Ten years ago today, I had just embarked upon one of the grandest adventure expeditions of my life. On July 6, 1999 I was staying in Room 639 of the Krasnojarsk Hotel, in the capital of Siberia, faced with a most difficult situation.
A few months earlier the eminent adventurer, science writer, and astronomer, Professor Roy Gallant invited me to join him on the first-ever international expedition to the Popigai Crater at the northern edge of Siberia, on the Tamyr Peninsula. This vast meteorite crater, approximately 100 km in diameter was formed about 35 million years ago by the cataclysmic impact of a large chunk of a stony asteroid. During World War II and on into the 1960s, the Russians mined great quantities of industrial grade diamonds from the crater, and those diamonds were formed by the heat and pressure of the meteorite impact.
A Russian Mi-8 helicopter lands our team inside the Arctic Circle
Planning the expedition was a logistical nightmare and would take Roy and his staff three years. Even though mining had ceased at the crater, it was still a top secret area and before we could travel there we had to be “invited” by the KGB. That was the easy part. There are no roads, trails or airstrips up there, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, so we were to be airlifted by ex-military helicopters. Airlifted right into the crater itself. And that’s where the trouble started. Although we held all the proper paperwork, and had paid all the proper gratuities, it seems we somehow neglected to grease the palm of one local province director. He was quite irritated by that and started leaning on the helicopter outfit to make trouble for us. Everyone on the eighteen-person team—nine Russians and nine Americans—realized that once we were dropped off at the edge of the world, the helicopter team might not come back to get us. There would be no hiking out from that spot but we voted unanimously to go anyway.
Soaring above the Arctic tundra on the way to the Popigai meteorite crater, Siberia
Before departing from the tiny, forsaken outpost of Khatanga, our team was treated to a fine lunch of red caviar and reindeer burgers, washed down with numerous glasses of exquisite Russian vodka, at the most northerly bar in the world. The team member seated next to me didn’t drink alcohol and—despite my insistent whispering in his ear: “It’s a big insult to our hosts if you don’t drink the vodka—he refused. My father’s parents were White Russians, so I felt it my honorable duty to drink his vodka as well, discretely swapping my empty glass for his, repeatedly. So, by the time we lifted off in the loud and rickety Mi-8 chopper, I was more than a little tipsy.
Our bright orange aircraft had no regular seats, just a long wooden bench on one side of the cabin. The bench was full, so I flopped down on our pile of luggage and equipment. The first officer quickly appeared and told me I couldn’t sit there. “But there’s nowhere else to sit,” I protested.
“Pliz leesten,” he insisted. “Begs are on top ov cargo door, you see? Sometimz in flight cargo door open by accident end all begs go fshhhoot, to ground. End you too.” So I got up without further complaint and eventually talked my way into standing at the rear of the flight deck.
Casting shadows on Siberia as we fly over endless pine forests
The Popigai Crater is so large that you cannot really tell you are inside it. There is a sense of being below ground level, and there are mountains of debris many miles away, but any understanding of the scale of the impact feature is difficult to grasp consciously. We spent nine days inside the crater, camping on two separate islands perched in the middle of the chilly Rassokha River that runs through it. We hiked, and we and traveled by raft. Our Russian comrades used just the one chainsaw to build a mess tent, seats, benches, a radio mast, and a cargo raft from the surrounding pine trees.
Home is where the canvas is: the warm and welcoming mess tent fashioned by our Russian comrades from Siberian pine trees
We weren’t looking for meteorites. The original impactor was rich in iron, and eroded away during the long millennia since the crater-forming event. But the meteorite’s signature was everywhere, in the form of impactites—terrestrial rocks that have been shocked, melted or otherwise altered by the effects of meteorite bombardment.
Katya, our translator and chief of staff found a marvelous fossil mammoth tooth during one of our raft trips
We also found mosquitos by the thousands. During the brief Arctic summer the sun never sets, the top few inches of tundra thaw out, and terrifying hordes of large Siberian insects appear to prey on reindeer and, in 1999, us. Despite the hardships, or perhaps because of them, it was an extraordinary adventure. I got to cross the Arctic Circle for the first time in my life, hike through the screaming wilderness with eminent Russian geologists, see the midnight sun, and spend more than a week inside one of the largest impact sites on earth. We even found some tiny diamonds, frozen forever inside melted rock.
View of the Painted Rocks from my campsite. The exposure reveals hundreds of feet of meteorite impactite that was once the floor of the crater. This photograph was taken exactly at midnight; the sun never set for the duration of our expedition.
I fell in love with Russia and will return one day, and here is the memory that sticks with me most vividly: On one of our last nights, after an arduous 14-hour voyage on river rafts, I stood with a group of Russian scientists on an unknown sandy island at 4 am, drinking vodka out of tin cups. With the assistance of our long-suffering translator, Katya, we began exchanging jokes, communicating properly, at last, through the universal language of humor. Several of those men were important researchers during the Cold War era and were denied the luxury of international travel. They had never met an American in real life, and the discovery that surprised and astonished them the most was that we—we Americans—had a sense of humor. What was the Politburo telling them about us?
We laughed long into what should have been the night (the sun never sets in July in Siberia), clinking tin cups together in the wind and understanding, at long last, that we Russians and Americans were not so very different after all.