The dog pricked up his ears, which was surprising because so far he hadn’t seemed all that bright. Vanya and I turned to look. At the edge of the clearing a man in a white woollen suit was just visible against the snow, returning our stares and clasping a rifle. For half a minute or so nobody moved or spoke. Vanya’s gun was out of reach, leaning against a tree stump. All around us the forest gaped. Apart from the crackle of twigs we were burning to ward off frostbite, silence reigned – and all waited to see if there would be blood.
The Bilimbé, the Lifudzin, the Sanhobé, the Iman; sometimes it’s the exotic sounds of places that turn a book into an inspiration. For me it was partly the names of these remote river systems and partly the excitements of Russia’s Far Eastern forests through which they course and where Vladimir Arseniev’s Dersu the Trapper is set that made them so irresistible I had to see them for myself.
Vanya, a descendant of Dersu’s tribe, was a squirrel hunter and we had walked up a frozen stream through ancient stands of pine in search of his quarry. Fearsome big predators – Siberian tigers and brown bears – were nearby, but as Arseniev tells us in his little known classic of adventure in remotest Siberia, ‘in the taiga . . . the most dangerous meeting of all is with a man’.
In 1902 Vladimir Arseniev was a 30-year-old captain in the Russian army. He had been posted to the Russian Far East to conduct military surveys of a mountain range called the Sikhote-Alin which was awash with bandits, ginseng hunters, native fur-trappers and ferocious wild animals. His orders were to reconnoitre thousands of kilometres of ridgelines and riverbeds to prepare for war with Japan, but Arseniev got hooked on wilderness adventure, and it took over his life.
Over the next twenty-five years, Arseniev led twelve major geographical expeditions and wrote sixty works on the nature and people of a densely forested region
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