Siberia lies in winter’s grip, snow carpeting the land, the rivers frozen. And here, a lonesome red deer moves through the cold, looking for something to eat. But suddenly the ground beneath its feet gives way, plunging it through the ice into the freezing river. Somewhat unexpectedly, the animal now faces a fight for its life, trapped and floundering in the deadly water. What’s more, in this forlorn landscape, even more danger looms.
Yes, because the deer’s desperate calls have alerted hunters to its location, and now they appear out of the gray. Fortunately for them, it seems they will have the simple task of finishing off the beast, and cooking up a banquet. And as the chill enters its body, it cannot be long before the deer perishes in nature’s deep freeze.
But as the men come closer, they realize they still face a problem. For moving the deer out of the river will be a tough challenge. Indeed, ice surrounds it, and it is some way from land. Nonetheless, one of them starts up his chainsaw and begins cutting into the ice. Perhaps the machine will even come in handy later for divvying up the corpse. Meanwhile, another uses a lance, or torch, to melt the path.
Now the events described were partially recorded on a YouTube video, uploaded in November 2018. But what happens next is far from what anyone could have imagined. And as millions of people came across it all over the internet, they became entranced by this life and death struggle. On that note, let’s learn more about the wilderness where this intriguing scene emerged.
So Siberia is an enormous region of Russia, comprising most of the east of the country. But although it has more than three-quarters of the nation’s landmass, it’s home to only a quarter of the entire population. Indeed, that’s around 36 million people, meaning there are only eight people per square mile. In short, Siberia is largely empty.
Yes, and most of it is covered in boreal forest, known in Russia itself as taiga. And this becomes a huge area of coniferous trees, mostly larch as one goes east. In the north, the forest gives way to the icy tundra. But in the south, where most people live, the weather is good enough for agriculture.
Now although the climate differs across the region, one thing’s for sure. In Siberia the winters are tough. Even in the warmer south, the cold grips for months. And the area includes some of the coldest towns in the world. For example, temperatures in Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon make them the northern hemisphere’s chilliest spots, with lows around the 90° F mark.
Furthermore, life can be brutally hard in these chilly climes. You see, the city of Yakutsk enjoys winter highs of -40 °F, which makes life outside of shelter almost unbearable. Indeed, one visitor told the Independent newspaper that just 13 minutes outdoors left them in severe pain. Furthermore, it’s so bad that gravediggers have to warm the ground for several days before any burial takes place. In spite of all this, though, 200,000 people still live there.
And, it’s not all bad. For tourists who love outdoors pursuits, it’s a Mecca, with plenty of space for hiking and enjoying snow sports. Furthermore, for those who like to take it slower, there’s plenty of beautiful scenery, lit by long twilights. Moreover, there’s the further satisfaction of knowing you’re visiting one of the most unspoilt landscapes in the world.
What’s more, it’s not all life in the deep freezer. For example, Summers are warm in the south, if short. And in any case, many Siberians enjoy the outdoors in winter. In fact, they even advertise their icy lakesides with women in bikinis and the slogan, “Our beaches may not have much sand, but they are certainly white.”
Interestingly, one region with plenty to do for visitors is Buryatiya, where the YouTube video of the deer was shot. In the east of Siberia, it contains the eastern shore of Lake Baikal. And the land is mountainous, with a number of rivers crisscrossing the terrain. As you might expect, much of the area is covered with taiga.
To add to that, it’s a relatively dry region, getting no more than 20 inches of rain a year. And unsurprisingly, Buryatiya has typically hard Siberian winters. However, one group of people well adapted to the changing of the seasons was the Buryats, the area’s indigenous people. For they once wandered around what is now Buryatiya as nomads, existing in felt tents and herding. But now they live in houses of wood.
Nowadays, Buryats partake in agriculture, but are greatly outnumbered by Slavic Russians, who colonized from the mid-17th century. Indeed, the Slavs sought furs and gold, and the region remains a center for mining, In addition, hunting and fur production are common in Buryatiya. As we’ll find out, though, despite living in an isolated area, people’s beliefs have changed over the years.
