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Upstream Book Project

At twenty-two years old, foundering in grief and without a plan, I decided spontaneously that a year in a Siberian research camp would help me overcome the trauma of my mother’s death and cure the ensuing apathy toward my career in science. I stayed for three years. I did learn to bear the sadness and I did develop into a successful scientist, eventually, but I was unprepared for the emotional thrashing along the way that only a bleak wilderness and the few people who lived there could deliver. Upstream is the story of my struggle for purpose when the current was against me.


Chapter 1 Sample:
The Curious Properties of Sphagnum

The soot-streaked helicopter started with a reluctant diesel cough, undampened by the bare metal walls of the cargo hold. The heavy rotors ground slowly at first, making a whoomp with each pass overhead that rose to a percussive roar that vibrated my thighs and lower back through the cold metal bench. The noise was so deafening that pressing my gloved hands over my ears did nothing to diminish it—it wracked every cell and drove out all my agitated thoughts.

 Holding my breath and bracing as the shuddering nearly shook me off the bench, I waited for the lifting feeling that would tell me the helicopter really could fly. I felt no lift but a lurch forward. We were rolling down the cracked cement of the runway. Dirty snow, stray dogs, and dreary concrete buildings with Russian signs I could not read flashed through the porthole window like frames in an old film. The pitch and intensity of the enveloping din continued to rise, the rotors screaming in their effort to lift the heavy machine off the ground.


Victor Victoryovich, the expedition’s logistics manager, sat on the bench opposite me. He had not zipped his black leather jacket despite the cold. A black t-shirt stretched over his fatless torso, and his muscular hands were ungloved, yet he did not seem cold. I searched the worn lines on his face for a sign of worry but found none. His sky-bright eyes stared, unfocused, and unconcerned. Nathan, a 50-something American PhD student with frizzy white hair, white-pale skin, and grey eyes, joined the expedition to start his dissertation research. I was to be his assistant and learn about river ecology and salmon. He had been on research expeditions before and, like Victor, did not seem agitated about the din. The final passenger, Liza, a Russian student, was skinny, as pale as Nathan, and had blue eyes that rested in mild disdain. If she felt as excited or nervous as I did, I could not read it in her face.

I had ridden in a helicopter before, but it was newer, the controls and buttons were labeled, and the pilot had not been fixing it right before we took off.  Perhaps it was normal for Soviet Mi-8s to sound like they might explode. The helicopter shuddered violently and lurched upward. The sudden lift pulled my butt hard against the bench and I bit my tongue. The shuttering stopped. We were airborne.

Since I made the snap decision to volunteer as an intern at a research camp in Siberia, I had not thought once about how I would get there. Since my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer the year before, I cannot remember that I thought about anything other than that. We had not been close in that magical way that some mothers and daughters are. I was stubborn, creative, and determined to do things my own way—characteristics she was sure would lead to drugs and teen pregnancy. They did not, but she tried to teach me to be regular and I persevered in resisting her lessons.

When she died, I suddenly felt a weight in my heart of a lifetime of lost opportunities—the advice I had never asked for, and now wanted but could not have, and the unconditional love that I could not see through all her strict rules but now needed, desperately. She died before I learned to appreciate her which added a black murky guilt to my misery. I lost track of time and homework assignments, and while I studied for my exams in Molecular Biology, Zoology, and Statistics, I had lost my drive for perfect test scores, my ambition for a career in Biology, and any intention of applying for graduate school or getting a job. I was festering emotionally, and as stagnant as a pond.

      When my Ecology professor at the University of Montana, Dr John Bishop, called me to ask if I would volunteer to be a research assistant in at a field camp in the Siberian wilderness, my instinct shouted “YES” down the phone at him before my mind had a moment to consider. It did not matter where the camp actually was, what the work was like, or who would be there. I needed to get out of myself, away from my grief, and back to my plans to be a Biologist. The words “Siberia” and “wilderness” also ignited a flicker of my taste for adventure and an irregular life that had been quenched by the tempest of my grief.


The helicopter took off from the town of Esso which lies in a deep valley crowned by sharp ridges blanketed in trees. In the chill emptiness of early May 2004, there were no leaves yet, and I could see the topography of the mountains through the dense, white-barked birch trees. Climbing laboriously over the north ridge of the valley, we cleared the twiggy canopy by mere meters. Wiping the breath fog from my porthole, I could see delicate peeling bark on smooth white trunks. My cheek touched a metal latch. The window could open. I looked at Victor again, still stoic, calm, warm. Catching his eye, I pointed at the latch while I raised my eyebrows and shrugged my shoulders in a question, my inability to speak Russian rendering me functionally mute. He gave one curt nod and looked away again.

