One of my career’s favorite assignments was for National Geographic/Adventure, documenting the ever-ongoing migration of Komi reindeer herders who live north of the Arctic Circle in Russia. These people had never before been visited by foreigners (although the men had served in the Russian army) and they lived a unique lifestyle blending old and new. In truth, writer Gretel Ehrlich and I only stumbled upon them by accident. We had expected to be traveling with the better-known Nenet herders.
As this photo suggests, the setting was awe inspiring. Here the clan is moving across the tundra, en route to their next camp in the distant taiga forest, where they can find firewood to burn for cooking and heat. The long poles on the sleds are for their reindeer-skin tipis, which they erect and take down with every move. Everything they own is on those sleds, and in order to keep finding new lichens for their herd of 2500 reindeer (not pictured) to eat, they can never stay in one place for too long. For all of their hardships, however, they are proud of their culture and are deeply in love with the tundra.
Sadly, though, scenes like this may soon happen no more, if they have not already disappeared. For over a decade, younger women have refused to put up with this rigorous life and prefer to raise their children in Arctic villages with stores and television. When we visited, this clan — which was the last nomadic Komi one — it consisted of only three elderly women (who still drive and pack sleds), one of their daughters, and about a dozen of their middle-aged sons, who stay on the land primarily to care for their mothers, who never want to leave the land. When these women die or become too aged to travel (which may already have occurred) this lifestyle will be gone forever. Ironically, it will be virtually impossible to discover how and when this happens because the Russian government barely knows about the Komi and the setting is too remote and difficult for almost any outsider to reach.
This coverage was jointly sponsored by the National Geographic Expeditions Council and /Adventure/ Magazine. Later, I was awarded the Lowell Thomas award for best travel photography for my pictures, and Gretel won another award for her story.