National Geographic : 1998 Mar
By Fen Montaigne Photographs by Maria Stenzel CARAVAN OF SLEDS glided over the snow-covered taiga of western Siberia. Near the head of the column Alexander Serotetta sat tucked in behind the muscled flanks of four reindeer. Steam rose from the animals' dun-colored backs, and their hoofs kicked snow into our faces. Serotetta's Sibe rian husky trotted beside us, his black head wreathed in frost. The only sound was of the sled, squeaking and crunching over the snow as we moved northward in the twilight. Serotetta and the 18 members of his extend ed family in our caravan are Nenets reindeer herders. It was spring, and they were in the midst of their annual migration from the shelter of the northern forests, the taiga, to the treeless tundra of Russia's Yamal Penin sula 200 miles beyond (map, page 125). There, far above the Arctic Circle, the reindeer would calve, and the herd would find summer pasture. Today about 10,000 of the 35,000 Nenets still move with the seasons, tending their rein deer. What's remarkable about these people is not that they are some ancient tribe just dis covered in the wilds of the Russian Arctic but that they have survived the modern era-and communism-virtually intact. No other native group in the Arctic has hung on to its tradi tions as steadfastly. In Finland, for instance, the Sami now follow their reindeer in four wheel-drive vehicles and on snowmobiles, and in eastern Siberia an overwhelming major ity of the Chukchi and Koryak have ceased migrating in large family groups. For nearly a week Maria Stenzel, a photogra pher with a penchant for high latitudes, and I had the opportunity to travel with the Serotet tas. Accompanying us was Sven Haakanson, Jr., an Alutiiq from Alaska and a Ph.D. candidate FEN MONTAIGNE, MOSCOW correspondent of the Phila delphia Inquirer from 1990 to 1993, writes frequently about Russia. This is his first assignment for the GEO GRAPHIC. MARIA STENZEL is a freelance photographer whose coverage of the winter sea ice off Antarctica appeared in May 1996. in archaeology at Harvard, who was studying the Nenets for the Smithsonian Institution. Haakanson and the museum's Arctic Studies Center, co-sponsor of a program to document Nenets culture, had helped arrange our trip. Visiting one of the Yamal's 50 Nenets brigades-an old Soviet term for herding groups that range from a dozen to more than 50 Nenets-is an experience in time travel. One morning in mid-April I was languishing in a small hotel in the Soviet-era petroleum boomtown of Nadym, an agglomeration of concrete high-rises grafted onto the taiga. That afternoon an Mi-8 Russian helicopter ferried me a hundred miles north into the wilderness, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, MARCH 1998 ~ :~" ~ ~ "-"- -- - "r L~ *'