When I opened the porthole, a blast of icy air smacked my face and drew wet tears from my eyes, but I did not care. I stuck my head out the window and tried to plug up the rest of the hole with my shoulders so that Victor, Liza, and Nathan would not feel the cold wind. How they could all sit calmly as if flying in a helicopter to a research camp in Siberia was an everyday thing baffled me.

The tears that streamed from my eyes in the wind left dry salty lines on my numb creeks. My hair had been hanging in its usual straight dark curtain when I got on the helicopter, but now the wind whipped it around my head and frenzied it into knots. We flew over vast dense birch forests and wide brown swaths of snow-damped grass. Threadlike creeks and distended grey-cold rivers with snow hanging over their banks slipped below us. The foothills below were still frozen, still shivering in the last clutches of winter. Would the research camp still be under the snow?

After an hour, we narrowly passed over the last low ridge of birch forest, which dropped away below to the smooth, vast, fawn-colored expanse of the Siberian tundra. The tundra! Patches of snow lay like constellations on a landscape flatter and vaster than any I had seen or imagined. What sort of life was I going to find in the middle of such austere nothingness? The tundra home I had imagined was full of three-dimensional shapes, vibrant colors, and motion, not this drab, snow-flecked brownness.

Rivers cut through the tundra, flowing east to west toward the Sea of Okhotsk. There seemed to be water everywhere, more brown water than brown land, standing in opaque pools with convoluted edges. I saw snowdrifts in the distance, but the shapes were too regular for snow. Tents! Six white tents in two rows stood next to a river so flooded I could not tell where the channel was. The tents, drooping with dampness and buffeting in the wind, were the only objects discernable in the wet brown infinity. As we neared the camp, I saw people moving along thin raised boardwalks that ran over mud and moss The helicopter slowed and banked hard over the river. I felt a deep thud as the wheels hit soft earth and sank in.

The rotors were still decelerating when Victor jerked the latch on the sliding metal door, shoved it open, and jumped out, his black leather logistics binder firmly pinned between elbow and ribs. He turned and beckoned me to follow. He clamped one strong hand around my right bicep and the other around my forearm and lifted me down. As my right, then left foot touched the mossy surface of the tundra, it gave slightly underfoot. The sudden forgiving softness after the body-rattling helicopter felt like stepping onto a down pillow. I stood there engrossed in this consoling softness until Victor barked something in my ear and shooed me onward.

A woman and two men stood waiting to greet Liza, Nathan, and me. Liza and Nathan looked presentable while I felt like a wild mess with my wind-snarled hair. I recognized the woman in the greeting party from a photograph I had seen as Marina Gruzdeva, a professor at Moscow State University and the director of the Kehkta field camp. She hugged an oversized blue coat with a fur-lined hood tightly to the round shape of her body. Greying blond hair blew around her pale face and wide-set pale eyes looked up at me nervously. She whispered “Welcome, Audrey” in English as we shook hands. Her fingers felt dry and were as cold as mine. Nathan called out “Hello Marina!” from over my shoulder and stepped up with the confidence of a prior acquaintance to grasp her hand and pump it, a bit too vigorously.

Marina and her colleagues at Moscow State University, had worked with Nathan and Dr. Bishop on a previous expedition to study salmon populations in Siberian rivers. These collaborations lead to the inspiration for a large research program to compare salmon rivers all around the Pacific Rim. The Salmonid Rivers Observatory Network, a research partnership between Moscow State University and the University of Montana was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to establish research observatories (field camps) in Siberia, Alaska, British Columbia, and Argentina. The Kehkta field camp, where I had just landed, was one of two rivers in Siberia where researchers and students from both universities could study many facets of salmon biology in remote and pristine rivers.

The men who ran the camp, called brigadiers, stood like a row of soldiers, dressed from head to toe in camouflage, serious. They worked for Victor, who worked for the logistics company that managed the safety, infrastructure, and supplies for the research camp, protected the scientists from bears, and drove the work skiffs. Artyom (art-yum), their chief, was lanky and had coffee-colored hair and eyes. He had a fresh haircut, the smooth skin of youth, and wore gold wire-rimmed glasses, all of which gave him an academic look. Artyom took my hand and said his name, looking at me but not smiling. Like his face, his palms were soft, and his long fingers felt smooth as I squeezed them firmly.

Kostya (Coast-ya) was dark-featured like Artyom, but while his chief looked made of sticks, Kostya was all thick muscle and square jaw. His skin was the color of tea and was not blushed pink by the 30-degree air on this spring day in Siberia. Mist clung to his close-cut dark hair uncovered by a hat, yet Kostya did not look cold. He reached out for my hand, enveloping it in a warm grip that spoke power and work. “Welcome in Kehkta!” he said in heavily accented English, cracking a boyish grin. Artyom herded Liza, Marina, and me out of the way so Victor and the men could unload the helicopter. I tried to help, but Victor barked something at me in Russian and waved me away.  


