Nothing But Nyet. Life Lessons From a Siberian Wonderland
My favorite elementary school teacher was Miss O’Donnell, who taught me in the first grade, then magically transformed into Mrs. Turner and taught me again in the sixth.
Back when she was still single and sporting the Miss, she introduced my classmates and I to the Three ”R”s (reading / writing / ‘rithmetic). She also guided us through our first fire and earthquake drills.
Oh yeah - and one day a year she trained us in the ”Duck and Cover” drill.
For those of a certain age - Duck & Cover was a standard exercise for every school. If you’re not from the era when babies were booming and you’re reading this thinking Duck & Cover is about Donald and Daffy learning to sing an Elvis song - nope. It’s the U. S. government’s protocol for students and citizens on how to protect themselves against a nuclear attack; more specifically - how to survive an ”A” bomb in your neighborhood.
Over and over we would practice jumping under our desks, tucking ourselves into a tiny ball and pulling our shirts or coats over our necks. Miss O’Donnell would inform us in the morning that at some point that day she would yell ”FLASH” and we would then need to do our very best ducking and covering. The idea of this now might sound humorous (what exactly was hiding under a desk gonna do if we saw a mushroom cloud flash?) - but in the fifties and sixties it was no joke.
It wasn’t any old ”A” bomb we were worried about. It was one from the Villain’s villain: The Russians. This was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table in the United Nations, Russian spies suspected around every dark corner of our universe. Our cartoon evildoers were Russians— Rocky & Bullwinkle’s: ”Boris & Natasha.” Our movie super-villains were from the USSR (”Manchurian Candidate” ”From Russia With Love”). Just the sound of a Russian accent sent blood pressure rising.
As the years flew by after elementary school, Russia still loomed as the Kryptonite to our red, white and blue caped Superman world. I mean, Apollo Creed was killed in the ring by a Russian boxer for heaven’s sake!
So, if you were to tell me ten years ago - or twenty, thirty or forty - that some day I would travel to Siberia, and it would be a vacation with my son, I would have wanted to know how much Stoli you imbibed in the last hour. But, that’s were I was. Less than two weeks ago, my twenty-three year old son, Jesse, and I spent three days in Irkutsk, Siberia. By choice.
And it was Amazing.
We ate like Czars, indulging alternately on pierogies, borscht, smoked fish, blinis and caviar. And, of course, sampling the local vodkas. We toured spectacular Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake on the planet - which, surprisingly, holds twenty percent of the world's fresh surface water). We strolled along streets named for Lenin and Marx (and every time I made a ”This must have been named for Groucho” joke - got the same groan from my son).
Stan and his son, Jesse at Lake Baikal - near Listvyanka
Arguably the highlight of the trip was a four hour dogsledding adventure in a snow covered forest behind a Lake Baikal fishing village. An adorable mid-twenties tour guide couple from Irkutsk (Ivan and Katerina), with impeccable English, picked us up at 10am from the Marriott for a one hour commute to the sledding outpost. The journey in their silver Ford Escape flew by as we learned about their recent wedding and families. Just a couple of years older than Jesse, they found an immediate, easy bond, sharing stories of music, college, partying and romances.
After turning off from the highway hugging the curves of the giant lake, we finally arrived at a rustic log cabin at the mouth of the forest. As we opened the car doors we couldn’t help but hear incessant barking. A few short steps around the cottage and we found the source — a massive fenced in pen with (and I’m guessing) at least fifty dogs, each one cuter than the next. Curiously, there were very few Siberian Huskies - I mean, we were in Siberia, after all. The dogs were not that big - about the size of the canines on the Milk-bone Medium box or our rescued Australian Shepherd at home.
An advertisement for Oleg Tyuryumin's dogsledding adventure tours.
Moments after waving at the dogs and getting their howling greeting in return, we met our two sledding guides (”mushers”), Oleg and son. If you head down to the Warner Brothers casting office and ask to see their choices for Russian natives - the first photos in the file would be Oleg and his heir. They spoke not a word of English. We barely got a nod from them. A smile was out of the question.
Oleg pushed two sleds to the entrance for the canine planned community. His son waded in, each dog yelling at him ”pick me! pick me!” He would collect one at a time and attach them separately to the reins for each sled. Before long, sixteen Russian pooches had been saddled up to the two sleds (eight each). Oleg’s son clearly had a specific location chosen for each dog, choreographing their spot on the team and with whom to pair them.
Now, before you start formulating an offended comment you intend to post in the ‘comment’ section - let me state, for the record, my son and I are unrepentant dog lovers. I’ve had a rescue dog in my family since before my adolescence and for every year we’ve had kids. We’re on our third Aussie rescue. These Soviet dogs looked well nourished, happy and eager to win Oleg and his son’s affection. Each hound had their very own dog house with a padded blanket inside. From our perspective, these canines were comfortable and content.
Once teamed up, the dogs were ready to roll. Oleg and Junior motioned for us to take a seat on our respective sled. There was a welcoming chunk of foam on the bed of the mini-sleigh. Before departing, Oleg called for Ivan, our guide, to come over and give us the flight attendant speech, rambling something to Ivan in a voice that I can only ascribe to a Bond villain. Ivan translated it.
”Straighten your legs and keep them outstretched. Don’t ever put your foot or leg over the side - and even if the sled were to tip over, keep your legs straight…”
Tip over? Seriously? These eight Lassies can’t possibly get up enough speed with two beefy men behind them for us to tip over.
