This summer, an expedition of Russian adventurers arrived in Dillingham to retrace an historic route taken by Russian explorers in 1830, when Alaska was under the control of the Russian Empire.
The visitors are greeted in Dillingham by an enthusiastic local crowd. 30 residents are packed into the senior center to meet the expedition of 12 Russians and one American. Everyone is sharing in a potluck dinner of salmon dip, moose with vegetables, all local of course. For dessert: two cakes, one emblazoned with the Russian and American flags, and a second that reads “Welcome to Our Russian Friends.”
Standing between the crowd and their dinner, though, are several welcome speeches. Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby highlights the historical significance of the visit.
“We’re especially honored that in this year when we commemorate the sale of Alaska from Russia to the U.S. that you’ve chosen Bristol Bay for your 2017 expedition,” Ruby said.
The journey is led by Dr. Mikhail Malakhov, a trained phsycian who also happens to be an explorer. He made a name for himself in Russia by venturing to the North Pole. This is his tenth trip to Alaska, a fascination sparked by his connection to another Russian explorer named Lavrenty Zagoskin, who died in Malakhov’s hometown.
On his trips through Alaska, he’s chasing a shadow of his forefathers’ experiences first exploring the region.
“I have the same feelings and I know it’s exactly like Vasiliev had 200 years ago, like Zagoskin had 170 years ago,” Malakhov said. “I can read history, not through official papers, not through official reports, archives, just through nature and for me it’s like machine to go back to history.”
That first name he mentioned, Vasiliev, that’s a reference to Ivan Yakovlevich Vasiliev, another Imperial explorer, and one who navigated an impressive journey through Southwest Alaska. Malakhov’s team is retracing a route Vasiliev took in 1830 up the Wood River, through the Tikchik lakes to the Kuskokwim River. At that time Russians had over-hunted most of the beaver in the Nushagak and were looking for a new stocks .
Malakhov places a high value on historical accuracy.
“Yeah, I am reading quite a lot. Archives and books of professional historical people and actually it’s usually it takes many months to prepare any type of expedition,” Malakhov said.
In addition to enjoying nature and reliving history, Malakhov hopes his trips will foster relationships with people living in the region.
“Doesn’t matter what’s going there on the political level, yeah,” Malakhov said. “But between people, our relations is getting much more open and we are glad to be here again.”
As part of that goal, the Russian expedition helped erect a monument to John W. Clark and to Fedor Kolmakov. Clark was one of the people who helped found the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery. He also established the Alaska Commercial Company, which was the successor to the trading post run by Fedor Kolmakov at Nushagak.
Placing the monument was also a bit of a break from travelling for the Russians.
After the diplomacy of the potluck, the group is about to launch from Snag Point. The occasion is a mix of each adventurer’s personal preparations. Some chat with friends they’ve made during their brief time in Dillingham. Others play music or dance.
The last step is to pack all the provisions into six kayaks. Dr. Malakhov’s younger son, Alexi Malakhov told the potluck crowd that on top of catching fish, the group is packing it plenty of it’s own supplies.
“We have canned meat, canned chicken, and rice, noodles, yes and different delicious stuff like Nutella,” Alexi Malakhov said.
The youngest member of the group is just 14 years old. While his older compatriots take their time getting their things in order, Ivan Korobov is already set, standing by his kayak in the water, excited for the trip.
“It’s quite cool,” Korobov said. “I think it will be very difficult and we’ll, I hope we’ll not have a lot of problems, but I think it will be very cool and very fascinating, you know.”
Despite the difficulty of a three week kayaking expedition, Korobov has time to appreciate the natural beauty of the area.
“Here is very peaceful and a lot of good places, very good fish that here is everywhere and we’ll always see this here,” Korobov said.
Korobov and the rest of the team will have plenty of time to take in the scenery. Their kayak trip is scheduled to take three weeks, but their last expedition to Bristol Bay was two weeks late. Malakhov said that won’t happen. This time around, their plane tickets back are non-refundable.