The Kehkta Field Camp was set up in a rectangle, open on the short west side to the river about twenty feet away, and on the east side by two narrow outhouses painted an unnatural Kelly green. Sleeping, lab, and kitchen tents completed the rectangle. Each heavily patched tent was staked to the ground with a dozen guy wires tightened to guitar-string tension against the vigorous Siberian winds. Rough wood-plank platforms ten feet square helped keep the tents out of the standing water and mud. Each 10 x 12-foot sleeping tent had two cots, a welded iron woodstove that looked like a stout black pig on awkwardly short legs, a small folding table, and a single light bulb that swung wildly from a wire attached to the ceiling as the wind blew through the zippered doors.

Kostya took Liza and me to one of these tents. I tried to bring one of my duffel bags from the huge pile of stuff that now lay in the one dry spot in the middle of the camp, but Kostya lifted the strap off my shoulder with one hand, dropped it back on the pile, and said: “I bring.” I was to share the tent with Liza for the three weeks she would be in camp, then have it myself for the remaining six months of the season. We stepped inside, alone together for the first time. The stove was already lit and fizzed as rain dripped on it from the hole where the stove pipe popped through the canvas.

Liza was about my height and wore loose black clothes which made her pale skin and grey-blue eyes seem even more wan. She had chin-length light hair, shorn close at the back, that the wind worried into a yellow frizz around her head. She wore thick silver chains around her neck, a stud through one eyebrow, and a sour expression of displeasure. She did not smile when we were introduced though she pronounced “Nice to meet you” perfectly.

 Realizing Liza could speak English, I tried to quiz her about herself, her family, and the work she would be doing at the research camp. I complimented her English and talked to her about how excited I was. She answered my questions curtly and without moving anything but her lower lip, which formed her words with a surprising economy of effort. We were the same age, 22. She was studying the migration of young fishes. She asked me no questions in return and stepped away from me and out the zippered door while I was still enthusing about getting to know her. My hope that we might be friends faltered.

Once I had spread my sleeping bag out on my cot and put on another fleece and a warm hat, I stood on the boardwalk outside my tent in the sleet. Or was it snow? I was trying to stifle a surge of doubt. I looked at the brown water standing in pools under the boardwalks, the drab tundra all around, and the wet grey sky. My treacherous imagination had promised me sunny, verdant tundra along a blue river dancing with sterling silver fish, and colleagues who would become lifelong friends. It had promised me career-defining scientific discovery that would rekindle the determination to be a professional scientist I had had before my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In the preceding month since Dr. Bishop’s call, I had dismissed every fear, worry, or logistical unknown, and dwelt in the comfort and promise of my imagination. I was a confident outdoorswoman, climber, mountaineer, and skier. I often backpacked alone in the Adirondack mountains in college, and I could make fire, navigate in the forest, and keep myself safe from wildlife. I had never been scared or felt unsafe on my own in the wilderness.

I inherited the adventurism and risk-taking from my father. I suspect that my imagination came from maternal DNA, my idealism too. Perhaps my mother worried so much about me because she saw her younger self in me and knew where imagination and idealism could lead. If she had been alive, she would have quizzed me on the details of the camp, the clothes I would need and how I planned to wash them, reminded me to wear sunscreen every day and to ask for help. She might have warned me about diseases, foreign men, and urinary tract infections. But she was not there to force me into practical thoughts, so I kept dreaming of the natural beauty, new friends, and scientific discovery that would stop the pain until that moment on the boardwalk when the brown, cold reality supplanted the colorful dream. I felt the dark edges of grief closing in that until now my imaginary world had kept at bay.

At that moment, I could see nothing but a thousand shades of brown and grey—chestnut, fawn, ochre, ecru: ash, oyster, slate. My mind snapped to the spring prairie at my parents’ house—no, my father’s house now—in rural Wisconsin, bursting with myriad hues of green and rioting with insects and birds. The brown dragged me back to the dead, silent prairie in winter when my mom was dying, where we had walked together not knowing what to say to each other. My imagination had betrayed me then too—it assured me she would get better.


            The memory chilled me more than the freezing rain that pecked at my cheeks. I closed my eyes and tried to summon the sun shining in the verdant living prairie again, my mom in her floppy sunhat, my dreamlike vision of what the Kehkta Camp and its inhabitants would be like, but all I found was agitated static. My imagination would conjure nothing. Where on Earth had naïve idealism about adventure and scientific discovery landed me? 

More to come!

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