Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Green, Grey, and Brown

The Sakhalin Island “Fishing the West” Episode
          Funny is a generous description of the “Fishing The West” video production trip I took to Sakhalin Island off the eastern coast of Russia.  It was just one of four different shoots we did from our base in Khabarovsk on the mainland, but it was by far the most memorable. 
            Our goal was to salmon fish in a small bay located down the southeast coast of the island.  I don’t know what city we flew into but it was even more dark and dreary than ones we had already encountered.  A visit to a local market, fabricated by our hosts to keep us busy while our papers were supposedly being put in order, resulted in us getting a good flavor of the former prison colony.
            The hi-lights of the shopping district were many.   I remember that we stood in line for a half hour to get an ice cream cone only to have the stand closed when we were just steps away from something that finally looked like real American food.  There was nothing to buy from the street vendors but vegetables and flowers; except for one shop that opened briefly to sell, in a matter of minutes, a supply of galoshes.  They would have come in handy if there had been enough to go around since it wouldn’t stop raining for the next five days.  We also got to see a pretty vicious street fight amongst some drunks that was looking like it would develop into a brawl when we scurried out of the neighborhood.
            Our real adventure began when we loaded our crew and entourage into a little military looking four-wheel drive bus and headed south.  In addition to the five of us with the show we had an interpreter, a government representative, a member of the fishing cooperative, a cook, our driver, and Luba.  Luba’s role was never made exactly clear but it was nice to have a woman along for variety in our all-male crew.
            We escaped the city of huge green, grey, and brown decaying apartment buildings and moved steadily in to lush green, grey, and brown decaying country side.  We eventually found the promised highway down the coast.  The highway was in fact the beach and if I remember right it was green, grey, and brown as well.  On one side was the surging waves being pushed by a typhoon, as we would soon discover,  and on the other side were sand cliffs covered in a jungle of decaying green, grey, and brown flora of all sizes and shapes. 
            All went swimmingly and we made great time even when we had to slow to cross streams that poured out of the interior.  Our driver had bad music playing loud on the radio and we engaged in friendly chit chat with our hosts.  The interpreter, Borris, wanted to know if I had ever eaten dog so I petted the friendly little pooch the cook had brought along and told him “never one I had met”.  I think he also asked if I wanted to shoot a bear or buy a nuclear submarine, but I must admit my Russian is not that good.
            Well, the real excitement started when we came to a big stream that cut a wide green, grey, and brown swirling course across the beach to the ocean.  It was swollen from the rain now collecting on the low coastal mountains and seemed impassable to me.  Our driver thought otherwise and plowed right in.  We made it half way across and since we were also half under water our trusty little bus stalled.  At this point we seemed to float toward the ocean and foreboding surf but did eventually stop on a sand bar or some such thing.  By the time we halted our impromptu float I had fetched my trusty waders from our gear bag and was huddled under the roof escape hatch, a device I had wondered about but was now convinced was a very forethoughtful feature.  We used the hatch and got everyone to the roof where we decided on a picnic of soggy green, grey, and brown stuff while we planned our escape.
            Eventually a long rope was uncovered below deck and a few of us used it and managed to wade to shore.  It had been hours since we had seen a building, road, other people, or even dog, at least one whose future was not as bleak as the cooks. About the time all hope or rescue was fading an old green, grey, and brown military amphibious vehicle came storming up the beach through the fading light from the south.  It stopped a ways off and shaggy bandana wrapped heads and automatic weapons appeared from the turret.  This sent our Russian crew into a frenzy who soon helped us understand that we were about to be approached by pirates, real pirates.
            I was dispatched to ford the river back to the vehicle and gather trade goods while our Russian friends went to parley.  Fortunately for us these were amiable pirates.  Half a case of gin and all the shiny things I could find in the bus appeased them, and even garnered us a tow back to the shore we had departed from.  With a hearty adieu they stormed up the beach into the night to do whatever it is that Sakhalin pirates do besides help stranded fishing travelers.
