We Interrupt This Program
Thursday at the house is boys night. A few friends come by the house to watch a little TV, talk about the last weeks' news, and thumb their cell phones. It was my buddy Dave, the political one, who was surfing over The Drudge Report which is a mishmash of hyperlinks to world news that sits to the political right. He watches it not because he is right wing but because he wants to know what they're up to and watching the former Soviet Union is on their list. It was 10:30pm Pacific when he looked up from his cell phone screen.
“Did you hear about the fireball in Russia?” he asked
Not knowing it was breaking news I was fairly quick to dismiss it as I am usually ahead of the my buddies when it comes to meteoric events.
“No dude, you need to check this out”
This video was one we are now all familiar with, the most spectacular fireball living eyes have ever seen, taken from dashboard camera footage by a morning commuter In Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The Days Ahead
For the next several days we watched as estimates came in. $33M in damages with nearly 3000 buildings damaged across six cities, over 1200 people seeking medical attention and broken windows over an area some 100,000 square meters. Emergency services were dispatched to begin immediate repairs with temperatures expected to hit 0°F upon windowless houses. The region sold out of plastic wrap as a means to cover windows in the meantime.
Scientists had pegged the initial body at 18 meters across weighing 11,000 tons entering our atmosphere at 11.6 miles per second causing it to explode with the force of over 400 kilotons of TNT.
Conspiracies were abound saying it was a military strike, the effect of an alien race destroying the potential life ending impactor, the early arrival of expected asteroid 2012 DA14, or the fulfillment of Mayan prophecy.
It was the first meteorite related national disaster the world had ever seen but where were the pieces? We saw the huge hole in the ice on Lake Chebarkul, almost too perfect, but where were the rest? News came that some small pieces were found around the hole in the ice but nothing was recovered at the lake bottom.
The Call of the Wild
I tend to stay a little closer to home when going on meteorite hunts but this was no average fall. This was the biggest meteoric event in over a hundred years and likely the biggest I would ever see. I needed to plant my feet on the ground, to see the damage with my own eyes, to sniff the air where only a small difference in angle was the difference between damage and destruction…the difference between Chelyabinsk and Tunguska.
Timing, however, was not on my side. Snow was predicted very soon and conflicts with my work schedule were going to make a last minute trip impossible. I would later learn that the visa process would have never cleared in time to make it before new snow concealed all those perfect little holes making it a buying trip as opposed to a hunting trip and I wanted to find one.
I had discussed taking this trip with Mike Farmer as he was planning to go in either case and we went on to plan the possibility of an early spring hunt after the snow melted. He would use part of his time there to gain insight into the timing of the snowmelt. Upon his return I learned that the window between snowmelt and unmanageable vegetation is a roughly two week period as Spring comes on strong in Siberia. He had dates planned and we'd have to act on them and hope for the best. Being a month out there was ample time to clear this at work….I was going to go!
There Is No Siberia Travel Brochure
So began the process of trip planning. The Russian Federation is a country that requires a travel visa. This is not uncommon but wait…there's more.
Now to book the trip to the other side of the world. Four planes and some 25 hours of travel time.
In the days that led up to departure we were being fed information from some common names in the meteorite world, Sergey Afanasyev and Dima Sadilenko. They arranged a hotel for us in Emazhelinka, the nearest hotel to the strewnfield. We were also kept abreast of the snow situation and were happy to get word one day that the snow was gone. Everything was coming together.
A Little On Chelyabinsk
Chelyabinsk is the capital of Russia's Chelyabinsk Province and is located at the eastern foot of the Ural mountains . It has a population of 1.3 million.
At the beginning of Soviet industrialization (1930) the city experienced fast growth. Such industrial giants as Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant and Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant were built.
At the beginning of the World War II (1940) it was decided to evacuate a lot of Soviet factories and plants from the western parts of the country to places out of the way of advancing German armies.
For forty-five years, the Chelyabinsk province of Russia was closed to all foreigners. Only in January of 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin sign a decree changing that. As a result, western scientists who studied the region declared Chelyabinsk to be the most polluted spot on earth.
Today Chelyabinsk remains one of the most important industrial centers of Russia. The main industry of the city is still metallurgy and military machinery.
It's international airport is equipped with one of the best runways in Russia linking Chelyabinsk with the largest cities in Russia and foreign countries.
Feet On the Ground
Exactly 24 hours from my house I was now standing at ground zero from the sonic boom destruction. My connecting flights went perfectly taking me from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Frankfurt, Moscow, and finally Chelyabinsk. I was greeted by Mike Farmer and his driver Dennis. Robert Ward was in country also and resting up at the hotel.
I'm going to segue immediately to Dennis, for without him and his girlfriend Svetlana the trip may have been impossible. Dennis is 25 and lives in Chelyabinsk where he runs a sporting goods and excursions business. When the meteorites fell he quickly found himself at the fall site gathering pieces in the snow. Upon learning of Farmer's buying trip he reached out via email to offer stones for sale when he came. As details came together and Farmer asked Dennis to meet him in Moscow as that is as far as Farmer planned to go on that trip Dennis admitted his fear that Farmer may just kill him and take the stones. Farmer was not without similar trepidation of a vice-versa situation, strong proof of the cold war ideology that will still take some time to mend. They agreed to meet in a very public and nice hotel to transact. A friendship was soon forged and Dennis now sat with over a years' worth of income for his finds. As Mike learned that he would have to get closer to the source to get more finds Dennis agreed to hire on as his driver so they all went back to Chelyabinsk. At the end of the trip Mike, now knowing where the strewnfield was and how difficult the drive was to get there, suggested Dennis use some of the money to buy a 4WD vehicle for a return trip and that's what Dennis did.
