The magazine of the photo-essay
February 2018 issue
Vodka Memories
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film maker
by Jess McGlothlin
Russia came to me in varying shades of color. Arriving in Murmansk for my first taste of the Kola Peninsula, I was greeted with the greys and whites of a receding winter. The city streets matched the concrete walls of the medical facilities we visited, examined from head to toe as a proviso for work visas. Two days later, a bus drove us hours into the tundra, past military facilities, empty villages, and relics of an age not so long past. The interior of our Mi-8 was dark and cold and grey, like the landscape flitting beneath the whump-whump of the rotors. Camp brought a splash of color. The red of linens, the flowing green of the Ponoi, the purple and yellow splash of salmon fly patterns resting on a tyer’s desk. The landscape was still a dull blend of white and grey and brown, but the camp and its people provided a different kind of color—personality and charm from far above the Arctic Circle. Ten o’clock and four o’clock were promptly respected as tea times. Mechanics would march in from the woodshed, guides from the dock, cooks from the kitchen. It was a blur of breakfast leftovers, dark tea and woodsmoke, conjoined by the seeming gibberish of words I didn’t understand. The Russian language provides its own kind of color, with expressions and gesticulations serving as translators. As jet boats pulled away from the dock in the morning, I would count the day’s guides, each man’s colorful Buff serving as identification. Thursday was supply day. We’d hang near the sat phone, waiting for word that the Mi-8 had left its base and was trundling across the northern reaches to our little outpost. The fresh fruits and vegetables guaranteed the evening’s morale would be high. And, by the close of the night, I could guess if there would be any fights in camp by the shades of redness on my comrade’s faces, brought on by copious amounts of vodka. My other senses helped in painting a more complete picture: the taste of raw salmon and Russian vodka; the feel of hard cots and hot saunas and long hikes; and the sound of a helicopter as the engine turns over, or the eager thrum of a jet boat ready to head upstream. Slowly, winter loosened its grip on the clefts and marshes of the tundra, bringing a spring green that chased the remainder of the snow away. Grasses emerged, trees sprouted buds, and the locals began to eagerly collect crystallized birch sap for a “special tea” with reputed mystical health benefits. The number of long underwear layers dropped from three to one, and trips on the jetboat no longer required expedition-style clothing. As the colors of spring flourished, so did my language. Barriers were broken as I learned my first Russian curse words over vodka and a game of dice, and my vocabulary soon grew to span basic fishing and camp words. The ability to order a restaurant meal may not have much importance in camp, but it helped me direct the helicopter pilots to another landing pad. In the end, it’s what these sights and sounds and colors represented that remains—the silver flash of a salmon with sea lice; the rich, brown wood of an abandoned Sami hut; the clear blue sky where the sun never set; and the pinks and oranges and golds of an Arctic sky, providing the kind of light that most photographers can only dream of.
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Where the magic happens. The cockpit of one of the camp’s workhorse Mi-8 helicopters, ready for a supply run further across the tundra to Brevyeni Camp.
Dogs and helicopters: life above the Arctic Circle in a glance. Camp dogs help keep the camps safe from roaming animals and provide a welcome distraction during the long season.
Even the simplest of logistics becomes complicated on the tundra. To get supplies into remote Brevyeni Camp, equipment must be flown in on the Mi-8 helicopter, repacked in Ryabaga Camp, flown into Brevyeni, then unloaded on a gravel bar and into a skiff before being ferried upriver and, finally, hiked uphill into the camp.
A map shows just how remote Murmansk Oblast is. The Ponoi River is on the far right side of the peninsula.
Flying over the Purnache River before landing in Ryabaga Camp. The Purnache is one of the many tributaries that fuels the large Ponoi River.
The golden light of an Arctic night. 1AM brings elusive golden pink light only visible to those who wait for it.
Ponoi. The place for those who love fish and the international fishing lifestyle.
Angus Walton and Rory Paterson, both of Scotland, enjoy a day off on the Purnache River.
Ryabaga Camp’s home pool can accommodate many anglers and is a singularly productive beat. Many fishermen chose to venture to the home pool after evening meals.
Angus Walton of Scotland and Barrett Mattison of the U.S. head out for a bit of fishing at midnight. Once the clients are safely tucked away in bed, guides often take advantage of the quiet for their own fishing time.
An Atlantic salmon is released. Keeping fish in the water enables them to be released back into the wild with minimal stress and in full health.
Murmansk has been a key player in Russian history; the town is home to a host of history and a people well-used to braving the Arctic weather.
Overlooking the city of Murmansk, the Alyosha Monument is dedicated to the defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War.
Murmansk, a maze of Soviet-era architecture, bustling railways and a busy underground “world.”
Railways wind in, around and across the Russian Arctic.
The long helicopter ride into Ryabaga Camp at the beginning of the season is sobering to staff who won’t see civilization for the next five months.
A day-long hike across the boggy Arctic tundra reveals a host of hidden treasures, such as this reindeer skull and antlers.
The native Sami people are reindeer herders and have small huts they return to during the long, cold winter months.
After hiking across the tundra, camp workers take advantage of an empty Sami hut to enjoy a quick lunch and a break from swarms of thirsty mosquitoes.
It’s nearly impossible to escape the Russian heritage, even out in the middle of the tundra. The remains of this old machine were found abandoned in the vast tundra lands.
In the midst of a long season, it’s imperative to keep a little humor. During a long march across the tundra, camp mechanic Alexei pauses on remnants of old military supplies.
Life becomes beautifully simple on the tundra. During a picnic afternoon away from camp, seasoned fishing guide Ruslan shows mechanic Alexei the intricacies of two-handed Spey fishing.