Text by Doug Peacock
Photos by Rick Ridgeway
Back in 2010, I ran across a book called Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant that told an old story about a revenge killing in 1997 by a Siberian tiger of a poacher called Markov in a remote part of the Russian Far East. The big cat, whom Markov had previously wounded, ambushed and tore the man to pieces: "luminous stubs of broken bone protruding from the tops (of his boots), the tattered shirt with an arm still fitted to one of the sleeves," as the book described the remains. It appeared this huge male tiger had previously destroyed everything that had smelled of Markov, and then waited for him to come home. The attack seemed chillingly premeditated.
About this time, as I read on, a chill ran up my own neck. Something about this tiger sounded familiar. I had been to this exact spot in 1992 and had run into a tiger. How old was this killer cat? I reread the book but all I could definitively glean was this was a very large male tiger. I think male Siberian tigers, like male grizzlies, continue to grow in size with age. Tigers can live to be 15 years old or so in the wild, although large tigers tend to be targeted by poachers and are therefore rare. The tiger who ate Markov was later killed but never weighed. An experienced eyewitness said he had “never seen a tiger as big as that one.”
A male tiger maintains an exclusive range, driving younger males away or killing them. Siberian tigers have huge territories. Could the killer tiger be ten years old? Possibly. I do the math. Probably, I think. Dmitri Pikunov would know for sure. The book says Dmitri has had a serious heart attack or I would ask him directly: Is the killer tiger the same one we trailed in 1992? We crossed the tracks of the tiger in question four miles southeast of the Markov attack site.
Dmitri Pikunov and I were two-person tent mates on a kayak trip down the wild upper Bikin River in 1992. At least I think it was 1992. I dig out my field notebooks: Yes. Our journey was a buddy trip with five American friends: Jib Ellison, Doug Tompkins, Rick Ridgeway, Tom Brokaw and Yvon Chouinard (AKA the "Do-Boys"):—famed kayakers and mountain climbers, well, all except myself and perhaps Brokaw. We spent about three weeks in Siberian tiger country, the last ten days fishing and paddling down the wild Bikin River.
We run into Dmitri in Ternai while struggling to break loose of the Russian bureaucracy and get into the wilderness. In order to visit the countryside, we are told, it is necessary to secure a permit from the Bureau of Tourism. The Director of Tourism offers us a river trip using our own kayaks for only $2,100 American.
"A truck and motor boat will accompany you at all times," he says.
This is not exactly what we had in mind. I stare out the window of what until recently used to be the Communist Party building: A pretty girl is walking her cow down the street.
"This is banditry,” says Brokaw who along with Jib has acquired the unsolicited job of group-diplomat. We are getting nowhere. Jib stands up and announces that "we are out of here, we are going home."
These guys are good sports, they roll with the punches and there is no whining. By fortune, we run into Pikunov. He knows we are interested in preserving wild country. Dmitri’s greatest personal accomplishment, he tells us, was in helping establish a Native People’s Reserve in the Bikin for the Udege people. The Bikin River country, he argues, is "the most beautiful, most pristine of all."
"You must see it,” he says. "Hyundai wants to cut it all down and Moscow will cave in to them."
The die is now cast. We decide to ignore warnings that we must get permission from the KGB to travel: We will try to bribe a helicopter pilot on our own to fly us and our fold-up kayaks into the headwaters of the Bikin River. It can be done, we hear.
We dig into our pockets and come up with a roll of cash that we pass to Dmitri. We find a chopper. Dmitri Pikunov says, “Speak no English.” He covertly passes the roll to the pilot. Soon we are airborne.
We have a single map. The country is huge with no trace of man upon the land. The map shows the middle tributary of the Bikin River, the Zeva River, unfurling counterclockwise, flowing through eroded volcanic hills and cliffs of columnar basalt, finally hooking into the Bikin. That's where we want to go.
