Nenets Lake Fishing


“How was it sleeping next to Myangche?” Sveta asked me. The six of us had just woken up to a chilly morning draught and the sound of rain spattering outside, huddled up together under heavy reindeer furs on one side of the chum. Sveta was crouched down in the centre of the dwelling lighting a fire from a pile of inch-think dwarf birch branches.

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A day's catch from a lake near a reindeer herders' encampment in northern Yamal Peninsula

A day’s catch from a lake near a reindeer herders’ encampment in northern Yamal Peninsula

“A nightmare,” I replied, grinning. “He trampled me with his feet, pushed me with his arms, tried to lie on top of me!”

“The journeys this boy goes on at night,” Raik said from my right, nodding at the still sleeping Myangche, “are truly epic. He treks such distances, swims and rows through the roughest seas, fights the most brutal battles! It’s no wonder he can never wake up in the morning!”

The chum quickly filled with a dense smoke from the wet, leafy dwarf birch. We hurriedly got up, even Myangche, put on our reindeer fur jackets and went outside.

Once it got going Sveta filled a cauldron with lake water and hung it from one of the horizontal wooden poles that ran across the chum at head height to boil above the fire. The women went off to the toilet out of sight of the chum on the side of the entrance while the men went round the back, down the little slope and into the swampy area behind. Five minutes later everyone had returned. Radik sat down outside the chum and began filing away on a bit of wood, working on a new sledge. Myangche went indoors and continued with the reindeer rawhide lasso he had been making the night before. Nihowe and Sveta took the low table from the back of the chum, placed it in front of the furs where we had slept and started laying it with bread, fish, a bowl of sugar and mugs for tea.

After a breakfast that involved ripping through chunks of raw fish with knives and slamming slices of rock-solid, sun-dried bread on the table to break them up, everyone went about their daily work – Radik back to his sledge, Nihowe and Sveta to the preparation of fur clothing. They both took out a tool like a rolling pin, holding each end with one hand, and slowly scraped the gunk off the inside part of rendeer hides with a kind of metal chisel that protruded from the centre.

I, along with Ngatena and a young reindeer herder called Zhenka from several chums down, marched off into the tundra to check fishing nets that someone had left in a lake the previous night. And it really was a march, at times even more like a run. We sped over the swampy ground, wellington boots often requiring to be yanked out of bogs manually. We rushed through shoulder-high dwarf birch thickets that stretched for hundreds of metres in all directions, jumping over low branches and thrusting higher ones out of the way. We crossed hills, rivers, circled small lakes, all the time never letting the pace slip. I, of course, was a sweaty, gasping mess within five minutes and had to take off my reindeer fur jacket. The other two only stopped twice, and that was to hide in dwarf birch thickets when I got really far behind and jump out at me when I passed.

After around forty minutes we arrived on the muddy shore of a large lake, the encampment by now long out of sight. We pushed out a green, inflatable rowing boat with attached home-made oars that had been sitting on the shore and hopped in. Zhenka then rowed out a hundred metres or so to a spot where a tiny orange bouy was just visible floating above the surface. He then handed the oars to Ngatena, somehow scrambled past him in the tiny, unstable dingy and lifted the buoy out of the water, revealing that it was attached to the top of a long, thin fishing net. He began passing the net through his hands, checking for fish, Ngatena rowing gently every now and then to keep the boat moving as we worked our way down the length of the net.

Every few feet Zhenka would find a large, dead, silver fish caught in the net and spend a few seconds disentangling it.

“Nothing but pike in these lakes,” he would occasionally grumble, adding a few colourful swearwords to his complaint against nature. And, as we made our way down the length of the seemingly neverending net over a couple of hours during which a fierce wind kicked up and it began to rain, dozens of dead, offending pike were thrown back into the lake they had come from while the rest of the catch was chucked over Ngatena’s head onto the floor between his and my legs.

Finally we got to the end of the net, having crossed well over half the width of the lake and filled the boat with around fifty fish, and began heading back to the shore we had come from. Despite Zhenka’s best efforts, however, the wind was now too strong and we could make no progress against it.

“Damn it,” he said, “we’ll have to get out on the other side instead.”

Quite quickly we got to the other side of the lake, climbed out of the boat and began dragging it around to the spot where we had initially arrived. The shore here turned out to be horrificly swampy, however, and though Zhenka and Ngatena made good progress through it I got stuck and began sinking. The more I wriggled one leg around and yanked at the top of its wellington boot with my hands, the deeper the other leg dug itself in. I called out to Ngatena, conscious of the look of panic on my face. He turned round, saw me struggling, and laughing heartily came back to pull me out.

“Walk quicker,” he said. “If you walk that slowly of course you’ll get stuck!”

Back on the other side we unloaded the fish into two large sacks they had brought with them from the encampment. Keen to show I was not completely useless, I offered to carry one back to the camp and we set off. This time the pace was much slower, however, as the sacks were terribly heavy. Zhenka, who was still walking much faster than me, sat down and called three or four rests at the top of the hills we crossed, before even the first of which my whole upper body was aching with the effort.

Back at the encampment we emptied the fish out onto the ground and someone from each chum came to collect his share.

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