The drive from Chelyabinsk to Emazhelinka is roughly one hour, I was so excited to sit again. As we drove through you could see all the buildings with fresh windows dotted among the native ones that didn't break. If there are rules to driving in Russia I could not sort them, passing seems to occur wherever and whenever which creates a weaving braid of traffic. Signs meant nothing as I can not transcribe Cyrillic but Dennis knew where to point the car so I just tried to see as much as I could in the fading light.
We arrived at the hotel as hunters were coming back from their days work. The Polish team was there and a handful of Russians minus Sergey and Dima who were to arrive later in the week. Parked outside to greet the returning hunters was a myriad of locals who were patiently waiting in their cars to sell their pieces. There were dozens of them. About 1 in 10 own a car in Emazhelinka which made for two different types of sellers, those who found and drove them in and entrepreneurs who hustle into the village to buy from those without cars and broker them to us. The entrepreneurs were the young ones, dressed in track pants, white tee shirts, gold chains and ball caps blaring Russian rap music in their cars. It looked like an Eminem convention. This was the case every day. Hunt all day and buy in the evening.
The town Costco
As for the dirt road drive, it was Dennis' charge to navigate the muddy perils of the oil pipeline that marks the center axis of the strewnfield. Dennis would spend one day hunting and one day in the field with his toolbox making repairs brought on by the jarring path's toll. His trusty Toyota tolerated more than any other rig on the hunt and we could get further in than anyone who rented their vehicle on arrival.
As far as hunting areas go there were several good choices and you could change up swiftly between birch forests which were good viewing due to a flat leaf floor, pine forests which were a lot busier to look at, stubble fields with dirt rows, dirt fields with some viewing obstacles due to dirt clods, and grass prairies.
It was quickly evident from the finds being made that you could have a ten gram stone next to a one kilo stone. The usual sorting from big to small in an ellipse does not apply here. It is suspected that each of the sonic booms heard in the videos may have created a series of overlapping strewnfields that may look something like:
As far as numbers go the find rates were nowhere near what I was expecting. I had imagined needing five gallon buckets to carry all my finds despite the fact that find density is NEVER synonymous with a shallow angle fireball. I estimate the find rate somewhere around 0.75 stones found per person per day and I fell short of that on this trip. I have had my successes on other hunts and on this go around fate just wasn't putting stones in my path.
That said I went and I found, the pieces in my collection will be ones I touched first in their eventual unending chain of custody, but there will not be many find photos.
Farmer and Ward did very well and it all added to this adventure.
As is the case with all hunts, my favorite time is that spent after the hunt. The time spent looking at other people's finds, eating good food, and drinking to our success. This hunt was no different, despite the language barrier we were able to get on quite well. The ability to speak eased up with the much anticipated arrival of acquaintance (now true comrade) Sergey Afanasyev who speaks perfect English. He warmly greeted us and welcomed us to his country, an act I must admit got me a little emotional.
The only hindrance to our ability now to communicate was the incessant Russian rap and disco that played in the restaurant. Even at breakfast, hung over, there was no escape. It was the usual suspects every night with the exception of the occasional nerve-wracking presence of the local police coming in to get a bite. They were just hungry but in a land where we had to register with the district police so that they knew we were in town made all manner of thoughts go through our heads. Another exception was May 1 st , a national holiday that brought dozens of locals to the restaurant for Russian Disco. The place got a little nuts.
We forged friendships and have stories that will last a lifetime, that is why we go.
The Road Home
One by one we all peeled off. The Polish team left first, then Farmer and most of the Russians, followed by myself then Robert Ward with the last of the Russians. We all stayed in contact via Facebook and text message with updates on customs and immigration, tips to spend extra time at the airport to buy souvenirs and even meteorites right at the gift shop, and status on how close to home we were getting. The grass grew close to four inches during my week there. New leaves will fall, stones will be covered. There is no one left in town to buy. With finds spread out so far I have little hope for continued meaningful recovery. Chelyabinsk will be remember for generations to come, Emazhelinka less so but it will be remembered by the few that went.
Some Things I'll Never Forget:
- Stepping out at the Chelyabinsk airport
- The bullpen of locals selling stones each night
- Mike Farmer's blister
- Finding my two stones, where I was and what I said
- Farmer's 800+ gram find some 30 feet from me
- Russian Disco
- Sergey Afanasyev's warm welcome
- Seeing ~20 cars in the peas section, families all out looking for small stones together
- Sergey Afanasyev explaining the secret of how to find more meteorites. Keeping that one to myself.
- Mike Farmer making me tea every morning
- The Russian man who greeted me in the field whilst holding a six inch knife, pucker moment.
- Sergey Petrokov showing me a bottle of vodka you have to break to get a small silver coin out of, doing so causing him to slice his hand open, and giving me the coin
- Mike Farmer losing his sunglasses in the field after slinging them in the V of his shirt. At the end of the day as the sun is setting we are headed back to the hotel when Robert decides sunglasses my help and puts some on. “Man these polarized sure do cut the glare.” To which Farmer replied “Yeah, I ****ing lost mine out in the field.”. “Oh, you wan buy shunglasses, I make goo price, got LayBan, CartYay, wha kine you want, make goo price?” replied Robert as he takes the glasses off and hands them to Farmer…Ward had found them in the field.
- That drive
- An awesome Dinner in Chelyabinsk with Dennis and Svetlana
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