline name and logo were primitively stenciled in black. It looked like a relic from the ’60s, and it was.

There was nervous laughter as we anticipated getting on this old, well-worn machine. Paul assured us that “Russian helicopters have an excellent safety record, and their maintenance is as good or perhaps even better than U.S. maintenance.” I’m not sure where he got his “facts,” but I trusted Paul. He had traveled to this part of the world numerous times.

It may have been naivete, or the fact that I was ever the pragmatist, but I threw my gear in and climbed aboard, preparing for takeoff. I figured the pilots didn’t want to crash any more than I did, did they? I learned later that there is a 0.03% chance that pilots DO want to crash. Comforting, isn’t it?

There were no seats or seat belts; we sat on the fuel tanks. The pilots were two garrulous guys who, although we couldn’t understand them, chatted whenever the noise allowed. The translator told us that they took great pride that they were civilian-trained helicopter pilots and not military. They knew that most U.S. helicopter pilots were military trained. One of them was short and stocky with slightly graying, well-kept hair. He had a slight belly and always sported a cigarette. The other was tall and thin with bushy dark hair. He had a pointed nose and always wore a flight jacket. They both sported three-day old beards. They seemed friendly, and were, but they had a dark side we would learn about.

We took off for our destination, Egvekinot, a town of about 5,500 located 250 miles northwest of Provideniya.

The Chukchi Peninsula is an area the size of Arizona, with a population of about 15,000 mostly Indigenous people who were historically reindeer herders. Our route took us along the coasts of the Bering Strait and Bering Sea.

At one point, we had an unscheduled landing at a tiny two-house settlement along the coast, and the pilots traded a case of vodka for a couple of burlap bags of salmon. It seemed like a fair trade.

The question that kept cropping up in my mind was, “Where does Aeroflot fit in? Does the airline know they make these kinds of stops?” There was no communication with things like control towers or the office. There was no oversight. The pilots ran the show, and we were at their mercy.

Before long, we landed in Egvekinot. In 1946, it was created by gulag labor as a seaport to ship tin and tungsten ore mined 200 miles to the north. Egvekinot, like virtually all Russian communities in this part of the world, had no tourist accommodations, so we stayed with families in their apartments.

The morning of the third day, we met again at the airport (a generous description for the concrete pad) with our intrepid pilots. They appeared unusually eager to fly us north to start our rafting adventure. We would soon understand why.

We loaded up two helicopters with our gear, food and rafts, and headed north, above the Arctic Circle. We landed in the middle of a large wilderness by the Amguema River.

The countryside was open, stark and beautiful. Wildflowers and grasses were abundant, but trees weren’t — we were in the treeless tundra. It was sunny, with the temperature an unexpectedly warm 72 degrees. We started to inflate our rafts (by hand pumps) and quickly realized they weren’t your state-of-the-art whitewater rafts found throughout North America. They were life rafts with domed survival-shelter tops. I hoped they were surplus and that some Russian ship on the North Sea wasn’t missing its life rafts, but who knew? Instead of real paddles they had tiny wooden-handled, metal-blade paddles like I had seen in survival movies.

I didn’t think anything about the pilots hanging around and how they were in no rush to leave.

After an hour, we got everything sorted, loaded and ready to go. Vladimir reviewed with the pilots where we would be picked up at the trip’s end.

We had no idea what was going on, and the tone of the conversation appeared to get tense. There was a back-and-forth between Vlad and the pilots. Finally, Vlad came over to us and said, “They want more money to meet us when we finish.” It took a few seconds for the translation to register, but suddenly it was clear. We were being shaken down.

I was not a novice traveler. I’d sailed around Newfoundland and throughout the Caribbean. I’d traveled through Guatemala and throughout Europe, including numerous Iron Curtain countries, the Middle East and India. I’d heard horror stories from friends who’d been shaken down from Mexico to India, but I had never had the privilege. I thought I was immune, but obviously I’d just been lucky since here we were, being asked for several hundred bucks by supposed Aeroflot helicopter pilots. I tried to imagine a Southwest Airlines pilot walking down the aisle letting us know that they weren’t going to land at our destination unless we all ponied up more money. It was impossible.

Paul said, “How much cash do we have among us?”

We dug our wallets out of our packs and between us found $300 in U.S. currency. We gave it to the pilots in the hope that we’d be picked up 10 days later. The reality was, even with the extra money, we had no way of knowing for sure that they’d be waiting for us.

We finally got in our rafts and headed down the river. Aside from the extortion, we had a great trip rafting through spectacular country, visiting native reindeer herders, catching Arctic grayling and salmon, and drinking too much vodka with the citizens of Egvekinot.

All in all, it was a great trip. But when you’re 3,800 miles from home, there’s nothing that shakes you up quite like a shakedown.


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