Indeed, many adopted Buddhism, and some Buryats still adhere to the religion. Meanwhile, the western Buryats became Orthodox Christians. But despite this adoption of mainstream religion, shamans and their practices were retained within this traditional culture. For example, they used kumys – fermented horse milk – for healing. Nowadays, though, most Buryats live in and around Ulan-Ude, Buryatiya’s capital.
Ranked the third biggest city in Siberia, Ulan-Ude is home to more than 400,000 people, according to the last census. Extraordinarily, however, the city remained closed to tourists until 1991, when the former Soviet Union collapsed. And it’s fair to say potential visitors were missing out. For not only does the city feature stunning old merchants’ residences, it’s also home to a 25-feet statue of Lenin’s head.
Not too far from Ulan-Ude is the River Barguzin. Now, it flows for 300 miles, partly through a valley between soaring mountains, before it ditches into Lake Baikal. Containing more water than all the Great Lakes combined, Baikal is the deepest lake on the planet. And of course, Barguzin is a large contributor of water to the lake. But what about the wildlife?
Well, among the animals hunted in the taiga, along the Barguzin, are sables. And these are a type of marten that is highly sought-after for its fur, ranging from dark brown to black. Crafty hunters themselves, they survive the difficult climate by sometimes even eating whatever wolves or bears leave behind.
Yes, there are bears! And it shouldn’t really be a surprise given they’re used as a symbol of Russia. And although their American cousins prefer open spaces, those in Russia thrive in the taiga or closed forests. Indeed, they eat almost anything and spend much of their time putting on the weight that sees them through hibernation.
And if the bear is the biggest animal in Siberia, the chipmunk is the smallest. Indeed, these furry cuties don’t even grow past ten inches. Although the Siberian chipmunk is named after the region, it actually originated in Korea. But you won’t see many chipmunks in the winter since they like to hide away in burrows, jammed with food. For you see, survival for wildlife out there in Siberia isn’t easy.
That’s right, and chipmunks themselves are prey for other animals in the region, such as weasels. Now these voracious hunters don’t let a bit of snow stop them, even if winter means food is scarce. For example, they’ll even chase prey into a house if needs be. And a related hunter, although it doesn’t much resemble a weasel, is the wolverine.
Indeed, the wolverine is more of a stinky bear than a slinky weasel. Although they like to scavenge, they can take on prey that’s much bigger than they are. And frozen food holds no fears for these ferocious animals: their teeth are made to slice through it even if it’s solid. Furthermore, among the animals that they will track are deer.
Now despite the threat of predators, the red deer in Siberia is well adapted to the winter cold. In fact, its fur coat thickens come every fall. But it’s still a fight to survive the treacherous conditions. And when one ran out onto the iced-over Barguzin River, not even a thick coat could keep it warm. Yes, crashing through the ice, the deer began calling out in panic. And unfortunately perhaps, its cries for help attracted the wrong kind of attention. That of nearby hunters.
So the video of this incident opens on a group of men working together around the snow and ice. Indeed, snow drifts through the air as one man uses a chainsaw to cut through, trying to get to the stricken deer. Meanwhile, another uses a torch to soften the slices his colleague makes. In the meantime, others are pulling on a rope.
Apparently, the men seem to be cutting a channel in the ice, in a bid to get to the deer. Then the camera pans to the animal, which is being hauled by an antler through the water way. Frustratingly, progress is slow. And we can only imagine the energy expelled by the men as they try to drag the deer out.
So while it moves through the cleared water, the deer pulls its head from side to side, its motions feeble. And its body is still covered with ice and snow, with the beast clearly feeling the effects of the cold. Gradually, inch by inch, the deer approaches the point where the men are cutting.
And finally, the deer gets to land. In fact, it’s lying on the snow, but it seems that the hair on its face has frozen. Worryingly, the animal seems barely able to move, and cannot be far from expiring. Soon, surely, the hunters will be able to feast, and this deer could provide a more than adequate banquet.