As I settled into my seat and felt Oleg Junior stepping on to the sled behind me (he led the team from a standing position), I took a long look at the octet of slender pooches pulling this coach. Now, I’m not a physicist, and despite Mr. Crean’s valiant efforts in high school, I have no aptitude for physics - but there seemed no possible way these eight Rin-Tin-Tins were gonna be able to pull over four hundred pounds of metal sled plus California and Siberian beef. I thought maybe Oleg and Junior would step off and push us to gather momentum, hoping the dogs can pull us on the slick snow.
I had but a nanosecond for that notion to roll around in my noggin when Junior barked something in Russian and instantly the mutt octet were off.
AND WE WERE FLYING!
In no time we had departed the cabin and were headed at breakneck speed toward the forest. Thirty-two canine legs galloping in unison as we zipped along the white highway. Fearing I would be thrown off at the first turn, I grabbed the sleigh with my gloved hands and held on for dear life. Junior continued to bark some orders, the dogs, in concert, turning left or right, slowing down or speeding up, depending on the command.
Moments after hitting canine light speed, we entered the dense forest, snaking our way through a worn path with sled marks. With each passing turn, bump of ice or tree root, I got more comfortable in my cushioned seat. I finally let go of the toboggan, pulling my phone from my pocket and even taking some photos and videos. I listened intently to the Russian commands and subsequent team efforts, trying to decipher which directions were for speed and which for direction. I watched the ballet and beauty of the pitter pattering paws along the snowy path.
After about ninety minutes of bumpy canine travel through the dense woodland, that would have been the envy of Hansel and Gretel, we abruptly came to a stop. Junior immediately stepped off our sled and motioned for me to do the same. The dogs plopped down, Junior taking a couple off their leads. Jesse’s sleigh arrived moments later. With a robust language barrier - the four of us were confined to nods and gestures. Oleg pulled out a massive hunting knife. Jesse and I shared a brief look of concern before the pair disappeared into the brush to gather up kindling and fire wood. Faster than Toto escaped from Miss Gulch’s bicycle basket, they had built a roaring campfire in a dense thicket. Junior cut up some potatoes and veggies, while his father put soup broth in a pot over the fire.
As we warmed ourselves by the fire and waited for the hearty soup to cook, we stood in silence, felled by our inability to communicate. Then, as if on cue, both Junior and Jesse pulled cell phones from their pocket. Jesse had loaded a Google Translate app and started typing in questions. Junior did the same. Back and forth we went - like a quartet of United Nations ambassadors - conversing through translators. As it happened, these interpreters fit in the palm of our hand and back pockets. As the soup warmed our bones, the conversations warmed up a friendship. We learned that they were both world class dog sled racers, the father handing down his love of dogs and racing to his only son. Junior showed me a Go-Pro he was wearing so they could create a video for their website. They made us some tea and brought out cookies Oleg’s wife had made. We laughed and continued letting our mutual Google friend interpret.
Oleg and Jesse ready the campfire for a hearty and hot Soviet soup.
Once the soup was finished and the fire extinguished, we re-boarded our separate Polar Expresses. Oleg and Junior traded sleds, the elder musher joining my sleigh for the trip back. One quick command and once again we were off to the races. Knowing what to expect on the return trek I eagerly greeted each bump and wild turn. There were moments when we’d lean one way or the other, but never got close to tipping over. For most of the ride my hands were in my lap or my jacket, no longer requiring the ”dear life” grip on the outward bound journey.
With my dog sledding adventure over half completed, I allowed myself to truly appreciate how incredible this experience was - what a wondrous, white, wonderland I was bouncing past courtesy of my octadic team of Scooby-Doos.
It was then that I noticed that our lead pair of dogs were both bitches (and I say that with respect). There was a mix of both pooch genders on the team - but the two in front - both females. In watching the distaff duo, I observed that lead dogs never look back, not even a quick gander at their compatriots or musher. All the others looked to the sides, frequently glancing back at Oleg or Junior when they would usher a command.
Our dog journey reaching its end, I tried to savor each bitter breeze on my cheek, every icy skid, every tree root that tossed us into the air.
There was much to be gleaned by this unexpectedly bracing and magical trip through the land of Zhivago and Drago.
• With every new adventure in life there will the requisite, fearful start when you grab hold of anything and everything, for fear of falling. Yet, as experience replaces the unknown, it becomes easier to let go of the side of the sled. The trip isn’t any different, just our understanding of it and the ease with which the scary becomes the appreciated.
• There will be tasks that seem insurmountable and it’s smart to remember that it’s nothing short of miraculous what can be accomplished when a team of like minded folks are all pulling in the same direction.
• Every team needs leaders and followers. We’re not all meant to be the ones who forge the path and choose our direction. But, it helps if those that lead keep looking forward and leave for the rest of us acknowledging our surroundings and gazing backwards every once in awhile. Perhaps, more often than not, we recognize that we should let females lead.
Likely the greatest lesson of my Siberian sleigh ride was this; In a year filled with a heightened fear of those different from ourselves, I traveled to the place I was taught, from the earliest age, to dread - and I confronted the enemy. In the coldest of places I encountered our cold war combatants. We had no shared common history. We couldn’t even speak to each other.
And yet. We got past the Nyet.
It turned out it we were really just two Dads taking a dog sled together with our sons. They weren’t scary red, just another family welcoming my tribe to their business, their home, their world. Perhaps the purpose of a new digital technology shouldn’t be to foster hate or suspicion, but to help break down the barriers between us, just as Google did for us over a hearty campfire in the middle of a Russian forest.
Posing with world champion Siberian musher, Oleg Tyuryumin, our guide.
Oleg and his son offered us soup and friendship. What we received was one of the most wondrous memories of our lives.
All the best to you and your loved ones in 2017.
And to Oleg, his son, Ivan and Katerina — Спасибо. С новым годом.