The pilot asked me, “Have you ever been in a helicopter before?”
And I thought back to 1993 when a group of wilderness friends and I joined adventurer Paul Schurke on a two-week rafting expedition on the Chukchi Peninsula of far-eastern Siberia. The plan was to stay in a Siberian community a few days before and after a rafting trip on one of the numerous rivers above the Arctic Circle.
We started the trip by flying from Anchorage to Kotzebue, then to Nome. The 230-mile last leg was in a nine-passenger Piper from Nome to Provideniya. The airport located seven miles from the small community of 3,000 can best be described as Third World.
We stumbled into the crowded airport and its mixture of Russians and native Chukhi. It was a dusty, dirty old wood-frame building with people elbow-to-elbow. The odor was like a boys’ locker room, and we felt like aliens as we watched a young boy pee into a chamber pot in the middle of the terminal. Even weirder was that we were in as remote an airport as there is in the world and suddenly a Chukchi kid walked by wearing a Chicago Bulls Basketball T-shirt celebrating their third NBA championship.
Then we met our guide, Vladimir, and his companion, an English teacher who would serve as our translator. They walked us across the apron to our waiting Aeroflot helicopter. In the background we saw new looking, spotless military-transport planes. Our helicopter, however, looked different. Very different.
The helicopter had been hand-painted a dull baby pink and blue, at least a decade previously. The entire upper fuselage was stained with black exhaust. The Aeroflot airline name and logo were primitively stenciled in black. It looked like a relic from the sixties, and it was.
It may have been naivete or the fact that I was ever the pragmatist, but I threw my gear in and climbed aboard preparing for takeoff. I figured the pilots didn't want to crash any more than I did. Or did they? I learned later that there is a .03% chance in a plane crash that the pilot DID want to crash. Comforting, isn’t it?
There were no seats or seat belts, we sat on the fuel tanks. The pilots were two garrulous guys who, although we couldn’t understand them, chatted whenever the noise allowed. The translator was nearby at one point and told us they took great pride that they were civilian trained helicopter pilots and not military.
One of them was short and stocky with slightly graying well-kept hair. He had a slight belly and always sported a cigarette. The other was tall and thin with bushy dark hair. He had a pointed nose and always wore a flight jacket. They both sported three-day old beards. They seemed friendly, and were, but they had a dark side we would learn about.
We took off for our destination, Egvekinot, a town of about 5500 located two-hundred and fifty miles northwest of Provideniya.
The Chukchi Peninsula is an area the size of Arizona, with a population of about 15,000 mostly indigenous people who were historically reindeer herders. Our route took us along the coasts of the Bering Strait and Bering Sea.
At one point we had an unscheduled landing at a tiny two-house settlement along the coast and the pilots traded a case of vodka for a couple of burlap bags of salmon. It seemed like a fair trade.
The question that kept cropping up in my mind was: “Where does Aeroflot fit in? Does the airline know they make these kinds of stops?” There was no communication with things like control towers or the office. There was no oversight. The pilots ran the show, and we were at their mercy.
Before long we landed in Egvekinot. In 1946 it was created by gulag labor as a seaport to ship tin and tungsten ore mined two-hundred miles to the north. Egvekinot, like virtually all Russian communities in this part of the world, had no tourist accommodations so we stayed with families in their apartments.
The morning of the third day we met again at the airport (a generous description for the concrete pad), with our intrepid pilots. They appeared unusually eager to fly us north to start our rafting adventure. We would soon understand why.
We loaded two helicopters with our gear, food, and rafts, and headed north, above the Arctic Circle. We landed in the middle of a large wilderness by the Amguema River.
The countryside was open, stark, and beautiful. Wildflowers and grasses were abundant, but trees weren’t – we were in the treeless tundra. It was sunny, with the temperature an unexpectedly warm seventy-two degrees. We started to inflate our rafts (by hand pumps) and quickly realized they weren’t your state-of-the-art whitewater rafts found throughout North America but were life rafts with domed survival-shelter tops. I hoped they were surplus and that some Russian ship on the North Sea wasn’t missing its life rafts, but who knew? Instead of real paddles they had tiny wooden handled, metal blade paddles like I had seen in survival movies.
I didn’t think anything about the pilots hanging around and that they were in no rush to leave. After an hour we got everything sorted, loaded, and were ready to go. Vladimir reviewed with the pilots where we would be picked at the trip's end.
We had no idea what was going on, but the tone of the conversation appeared to get tense. There was a back and forth between Vlad and the pilots. Finally, Vlad came over to us and said, “They want more money to meet us when we finish.”
It took a few seconds for the translation to register, but suddenly it was clear. We were being shaken down.
I was not a novice traveler. I’d sailed around Newfoundland and throughout the Caribbean. I’d traveled through Guatemala, throughout Europe including numerous Iron Curtain countries, the Middle East, and India. I’d heard horror stories from friends who’d been shaken down from Mexico to India, but I had never had the privilege. I thought I was immune, but obviously I’d just been lucky since there we were being asked for several hundred bucks by supposed Aeroflot helicopter pilots. I tried to imagine a Southwest Airline pilot walking down the aisle letting us know that they weren’t going to land at our destination unless we all ponied up more money. It was impossible.
Paul said, “How much cash do we have among us?”
We dug our wallets out of our packs and between us found three-hundred American dollars. We gave it to the pilots in the hope that we’d be picked up ten days later. The reality was, even with the extra money, we had no way of knowing for sure that they’d be waiting for us.
We finally got in our rafts and headed down the river. Aside from the extortion we had a great trip rafting through spectacular country, visiting native reindeer herders, catching Arctic grayling and salmon, and drinking too much vodka with the citizens of Egvekinot.
All in all, it was a great trip, but when you’re 3800 miles from home but there's nothing that shakes you up quite like a shakedown.