Yvon and I look out the open window of the big military-style Aeroflot helicopter, the port that Rick has opened in order to take some photographs. As our only map of the area is passed back to me, I stupidly grab it in front of the window. In a heartbeat, half the map--the half that shows the Zeva and all the country we plan on kayaking--rips off and is sucked out the window. We are now map-less and I wonder what my carelessness portends.
The boys, especially Tom, will later make me pay heavily for this blunder as the two of us vie for “worst” in kayaking skills.
Nonetheless, rivers tend to run downstream. My journal tells of the last days of our trip, when we walked up the Amba River:
"Amba" means tiger as well as "devil" in the native Udege tongue. We beach at the mouth of the Amba River and walk upstream a shot way to a trapper's cabin (which belonged to the “key witness” in the Markov incident) that Dmitri used in past years during his study of bears and tigers here. The Amba River bottom in summer is hot and humid. Dmitri leads us on a hike several miles upriver. Shoulder-high cone fern and alder obstruct our vision. Moss and shelf fungus grow on logs and downfalls. During the winters of his bear study here during the late 1970s, Dmitri would ski along the river and bang on cottonwood trunks with a heavy mace, waking the Asian black bears that hibernated within the hollow trees. The Amba is also prime tiger habitat. China lemon vine grows on the smaller trees, and cow parsnip and nettles make up the understory. Ticks hang off the low vegetation; we stop for a tick-check every fifteen minutes. This is our last day in the wilds. Tonight, we paddle on down to the big Udege village where we can hire a truck to haul us and our fold-up kayaks out to the Trans-Siberian railroad.
We climb a steep hill to a ridge. There is wild boar and black bear sign everywhere. Dmitri signals for us to be quiet. Our crew is noisy, distracted, self-absorbed, talking of industrial collapse and geopolitics. Dmitri snaps at us to shut up. We can hear movement down the ridge. Up ahead we hear the breathing sounds of big animals--probably bears huffing away or boars snorting, all now running downhill.
We blew it. The world is only as big as we allow it to be. Wild places and animals pass along their secrets only if we listen. You have to pay attention. A touch of danger would help. You need to know you can die: A surprise rapids the size of Lava Falls, a bad stretch of black ice across an ice chute, a white-out on a glacier, or maybe a bear or, especially, a tiger. But it's hard here on our last day out before the slow return home. It's especially hard in a group; the social dynamics can drain you of vital curiosity and attentiveness.
I split off by myself for a short time. Asian black bear have ripped branches off trees everywhere. I find day beds of boar and bear; there is sign of digging around the large Korean pine trees. The big live oaks are lovely. It's good to be off alone; I find a bear-ripped honey tree and an ancient yurt on top of the ridge--built by either an Udege trapper or Chinese ginseng hunter.
Dmitri signals for me to rejoin the group. We drop back down to the Amba bottomland, finding an old trail.
Suddenly, Dmitri freezes and motions me forward: A tiger track glistens in the mud. The track in the wallow appears to be only about a day old, around five inches across--the print, Dmitri says, of a young but dominate (about five years old) male cat that has replaced the previous dominate male cat, who was killed by a poacher. The young tiger leaves scrape marks every few hundred meters and spray scents on territorial tree markers. We stop at such a tree. The bark has been rubbed off by Asian black bears who also are attracted to the strong scent. I get down on my knees and press my nose against the bare trunk.
The pungent fetor of tiger fills my nostrils and--for just a second--I travel with the big cat, orange and black stripes flashing barely perceptibly through the sea of green undulating cone fern, into the wild and predatory world that not so very long ago was my own.
If the huge male tiger who killed, dismembered and ate Markov in 1997 was ten years old, quite likely it was the same then-younger cat whose scent we snorted in 1992 on the Amba River. We were, at that time, less than five miles away from the Markov attack site.
This brief account is largely borrowed from In the Shadow of the Sabertooth.
Doug wrote a feature-length, unpublished magazine article about this wilderness kayak trip in 1992. For an excerpt, click On the Trail of the Siberian Tiger with the Do-Boys)