            The night was uneventful for all who grabbed the first seats on the bus to sleep in.  The interpreter and I were left stranded by the driftwood fire and warmed ourselves with vodka and more discussions about what I might want to buy from the countries military arsenal.   When we awoke in our sandy berths I was surprised to discover that fleas had given our exposed hands and faces a natural defoliation by eating away most of our outer skin layers
            Now the fun really began.  In the steady green, grey, and brown morning mist our engineer, the driver, and interpreter (with a hangover and red face), were making real progress in their discussions on what was the best way to start fixing the truck.  Buzz, our guest angler, and I discovered a treasure of blown glass fishing net balls up in the brush and commenced to collecting the only things of value we’d seen in weeks.  About this time our second set of visitors arrived.  Out of the brush appeared two huge hairy pitchfork-toting jungle men carrying large wooden boxes.  I assumed the boxes were for our mutilated corpses and was telling Buzz how it was sad that we would be the first to go when they changed course, waded into the river, and starting stabbing chum salmon we hadn’t even realized were there.  No one offered to talk to these behemoth anglers while they commenced a bloody frenzy of fish slaying.
            About this time a sea cowboy appeared ridding down the beach followed some distance by a sad shaggy dog.  We would soon discover why the dog was sad, his cowboy was nuts!  Sea cowboys herd dairy cattle on the beaches where they feed on seaweed.  Our cowboy had lost his cows, seaweed, or both because he was not happy.  Without so much as a howdy he started cracking his bull whip at everyone and trying to get his, also sad, horse to run over somebody.  He must have sensed weakness in our eclectic group and had come after us first, but made a serious error in judgment when he turned his horse at the hairy fish stabbers.  In a heartbeat they dragged him from his mount and kicked him nearly senseless, then picked up their casket-boxes of fish and marched back into the green, grey, and brown forest. 
            Some how our cowboy remounted and tried to ride past us down the beach.  Before he could get away some of our hosts stole his bull whip, cut it to pieces, and further physically abused him before sending him on his merry way.  I won’t soon forget the sad sea cowboy, with the sad horse, and sad dog that trailed well behind.  If I was a dog I wouldn’t have stayed close to that guy either.
            Well things couldn’t go this bad for ever and in the next hours we made some real progress.  The truck got repaired, we forded the stream, and after a few more hours down the coast highway, that is the beach, we got to the fish camp.  As you can imagine it was green, grey, and brown stuck in a forested cove of similar color.  No one was there and the weather was deteriorating but, none the less, things were really taking off. 
            Once again I was dispatched with trade goods to make a deal with a fisherman who lived further down the coast who might rent us his services and boat to aid in our production.  Meanwhile the rest of the crew would find our missing fishermen, board the main boat, and commence trolling for salmon in the bay where we would meet them.   After four wheeling through a swamp, fording another stream, and only a few other near-death experiences we found our fisherman.  He looked more like a pirate than the pirates and lived in a cave in the sand dunes with his boat.  We rolled the ancient craft to the beach on logs, he cranked up his out-of-place Yamaha outboard, and along with our engineer we took off into the appropriately colored high seas.
            Our engineer, Kerry, was a man of detail, which is what you want from a guy who keeps your gear running, but unfortunately there were some detail issues with our twenty foot craft.  It looked as if it had been made from boards that had washed up on the beach and sealed with tar, and not particularly good tar at that.  To say it leaked a little was an understatement and while we made our way up the coast we took turns bailing.  We did finally find our main party trolling in the bay in a large nondescript commercial fishing boat, and once along side Kerry immediately jumped ship.  I thought mutiny should not have been tolerated but Larry let it pass and I had to convince my camera boat captain to stow the hurriedly erected plank.
