Mobility in the tundra: how to use the old snowmobiles in the summer

From my field notes: “It is still early morning, 4th of August, 2021. I am waiting for a telephone call from a Nenets woman whom I had met yesterday in Aksarka. She had said that she is from Laborovaia and is going to travel there by a rented car. For her it was the only opportunity to travel to the tundra with her three little children. The price of the trip is rather high, therefore she was looking for poputchiki – ‘fellow travellers’. We had made an agreement that she would call me when she would arrive in Salekhard, the capital city of the Yamal region, which is along the way to Laborovaia, another village near the Ural Mountains”.

Roads in Salekhard. Photo. Roza Laptander.

I did all the necessary shopping and bought a big bag of fresh bread, too, which is a classical way of travelling to the tundra, with no bakery around for many kilometers. When, at last, a car, called in Russian bukhanka – “a loaf of bread” because of it’s form, arrived at Salekhard, it was around lunch time. I loaded all my bags into the car and we started our long trip. 

The UAZ-452 or in Russian ‘bukhanka’ is a family of cab over off road vans  produced at the Ulianovsk Automobile Plant (UAZ) since 1965. Photo. Roza Laptander.

Originally, we had planned that the trip to Laborovaia would take us 5 hours. In reality, it took much more time. 

We only left Labytnangy and went for 10 kilometers along the moto-way to the north, when our driver said that the car needs reparation. We returned back to Labytnangy and stayed there for three more hours. Even after checking out three different car service centres, no one wanted to repair our old bukhanka. So, our driver asked somebody to help him.

The road Labytnangy-Laborovaia. Photo. Roza Laptander.

Only at six o’clock in the evening the car got the needed repairs and was ready to travel along the mountains and rocky road to our final destination – the village of Laborovaia. At that point we were tired and hungry, but only a few kilometers away from the crowded human habitation, when we saw the beautiful landscape of the Ural Mountains, we forgot about our difficult beginning of the trip.

Only mountains can be better than mountains. Photo. Roza Laptander. 

On some points of the rocky road, with pits and potholes, our wreck of a car could only drive 20 km/h. We arrived at Laborovaia at night, around two o’clock. After a quick tea and putting on tundra clothes, we started another exciting part of our trip to the tundra, this time on a snowmobile. It was much easier and faster than by car. 

People in the tundra had started to use their snowmobiles for travelling in the summer several years ago.

In the Laborovskaia tundra. Photo Roza Laptander.

Even though some people have ATVs and they are aware it is not good for the condition of the vehicles, it is still the only means of transportation, which is very suitable and good for travelling in the tundra, even in the summer. This means that tundra people use means of transportation in a way that is suitable for their contemporary life.  As I understand, they use the snowmobiles for travelling in the summer only on the wet and flat landscape. While in the rocky mountains it is better to travel on ATVs. 

On the way. Photo. Roza Laptander.

6 thoughts on “Mobility in the tundra: how to use the old snowmobiles in the summer

  1. Thank you for this interesting entry, Roza. You will recall that we saw a herder using a skidoo in the northern Yamal tundra in 2014. I have some nice video of that, from Mordy-yakha, but am not sure whether or how such videos can be uploaded here. I will ask Florian. In the late 1980’s I was traveling up and down the coastline and fiords of northeastern Baffin Island with Inuit from Clyde River. The skidoos there are used mainly on sea ice for hunting and on or around settlements in winter when the ground is covered – mostly – with snow. However, the snow is not deep and in spring the snow cover on land melts long before the sea ice, which back then was sometimes still viable for travel to outpost camps and for hunting into mid- or even late-July. This meant that people needed to often cross dry, rocky patches of ground, They of course knew this shortened the life of the skidoo, but it was essential. As you mentioned, people have ATV’s for using over rough, dry terrain. However, I saw that the skidoos helped bridge the gap between seasons and types of terrain when travesing long distances. For example, it took us two days to travel between Clyde River and the settlement of Broughton Island, about 400 km to the south. We had to cross some pretty hard terrain with the skidoo being used like an ATV-skidoo hydrid. There, as here in northern Fennoscandia, I cannot help but notice how hunters and herders are experts in traveling efficiently and safely, whatever the form of transport. The Inuit of Clyde extended the hunting season each spring/summer as far as possible via their consummate skill and creativity in navigating sometimes rapidly rotting sea ice and jumping across cracks between ice floes, with fully loaded trailers in tow. As i was always a passenger on the trailer, I very much appreciated their skill in driving, as well as in making essential motor repairs far away from any settlement.

