Surrounded by darkness and deathly sub- Arctic temperatures of negative 50 degrees, my friend and I were huddled together in a wooden sledge while being dragged violently across the empty tundra by an old Sovietera snow mobile. It was the Siberian winter and we were somewhere north of the Arctic Circle in the Yamal Peninsula.
The snowmobile towing our sledge was driven by an vodka-impaired Nenet man, a nomadic reindeer herder, who was taking us from the village of Yarsdale to an encampment of chuums, resembling North American teepees made of reindeer hide, where his family lived. Our plan was to stay there with his family for a week and observe the Nenet way of life. The Nenet man was warmly enshrouded in reindeer fur from head to toe, while my REI purchased winter clothing, that had never failed me in any Minnesota winter, was proving to be an embarrassment in the Siberian cold.
The Nenet man promised us that reindeer fur clothing was waiting for us in his chuum and that our clothing would be good enough for the snowmobile ride, which he swore would only be two hours long. After two hours came and went, we were still in the middle of nowhere and not at his chuum yet. My legs were numb and the cold air stung with every breath. The Nenet man was alarmingly casual about our situation and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing.
As I sat in the sledge hoping to keep my vertebrae intact during the bone-jarring ride, I tried not to surrender my thoughts to dread. But I couldn’t help wondering if I had possibly made one of the most foolish decisions of my life. Did I really entrust my life to a drunk nomad to take my friend and I into the middle of the Siberian Arctic in the dead of winter? I began to wonder if I had finally outdid myself. My thoughts were interrupted when suddenly our sledge flipped over throwing us to the snow.
I looked up and saw the snowmobile turned over. Our Nenet guide was sitting on the ground and looked un-phased by the incident. He very stoically in his thick Russian accent said, “Where are keys? No problem, I can turn snowmobile on with wires or we sleep under snow till morning and walk back to village.” I asked him how far that would be and he said, “one day.” Then he offered me his bottle of cheap Russian vodka. My instinct was to lash out at him in anger but I knew that this would serve no purpose. I looked around us and there was nothing but blackness, no distant village lights, houses or roads, only the stars and the vast bleak Siberian tundra. I realized that in this cold with our existing clothing and on our own, my friend and I would be dead in only few hours. Our lives were now completely dependent on this man and all I could do in this moment was trust him.
I explained to him that my friend and I could not feel our legs. He turned to me and with a very sobering look said, “You save feet, drink vodka and wrestle.” As I always do when in this kind of situation when traveling, I tried to focus on being positive. So I grabbed the vodka from the man’s hand and took a drink and as I handed the bottle back to him, he lunged for my legs and flipped me over his back. We continued to wrestle and indeed he was right, the vodka and wrestling warmed me up and I could almost feel my legs again, at least for a little while. He eventually found the snowmobile keys and we set off deeper into the tundra and after this scene repeated itself three or four more times, we finally reached his chuum, two hours later than the time he promised. Thankfully he came through on one promise; he did have reindeer clothing waiting for us at his chuum, which I never removed for one week straight.
Throughout my years of traveling I’ve been fortunate to have had many amazing adventures like this one. My canoe was capsized by a hippo in the Zambezi River, I was charged by a silverback gorilla in the Congo Rainforest, when backpacking in Australia, I stumbled upon a job working as an extra and I had a brief dying scene in the World War II movie, The Thin Red Line. These are just a few notable adventures of mine.
I am not sure exactly what inspired me to travel the world, however as I kid I was always intrigued by other countries. My earliest memory of being fascinated with the world was when I was in first grade. I remember staring at a globe in class and spinning it to see what foreign land would land beneath my finger. After each spin of the globe, I would stare at whatever place my finger landed on and try to imagine how the people there lived and how the cities and landscapes looked.
I didn’t start traveling internationally until I was 18. It was at this age that I decided I was going to see the world and so I set off on my first international journey to China to study Chinese for a few months. It was in China that I fell in love with travel.
Between the ages of 18 and 40, I have been blessed to travel to over 180 TCC destinations, all while graduating from college with a four-year degree, obtaining a multi-engine commercial aviation license and while working full time as an Environmental Investigator. My travels have never been about country counting. Instead I have been driven by the curiosity to visit all of the corners of the world regardless of what country they are in or how many times I may need to return to a country to visit a new part of that country that interests me. I tend to be more fascinated with the lesser-known obscure corners of the planet such as the Amazon, Congo, Papua, North Korea, and etc. These are the places that really excite me the most.