Sushi! (July 17, 2009)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 by siberia2009
The town of Kayak, arctic Siberia.

The town of Kayak, arctic Siberia.

Seth Burgess (left) and Ben Black (right) having lunch on an outcrop by the Kutoy River.

Seth Burgess (left) and Ben Black (right) having lunch on an outcrop by the Kutoy River.

The last couple of days have seen us finishing our geology in the upriver sections and traveling on the Siberian Sloops many hours downriver to the village of Kayak. The journey to our temporary home, where the helicopter will come to take us to the Maymecha river, was mighty long. The majority of the day we paddled, making little progress with the weak current.  By the end of the day even this was difficult for us and Roma and Anya mercifully towed us the last couple of hours into Kayak on their Tohatsu-powered catamaran. Once on the beach, we loaded our considerable baggage onto what Seth excitedly deemed the “Siberian monstertruck” and were checked into our luxury accomodations. Really. Our home for the next four days has comfy beds, a kitchen, and toilets that flush with the simple pull of a chain. Also in this fantastic little town are showers and laundry, and a couple stores. Although not as numerous as those in Khatanga, the stores in Kayak have a claim to fame–cash registers that make use of an abacus. We paid for our groceries this morning by trying to guess how much money was represented by the lines of black and tan beads on (as Volodia put it) the shopkeeper’s “Russian calculator.”

Ben locked the door to our room last night to deter any and all of the wandering Kayak drunkards–of which we had already met a few. In the morning we discovered the malfunctioning lock actually locked us inside our room. We were forced to hail the proprietor of the hotel out our window (which has now fallen off its hinges) to let us out. She is an adorable woman that yells every answer to every one of our statements in the most gregarious, grandmotherly, laughing, smiling way and tickles Ben and tells him he needs to cut his hair. We gave her a letter written by Lindy and she exploded with excitement more than sufficient to fill the small hallway we were standing in. Then, in gratitude, she presented us with a bouquet of salted fish. The Russians got a good laugh at all of this.

Ben joked on the river yesterday that there was a nice sushi restaurant in Kayak and kept expressing his love and adoration for the “great sushi bar they just opened in Kayak.” An attempt to make a joke about the obvious lack of such a thing. Our Russian counterparts did not fully understand the joke, so when we awoke, and were finally liberated from our room, there was a bowl filled with cold, raw fish and sliced onions waiting for us in the kitchen room. Sushi! We ate. Also on the odd-edibles front, we consumed a can of pineapple rounds that was marked as expiring in 2001, the year Ben graduated from high school. Updates on our post-pineapple condition will no doubt follow in the coming days. In semi-related news, Seth broke another toilet.

We will spend the remainder of our time in Kayak sampling tuffs and lavas from the Kogotokskaya Suite (several hundred meters of rock in the middle of the Traps section) and exploring a few large dikes a short distance upriver. Kayak is a coal-mining town (we took our showers in the miners’ shower hall), and so there should be some good opportunities to sample coal-magma contacts. This whole time, we have been trying to keep our sample weight down, because there is a limit on how much Russian customs will allow us to take out. With so many good rocks, this has not been easy. We have also started to look over our maps of the Maymecha area in preparation for our next two weeks in the field.


Welcome to Kayak… Vodka?

Posted in Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 by siberia2009

It is dangerous to walk into the hallway outside our room in Kayak. This is where the residents of the town loiter, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Americans. “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” they cry. Then they grab us by the arm and start talking to us rapidly in booming Russian. The subject is usually unclear. They could be telling us about the weather, or they could be telling us about their childhood memories–about the hopes and dreams they had as children growing up in this tiny town crouching on a bed of coal. We do not know. “Ne pa knee maiyo,” we say. We do not understand. (We also do not know how to spell “Ne pa knee maiyo.”) We do not understand, but almost always there is one question that emerges from the chaotic jumble of Russian consonants: “Amerikanski! [Russian] [another Russian word] [more Russian]… Vodka?” Virtually every conversation concludes with an offer to share a few shots of vodka with us. Let us tell you, it is a difficult offer to refuse. Not because we want to drink vodka shots at four in the afternoon, but because the Kayakers show no inclination to let go of our arms unless we say yes.

Ben ventured out of the room tonight hoping to sneak towards the bathroom, but two hulking miners were lying in wait near the shoe rack. “Strasvoutsye! Strasvoutsye! Amerikanski!” they grabbed his arm, one on each side. Their necks were the size of the inner tubes on our rafts. Their hands on his upper arms were like two bear traps snapping closed.