  2. Roza Laptander

    Dear Bruce,
    Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, it is a very interesting point. I do not remember when I saw for a very first time somebody driving a snowmobile in the summer. Probably it was during our field trip to the Mordy-Yakha in 2014.
    Later I noticed that people travelled on snowmobiles only for a short distance, e.g. only for collecting wood or for transportation of drink water from the nearest tundra rivers or lakes.
    However, I know that at present tundra people use more snowmobiles than reindeer for travelling for a long distance trips to the settlements or for visiting other family members or friends.
    You know, in the summer semi-nomadic Nenets people are less mobile, because not everybody has cars or ATV.
    This trip surprised me also because I have never seen before that somebody travelled on a snowmobile for 30 kilometers in the summer. During this trip we also crossed rivers and streams by snowmobile.
    Here I need to add more about a car: I wrote it as bulka, but then I corrected it’s name to bukhanka. I know this car only as bulka, because the expression bulka kheba ‘a loaf of bread’ is more common for a female language. While this car’s name bukhanka is used more by men. These are definitely gender-based variations of the same car’s names.

    1. Dear Roza…

      yes, thanks for this posting. Your piece reminded me of a few things… the work of Tanya Argounova Low on road biographies in Siberia for example. As well as a little article I co-wrote with a student on hybrid Karakat trucks. These are used on Lake Peipus in the winter for fishing. This rather large water body forms part of the Estonian/Russian border and the trucks are equipped with massive pneumatic tyres to help them remain buoyant on the slippery and sometimes slushy melting ice.

      If you’re interested, the paper is available on OA at the following link:
      https://www.jef.ee/index.php/journal/issue/view/16

      @ BRUCE… I reckon you’re the same BF that taught human-env. relationships as a replacement for Prof Pat Thornton for a time?

      All best, Patrick

      1. Roza Laptander

        Dear Patrick,

        Thank you so much for your reaction and the article you shared here. That is really interesting indeed. Yes, I am familiar with Tanya Argounova-Low’s works, thank you.
        These hybrid Katarat machines reminded me also that I had forgotten to mention that in Siberia people make from this bukhanka car different experiments and hybrids. Sometimes local mechanics could put this car on very high wheels, making by this way some kind of a technical “bastard”, which is in any case, very practical in use, but very ugly in design.

  3. fstammle

    Thank you for sharing this stories, Roza and Bruce!

    I found the local variation of these practices fascinating : this seems to depend very much on the micro-terrain. But also of the general social-economic situation and land use practices. For example, the tundra people who do long distance migration with big herds in the tundra – a lot of them still move all their households and gear on reindeer – not on snowmobiles.
    Last year e.g. Leva Serotetto told me that someone had tried to convince him to buy a 4 wheeler and equip it with these big swamp-mud tracks that allow it go almost everywhere. But he said it’s so expensive, so heavy and so clumsy that reindeer outperform it by far!
    But then on the other hand, herders in Tambey tundra have been using snowmobiles in summer for a much longer time. Also probably because their migrations are shorter. They even move camps on snowmobiles on terrain without snow cover.
    I remember a prensentation by Konstantin Klokov about Kolguev Nenets that they have been using burany for a long time in summer. And he showed a nice video.
    In the Polar Urals, that wouldn’t less viable I guess: the terrain is so stony that the track and reels (gusennitsa and khodovka) wear out too fast. So then people in Laborovaia, would they have then snowmobiles for winter, special snowmobiles for between the seasons, and 4-wheelers for the summer going over stones? So, no reindeer used any more?
    Interesting about the bulka / bukhanka: I had never heard the female term for the car used. Well, I guess I’m a man after all…:)
    Best
    Florian

    1. Roza Laptander

      Dear Florian.

      That is a good point. Thank you. Yes, you are right, in the Laborovaia area they use in the summer only old snowmobiles and they use new for the winter. Local Nenets have reindeer, but much less in number than they had before, because of the difficult previous years, when many reindeer died during icing. Even though nowadays tundra people use different means of transport, reindeer are very essential in their life. As I understand, reindeer herders are trying all these new innovations not just because they want to leave their reindeer herding work, but they are looking for different possibilities to save their traditional way of life in the tundra and to develop it further.

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