Published: June 2002

Boreal Forest

By Fen Montaigne
Photographs by Peter Essick
"This is an unpredictable landscape," says U.S. Forest Service ecologist Marilyn Walker. A year after Peter Essick photographed willow and alder, white and black spruce marching in orderly rows back toward the Alaska Range, a major fire raged two miles (three kilometers) from where this picture was taken. Trees burned "right up to the riverbanks," Walker reports. Part of the 25,000-acre (10,100-hectare) Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, the burned area has already begun to regrow—a new forest entwining its fate with older, unburned trees, the ever shifting river, and the next fire, sure to come.

Several small huskies trotted jauntily down a dirt road in the western Siberian taiga, heralding the presence of the Moldanov clan. The dogs were followed by two men, one carrying a shotgun, then three women wearing flower-print head scarves and brightly colored dresses hemmed with embroidered strips of cloth. All were bent under the weight of sacks and birch backpacks filled with gleanings from Russia's boreal, or northern, forest fish, berries, and reindeer meat.

It was a mild afternoon in early September, and Oleg Moldanov and his family—members of an aboriginal group known as the Khanty—had left their home deep in the woods to pick the cranberries growing in profusion across the landscape. I had spent two days chasing phantom reports of Khanty still pursuing a subsistence life in this area of burgeoning oil and gas development. Finally, on the northernmost frontier of oil drilling in the Surgut region, a tip from oilmen led two Russian scientists and me to the Moldanovs.

A short, tawny-skinned man dressed in black, Oleg invited the three of us to watch his family set up their temporary fall camp. It was located in a tidy pine grove, devoid of understory and carpeted in a layer of cream-green lichen that put me in mind of a nap. As Moldanov's huskies yapped at a squirrel high in a tree, the family dropped their loads, lit a fire for tea, then wrapped a 12-foot (3.7-meter) tepee frame in khaki-colored canvas. The forest floor was littered with pinecones bearing sweet nuts that the squirrels, and the Khanty, would dine on all winter.

After tea and bread, Oleg, 47, and his 26-year-old son, Gennady, escorted us a few miles to their permanent home in the taiga. Along the way we moved swiftly through a dark forest, ducking under low-slung branches. Much of the woods was boggy, forcing us to hop from clump to clump of springy sphagnum moss. Crossing a narrow river, we pulled a half dozen pike and a dozen whitefish from nets, then plunged deeper into the taiga, through a checkerboard landscape of peat bogs and pine groves. In one stand Gennady showed me his wooden traps for bear and capercaillie, a large black grouse. That meat, along with moose, squirrel, ptarmigan, waterfowl, fish, and a herd of reindeer, is sufficient to feed the family. Indeed, for all its frigidity, the boreal forest is a bountiful place that has produced enough food and fur to support the aboriginal people of Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia for millennia.

After crossing a fen whose low shrubs were just beginning to turn salmon pink, we at last came to the Moldanovs' place, a collection of several ash-colored log buildings and a reindeer corral. Set in a clearing on a small lake, the compound is miles from the nearest oil well and is a place of absolute stillness.

It was 6:30, and the trees around the homestead were going gold in the rays of a lingering sunset. I surveyed the lake and surrounding bogs, my appreciation heightened by the knowledge that it was an island in a spreading sea of development. As the Moldanovs and 23,000 other Khanty are being squeezed into ever diminishing swaths of taiga, their traditional way of life is slowly disappearing.

"I was born far away, in Noyabrsk," Oleg said, referring to a town 125 miles (200 kilometers) to the northeast. "There were geologists all around, so we came here 30 years ago, when there were no Russians. Now there is nowhere else to go. There are geologists everywhere."

As the sun sank, Oleg and I set off on the return trip at a fast pace. Soon we lost sight of the Russian scientists. "Maybe we should wait for them," I said. Only half joking, Oleg replied, "Let them get lost and wander around. There are plenty of Russians."

Circling the globe, the boreal forest—its name derived from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind—comprises one-third of Earth's wooded lands. Half the boreal forest is in Russia, while Canada has one-third, and Alaska and Scandinavia the rest. The forest begins where the temperate woods of oak and maple disappear and continues north, often past the Arctic Circle, until stunted larch and birch trees peter out to treeless tundra. With long, cold winters and short, cool summers, the boreal woods have far less biodiversity than tropical forests—Canada has 3,270 plant species compared with Indonesia's 29,375—and are defined by a few key tree species: spruce, pine, fir, larch, birch, and aspen.

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