July 26, 2011

Taimen Camp – Day 10

Ivana Roman and John Waldman Seining

Ivana Roman and John Waldman Seining

Taimen Camp – Day 10 It’s now 10 days at Taimen Camp and I still haven’t seen an aircraft in the mostly clear and, of late, sultry skies. We had arrived at the hinge of late spring and summer. The day before we came into camp it had snowed not far from here. Nights fell to about 40 degrees and it rained on and off. Rain came mainly in the form of localized thunderstorms caused by warmed air cooling as it crept over mountains. Indeed, the atmosphere here is remarkably calm, with almost no wind or cloud movement. But the corollary is if you get stuck in a storm, it sits over you for hours.

The Uur River was at first higher and alive with hatching insects and rising fish, but many dry days in the 80s has dropped the flow and slowed the fishing. Families come to the now warm Uur to swim, a treat provided only briefly by the Mongolian summer. And days last long here now not far from the Siberian border at more than 50 degrees north latitude, with faint light in the sky till midnight.

We’ve also had visitors, conservationists of different stripes. Mimi Kessler, a doctoral student from Arizona State University is accompanying us for much of our time at Taimen Camp. Mimi works on a rare bird, the Great Bustard, and needs to employ an unusual approach to radiotagging them to track their movements. Because Great Bustards are so shy, she can only approach to within about a kilometer. So she and her team sight them in fields in evening using spotting scopes. They then wait for nightfall and race up to the birds and confuse them with bright lights and a buzzing chain saw as they toss a net over them. Mimi likens it to how humans would feel if abducted by space aliens.

Extracting Contents from the Stomach of a Lenok fish

Extracting Contents from the Stomach of a Lenok fish

We’ll be leaving tomorrow for the next phase of the expedition, to Lake Hovsgol. It’s remarkable how four undergrad and graduate students who didn’t know each other have bonded into a crack research team, expertly collecting and sorting fish and invertebrate specimens. By now we have just about completed our fish specimens shopping list. No fish was safe in the Eg-Uur watershed, we caught them by fly fishing, spinfishing, electroshocking, seining, dipnetting, trapping, and trotlining. We haven’t examined the stomach contents of any taimen, but surprisingly we find a mouse head in the belly of the much smaller lenok fish.

Yesterday I floated several miles of the Uur by raft with Dr. Mendee Bud of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences to listen for the radiotagged taimen, Modern Talking. We found it holding in the pool below where we tagged it. Hopefully it will survive the fierce winter and be intercepted again next year.

Today Ivana, Tom, and I snorkel-survey a mile of the Uur. It’s a marvelous trip as we glide through rapids and kick through slow, clear water but we only see two taimen. Tom believes their numbers may have declined since his last visit to the river in 2005, something that deserves monitoring.

Blowtorching a goat for boodog dinner

Blowtorching a goat for boodog dinner

Tonight we hold a special event, a boodog or the rather unique preparation of a goat dinner. A goat is purchased but this time its throat is slit so that the skin of its torso remains intact. Then it is hung from the neck, with its hide slowly peeled back while its ribs are disarticulated and its organs removed, leaving a goat-skin sac with legs. Meanwhile many stones are heated in a fire. When the rocks are glowing, some water is poured into the goat sack and then ribs, chunks of meat, and potatoes are added. Natsag, Mimi’s Master’s student, repeatedly bounces the sack and then lets off steam, before another round of rocks, meat, and potatoes is added. When the skin is full the neck is sealed and out comes a vintage gasoline blowtorch. We’re not having creme brulee–the blowtorch is used to singe the hair off the skin.

When it’s all ready, we slice open the goat hide and pass bowls of meat, cooked skin, and potatoes up and down long tables we set up in the night air. The full moon has risen and our party of Americans and Mongolians toast, sing songs, and dance around the bonfire until late in the night to a little early Michael Jackson, but of course, mostly to Modern Talking. It’s the kind of simple honest joy that often erupts when people of disparate cultures work together and become friends, and it’s an experience we’ll all likely savor forever.