Nenets are reindeer herders. Their livelihood depends wholly upon their livestock and each brigade migrates hundreds of kilometres every year with their herd in chase of fresh pastures. Reindeer herding provides income, but also most of the resources they need to survive: transport, food, shelter, and clothing.
Our mission was to join the Nenets and their 3,500 strong herd of reindeer on their longest migration of the year, a crossing of the frozen Gulf of Ob – the longest estuary in the world, connecting Yamal’s administrative centre of Salekhard to the Arctic Ocean. Over two days, we would cross the southern tip of the gulf to reach the town of Yar Sale, just in time for the annual Reindeer festival.
But first, we needed to prepare for the migration ahead, spending time observing and adapting to a life so far removed from what we know in the western world. A life so unsettlingly isolated, yet comfortingly simple and somehow familiar in many ways.
Our home for the next eleven days would be a small collection of Chums – portable, teepee-style tents constructed from a frame of wooden poles and insulated against the freezing conditions with the skins and furs of dozens of reindeer. The Chums are small, but comfortably fit large families and guests.
As an expedition group, we were divided amongst the families and assigned a Chum to stay in. Despite the language barrier, we soon formed strong bonds with our families, playing games with their children, showing them pictures of our homes, and attempting to help with household duties like ice collection, wood chopping, and meal preparation. Perhaps one of the most challenging everyday tasks though was going to the bathroom. A lengthy trek to the tree line through soft, uncompacted snow, merciless in trapping its victims down to their waist if they dared take a wrong step. A fate which provided us with ample comic relief as we watched our counterparts disappear into the powder.