“Ya ne pa knee maiyo…”

Roma came out to help Ben free himself, but instead one of the miners detached and grabbed Roma by the arm. Then he enveloped Roma in a giant hug, shouting in Russian.

“He says I am his friend,” Roma translated. The miner nodded vigorously, smiling, and then playfully wrapped his meaty hands around Roma’s neck and pretended to strangle him. “He says I am his very big friend,” Roma said, looking slightly careworn.

The other miner, meanwhile, had started shaking Ben’s hand up and down. He said something several times in Russian. Finally Ben caught one word: “Stat?” his miner was asking.

“Oh! California.”

“California!” The miner got excited. “Arnold Schwarzenegger! Terminator! Karushuo!”

“Da, Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Ben agreed.

Roma’s miner had briefly relented in his hugging in order to ask Roma Ben’s name.

“Ben! Ben! [A long Russian speech.]”

“He wants to tell you I am his very big friend,” Roma said at the end.

The miner enveloped Roma in another tremendous hug. Then he started sawing his finger back and forth across his throat, gleefully, in a kind of slashing motion.

“Beach Boys?” the other miner asked Ben. “Hang Loose? Bruce Lee?”

“Da,” Ben said. “Bruce Lee.”

“Vodka?” the miner suggested hopefully.

“Um, nyet.”


“He says we are best friends,” Roma said, emerging from another hug.

During this entire conversation, Seth hid behind the door of the room, trying not to laugh and attract attention to himself.

Volodia arrived just in time to rescue Ben and Roma. He shooed the miners off with a fatherly hand on each shoulder, and they went, smiling back and reaching out for one last handshake with Ben.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Ben said, and the miner replied “Da! Da! Arnold Schwarzenegger!” A single moment of total understanding, and then the miner was gone out the door.

At dinner tonight, Volodia told us that the Kayakers will be having their version of a barbeque tomorrow night, and that we had all been (quite insistently) invited. Ben asked if there would be hamburgers. “No,” Volodia said. “But there will be vodka. And maybe they will fry some caribou meat.” Uh oh. Once we get back from the field tomorrow, we are planning not to leave the safety of our room. If we have to go to the bathroom, we’ll hold it. We’ll see how that goes.

July 11-14: Lightning, Fish Soup, and Other Highlights of the Past Four Days

Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2009 by siberia2009

Fish Caught: Ben, one, Pike, 24 inches, fried
Seth, one, Pike, 23.999 inches, souped
Rafts Inflated: 5
Rafts Deflated*: 2.2
Rafts Deflated Accidentally: 2.2 (Anton’s raft was extremely deflated, we’re counting it extra)
Mosquito Quotient Max: 28
Mosquito Quotient Min: 0 (Today!)
Max Temperature: 32 Celsius
Min Temperature: 12 Celsius
Duration Between Min and Max Temps: A few hours

*Raft statistics not cumulative


Thanks so much to all of you who have been sending us messages on our satellite phones–they have been great to read every few days when we turn the phones on. Keep sending! Go Giants! And thanks again to Lindy for putting up all of our posts.


We’ve moved our camp 30 km downriver (this was three days ago). We were on the river for more than eight hours, with several stops for geology. We woke up at 8 AM and didn’t set up our tents until midnight. A very long day.But soon after we finally got to sleep the weather soured. We woke up at 4:30 AM with our tents flattened down on top of us from the wind, booming thunder, and enough lightning to make a grown man (Seth) cry.

Soon after the rain let up the next afternoon, the mosquitos seized their opportunity and struck; the Quotient skyrocketed to 28.      During official conformation of the Quotient, Ben slapped the mosquitos on Seth’s shoulder and his hand was literally wet with mosquito innards.

We spent today on a beautifull but very steep section of rock a few miles upriver from camp. Our camp is on the opposite side of the river from the section, so we hiked with the deflated raft well beyond the outcrop, infated the raft and paddled back to our final destination. From here we went nearly straight up, measured section, took samples, and had a great feast (see above).  After we were finished with geology for the day, we hopped back into our raft and lounged sidesaddle. The current carried us [somewhat] effortlessly back to camp. A fitting end to a great day.

Anatomy of a Slowly Sinking Siberian Sloop

Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2009 by siberia2009


Note: This is an inflatable, affordable, packable Russian boat, subjected to the travails of rocky rivers and many kilograms of baggage and rock samples, not one of the sleek packable canoes offered by our sponsor, Pakboats.


Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2009 by siberia2009
Flat-lying lavas outcrop in a cliff on the Kotuy river, arctic Siberia.

Flat-lying lavas outcrop in a cliff on the Kotuy river, arctic Siberia.