But oddly, none of the men puts the deer out of its misery. Instead, one of them removes his glove and rubs the animal’s body. Before long, he has both hands working to warm up the beast, and another man joins in. Sadly though, a close-up of the deer’s face shows that the animal doesn’t seem to be responding. So is it too late?
Well maybe so, but the men haven’t given up. In fact, they’ve built a small fire nearby, and it has started to burn strongly. However, what looks like a potential roast dinner in the Siberian cold is anything but. Yes, it’s clear that the men are not planning to cook the deer; instead, they are reviving the stricken animal. And as the blaze warms the beast, one of the hunters again takes off a glove to rub its foreleg.
So the branches crackle as the fire continues to burn brightly, but the deer does not seem to be improving. Sadly, it seems only able to limply move a leg here and there. And meanwhile, the men can be heard deep in conversation – with one pointing out, “We need to get it out of the cold.” Yes, the poor beast is going to need something more than a fireside.
Suddenly, an SUV plows through the snow cover, the only thing visible against a gray and white background. And as the vehicle powers on, it becomes clear that it is pulling a sled. Furthermore, on that sled, and held in by a tarpaulin and sturdy ropes, is the frozen animal. Maybe it’s not too late.
After being driven to a sheltered location, the deer is laid on the floor and given a chance to get warm. Although it is out of the cold, worryingly, it still has little vigor. So the men rub its legs and try to flex them to increase its circulation. But sadly, the beast shows no inclination to get up.
This time, the men try something a little different. Indeed, it’s time to try to “warm [the animal] from the inside,” one of them mutters. So one feeds the beast a lump of lard, and it’s a good sign. For the deer responds well, and seems happy to munch on it. And although it’s not included in the video, the deer is also given a little vodka – an arguably traditional remedy.
Astonishingly, it appears to work – the deer at last can sit up with its legs tucked under it. What’s more, it holds its head up, cleared completely of the ice and snow, and is evidently much stronger. Touchingly, those gathered in the outhouse laugh and joke as the mood lightens with the deer’s recovery.
Later, a small scattered group of people wait outside the shelter. And suddenly, there’s a flash of movement, as the deer runs back into the wild. In fact, those watching applaud as it gallops across the snow-covered ground and out into the nearby forest. But the question remains: why did the men take pity on the deer?
Well, in fact the video had shown a rescue led by Aleksej Baluev. For he’d had a call telling him that the beast was stuck in the river. And he’d rushed to get together a group of people to save it. So far from a bunch of hunters looking for ready-frozen venison, these men were apparently government workers, volunteers and vets.
And although the footage lasts just a few minutes, the team had actually worked for four hours to save the deer. But it was only when they’d gotten the beast back to a nearby town that it became mission accomplished. On that note, it was surely only a matter of time before this touching moment went viral online.
That’s right, after being uploaded in November 2018, the video caught the attention of YouTube viewers. And more than three million of them have watched the footage so far. What’s more, upwards of 22,000 people liked it. And in excess of 2,000 of those who saw it had something to say about the rescue.
Demonstrating how a heartfelt story can bring countries together, the most popular comments came from the U.S. and Russia. For example, American commenter Dev De Silva wrote, “Respect from U.S.A. to these compassionate men!” In the meantime, Oleg Sharalov said, “Well done. They didn’t kill it, but they let nature take the reins with the deer. Where there’s a good heart, there is always life.”
Many more of the comments came from those two “Cold War” nations. And seeing the kindness of these Russian men certainly had an impact on American citizens. For instance, YouTube visitor Alex&Maria Moreno captured the spirit that many expressed when they said, “You guys are amazing people. Thank you, from the U.S.A.”
So life can be tough in the taiga, with the slightest mistake punishable by death. Indeed, when the deer fell through the ice, it looked as though it had made that one fatal error. However, as it turned out, help was at hand. And thanks to Baluev and his team, not only was the deer saved, but the whole world got to see it.