The Beringia, Kamchatka’s Traditional Dog Sled Race

by Julia Phillips, Fulbright Graduate Student 2011-2012

At the musher’s invitation, I followed her outside. That first hit of tundra air, as always, seared my cheeks, burned my throat, and stripped my lungs. At 8 AM, this village was nearly negative forty degrees. We’d spent the night resting on a mat of reindeer pelts in an empty schoolhouse. Rising from our sleeping bags, stamping the cold from our feet, the musher and I had tugged layers of fleece and down over our thermal underwear and prepared to get to work. The race’s start was in an hour. It was the Beringia’s sixth day.

I’d come to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula seven months before dreaming of a morning just like this. Russia, as the world’s largest country, boasts untold diversity: there are mountains and taiga, metropolises and nature reserves, plunging lakes, sluggish rivers; of all the country’s wonders, Kamchatka stands as its most naturally astounding region by far. The 900-mile-long peninsula is ringed by 130 volcanoes. It’s shaken constantly by earthquakes. A single Kamchatkan valley is one of the most thermally active spots on the planet. Geysers split open the ground. Each spring, rivers here foam with fish, as a quarter of the Pacific Ocean’s entire salmon population arrives to spawn.

And in a country that’s the hugest, on a strip of land the most spectacular, the Beringia dog sled race is a record-holder. Since 1990, the Beringia has stretched over hundreds of miles of Kamchatkan tundra. Its mushing trail has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest ever blazed. Schoolchildren wait all year for the Beringia’s mushers to arrive. Old women paste its posters to their kitchen wallpaper. Bards write song in the race’s honor. Its winners are announced as champions—their portraits are sent to newspapers around the world, they’re followed by crowds and greeted by cheers. In an insular country, on an isolated peninsula, the Beringia is in a class of its own.

Pressing my hands to my mouth, I watched as the musher crouched over her sled. A hundred dog booties were daisy-chained together with Velcro, and she began separating them, piece by piece, readying for the day’s fifty-mile run. Her eyelashes turned white with frost. Around us, her dog team howled.

I’d come to Kamchatka to write stories. Unconnected to the continent by road or rail, fenced in by snow and lava, and forbidden to foreigners until 1991, Kamchatka has been formed by nature and government for solitude. It’s home to a slowly shrinking population of 300,000. In April 2011, when I found out I’d received the Fulbright to support a creative writing project about the place, I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever visited.

Kamchatka drew me because it was so distant. The Beringia—because it was peerless.
The musher and I worked side by side on the bare snow. Around us, a village of a hundred people turned over. Yes, of course I came here. Don’t we look to fiction to find exactly such worlds? Places tighter, starker, more intense than our usual surrounding? In books, casts of characters are limited. Houses’ windows are kept shut. Air circulates. Every old scent, half-whisper, dropped hint or tiny intrigue resurfaces in the current of a plot. Cracking open a paperback and stepping into such a beautifully restricted place, how can we help but love our surroundings? How could we not want always to return?

In a great realization of this love for a limited dramatic world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez chronicled the history of Macondo, a fictional settlement in Colombia. Sherwood Anderson wrote a cycle of stories set in Winesburg, Ohio, which does not exist. William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi to serve as the backdrop for fourteen novels. These places belong only to their authors—at their invitations, we enter, and at a sign from their pens we leave. Separated entirely from the messy arena of our daily lives, these settlements are some of the most gripping we will ever visit. We readers want to construct our own homes there from ink and paper.

Kamchatka is not an imaginary world; stakes are high, desires outsized, existence challenging. Still, it is an outrageously compelling setting for fiction precisely because it shares so many attributes with a made-up land: it is guarded, fantasized about, as fantastic as a fairy tale. Most Russians will never see Kamchatka. They swap stories about it instead.

And the Beringia is no work of fiction—the race deals in the absolute world of survival. Mushers and their teams run from death every day for three weeks. Still—still. In the race, I found a community and a competition strung tight as a harp. This was the limited world I’d dreamed of. This month offered enough complex drama to develop into a dozen books.

Entering into one of the fiercest competitions in existence, I found art.

A hundred meters from the musher’s sled in that village, a banner hung to announce the start. Beyond that was miles and miles of tundra. Snow rippled endlessly outward, marked only by stripes from snowmobile treads and the neat holes left by animal paws. We moved quickly to harness her team. Our actions were so precise, the village such an oasis, that it was hard to conceive of any part of the planet where this race was not ruling the day, where the temperature was not negative forty, were bodies were not bound in white.

As I untied the musher’s dog chains, my fingers freezing and failing in the cold, I thought of Macondo. Gabriel Garcia Marquez opens his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude with a memory from one of that imaginary village’s residents: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” A dog bumped against my side and sniffed my hands. By joining the Beringia, I’d stepped into a world as close, as vital, as the setting in any masterpiece. Brushing but not overlapping with continental Russia, racing through the spectacular Kamchatkan landscape, and listening to a small group of people engaged in a battle for glory, I had discovered entrance to the world I’d been seeking when I turned in my Fulbright application a year and a half before. A thousand hopes for plots blossomed before me. For the rest of my life, I’ll remember that race’s twenty days as the time I was able to live in the kind of narrative I’d only read about before. I’ll remember it all as the distant land where I discovered ice.

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