Over the past four days, we have boated, hiked, or boated/hiked to some amazing outcrops of the oldest Siberian Traps volcanics exposed in the Kotuy River valley. These flows and tuffs are extremely important because: (1) determining the age of these rocks would help constrain the time when Siberian volcanism began, and (2) these lavas and tuffs were erupted through and onto coals, sands, and shales–any interaction between these sediments and magmas could enrich the magmas in volatile elements. (Extensive volatile degassing from magma could link the Siberian eruption and the end-Permian mass extinction.)

The stratigraphic sections that we have been working on are super exciting because we can actually see and put our finger on the contact between the older Permian sediments and the overlying volcanics. The three kilometer-thick pile of lavas starts right there, and that’s a pretty sensational thing to be able to get up close and personal with.

We ate our lunch today (half a Clif Bar) sitting on a grassy ledge. Beyond the ledge the ground dropped precipitously 100 meters to the river below. While sitting there, surrounded by interesting rocks, we were filled with the sense that things really couldn’t get much better.

July 10: Home on the Kotuy River

Posted in Uncategorized on July 10, 2009 by siberia2009

Mosquito Quotient: 17
Number of Laxatives Still in Play: 16
Rock Skipping Record: Ben, 13
Average Temperature in the Sun: 80 degrees (!!)
Campfires Built:1
Giant Flesh-Eating Bee-flies Killed Inside Seth’s Tent: 3
Number of Time Seth has Cursed About the Giant Bee-flies: >3
Clouds Today: 0


We were slated to leave at 5 PM today from Khatanga aboard a large, slow boat that would take us as far as Kayak. A “speedboat” of the Khatanga variety was supposed to take us another two hours upriver, where the larger vessel couldn’t go. We didn’t actualy leave until 9 PM, after waiting for fuel, switching boats, and picking up a couple of extra crew members (namely a recent mother and her year-old son).

While we waited to get going, we had plenty of time to play poker. Unfortunately we didn’t have any poker chips, so we had to make do with individually wrapped laxative tablets. Deuces wild!

The small boat could only carry half our gear and half our party. So after six hours of chugging upriver,we dropped anchor and transferred Roma, Volodia, and Anton plus the essential camp-building gear (including the giant canvas “Chateau de Volodia”). Four hours later the small boat returned for the rest of us.

Finally, at 8 AM, our trusty speedboat edged in towards a sloping gravel bank, where Anton had already built a fire and cooked breakfast. We pitched our tents on a thin band of grass and wildflowers, between the river and a small creek running out of the woods.Looking south from the campfire we could see spectacular red and white cliffs of Ordovician siltstones, mudstones, and marls. We spent the remainder of the day sampling a series of mafic dikes that cut through the cliff-face. Tomorrow we will sample a mafic sill that crops out down river and we will prepare the rafts for the rest of our time on the Kotuy.

Despite the all-night boatride and the sudden arrival of giant biting bee-flies, we really are excited to sleep outside tonight and to know that we will be doing geology tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that…

July 8th: American Adventures on a Siberian Internet Connection

Posted in Uncategorized on July 8, 2009 by siberia2009

You may have noticed, if you have been following the blog posts, that the last three were long and a bit out of order. We typed them on our field computer, and then Volodia obtained permission for us to use the internet at Polar Expeditions in Khatanga. Which turned out to mean that we had to kick one of the employees of Polar Expeditions off her computer while we used it to make our blog posts. And–how surprising–the internet runs a bit slowly in Siberia. So she stood there looking a bit impatient while we were uploading photos of stuffed wolverines.  We also felt a bit pressured for time after the first computer she let us use didn’t work and the second would only type in Russian.  Sorry if the previous posts were confusing…and if you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to skip the post directly beneath this.

As we entered the Polar Expedition offices, Volodia met with our motor boat pilot (captain?) and we were informed that we will leave Thursday the 9th at 5:00pm.  This fantastic news means that we will be leaving the comfy accomodations of Khatanga in favor of the banks of the Kotuy river.  This and all further blog posts will be made via our satellite phone data-uplink function. If it works, and it no doubt has if you are reading this, we will be “faxing” an email via the phone to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Ben’s advisor at MIT and one heck of a nice lady (and a principal investigator on the project), who will post them on the blog for us. Thanks Lindy!!

Finally, you can send short text messages for free to our Iridium satellite phones, though we can’t reply. So if you feel like sending us a good geology joke (we have been exchanging them with Anton), just go to: (We think that’s the website, but we’re not sure, and we can’t go on the internet to check, so you may have to google it) and type a message to:

8816 3164 1157 (Seth) or
8816 3154 7593 (Ben)

The next post will be from the field!!!