            Such good luck and fine progress could not last forever and it didn’t.  Things started going down hill from this point on.  The green, grey, and brown typhoon that had been waiting patiently for us to get into position moved in and, since we had not caught a single fish, we all retreated to the fish camp and our makeshift quarters.  With few exceptions this is where we would spend the next couple of days holed up playing cards, trying to figure who Luba was and where she kept disappearing to, and deciding if the last meal had included the missing dog or not.  We made one more attempt to shoot in the typhoon but gale force winds and driving rain smeared make-up and offered less then optimum lighting.
            Luckily for us we did have a social event.  The director of the corporate farm stopped in for a dinner and we exchanged greetings and had a drink or two.  He was something out of the picture books and was dressed in a grey suit, despite the rain, with only one-arm that he had lost in a war, and was as sober in nature as you would expect a communist party man to be.  It was good that we were respectful of him, and that Larry didn’t walk out in the middle of his speech to have a smoke or I might have had to go retrieve him and make voluminous apologies through our interpreter and throw in some of our trade-goods as well, because this man would turn out to be our savior.
            There were only one or two flights a week off this island and we soon realized if we didn’t get back to town and make our connection we would be spending even more time in this green, grey, brown world where we were trapped.  Going back up the coast was not an option with the typhoon still raging.  So it was with great joy that we welcomed back the head of the cooperative farm the day after our dinner, especially since he arrived with a giant orange four wheel drive dump truck.  The plan was to tow us through the middle of the jungle, cross the infamous river we sank in, but much higher up its’ course, and them make our way to the coast and back to town.
            It turned out to be a mundane trip to the river crossing with only occasional loss of life and limb, mostly among the support staff the director had brought.  Our caravan was lead by the dump truck which steadily churned its’ way through the muck over hill and some damn big dales.  In tow was our bus that pretty much plowed flat the mud trail the dump truck created, and connected at the end was a small jeep-type vehicle which was the directors’ personel transportation.  At the river crossing it was decided to leave the directors vehicle behind and just get the bus across to where we could proceed on our own to the beach.  However, the directors’ driver decided to connect his rope to the bus at the last minute and as we made our way across the river the little jeep was swept up and floated down stream like a cork on a string.  The chain of events that followed were accompanied by a lot of very loud Russian expletives that I translated to mean someone was going to spend the winter in a cold place eating beat stew.  Our bus had been only partially submerged when we arrived at the far bank but the directors’ jeep had been drowned.  He promptly had us unhooked, bid us a fond farewell, and immediately went in hot pursuit of his driver who was swimming downstream the last I saw him.
            Our bus was finally dried out and, as you can imagine, it was getting ever greener, greyer, and browner as night closed in. We finally hit the road and made it to the coast highway, that is the beach, and from here we really made time until we ran out of gas. 
What remained or our remaining alcohol and trinkets were gathered and a runner was sent to the appropriately colored forest to find us enough fuel to make the final leg of our journey.  Within just a matter of two or three hours we were again roaring up the beach until military trucks, tanks, and personel carriers swooped upon us from every direction with search lights blazing and sirens screaming.  Wild eyed, machine gun waving, Russian Army types stormed our little bus, dragged us out and lined us up neatly for the firing squad, then took all our documents and commenced verbally abusing everyone in site.  It turned out we did not have the proper papers or authorization to use the green, grey, brown, beach highway.  Since we were out of booze and trinkets I believe we traded a number of people from our party for the right to leave.  What ever happened to our Russian host, the cook, or Luba I never heard, but I am pretty sure it was throwing Luba in the mix that closed the deal.
            We did make it to that motel that night with enough time to re-organize our gear and get ready for our flight.  I do remember Keith, the other videographer, complaining about there not being a toilet seat or hot water and maniacal screaming in the neighborhood but I thought it was a pretty nice place all in all.  I don’t recall anything about our flight back to Khabarovsk.  I do know that when we got there Larry told us he had hastily arranged a final shoot up the Amur River to make up for not getting a show on Sakhalin.  I was the only volunteer.  I just never could get enough of that green, grey, brown stuff.