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magazine / dec10

December 2010 issue


Eyes on the tiger

A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
By John Vaillant
Alfred A. Knopf Canada
329 pp.,
The ways in which people relate to the land are of great interest to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that explores this subject so well. Vancouver writer John Vaillant, whose first book, The Golden Spruce, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, really drew me into this amazing story about a tiger “engaged in a vendetta” in the Primorye area of eastern Russia. The Tiger could have so easily been just another sensational account about poachers and a carnivore on a killing rampage, and I felt uneasy about reading it. I carry a lot of baggage about poachers in Russia, because for 12 years, I struggled to protect grizzly bears at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, with tragic results. I don’t even like to think about Russia’s Far East anymore. But despite my apprehension, Vaillant caught my interest and held it while teaching me many things.

I have travelled along Primorye’s Amur River, turf of the Amur tiger, the world’s most formidable land predator. At the Wildlife Foundation office in Khabarovsk, I held in my hand the largest tiger skull in the group’s collection. Although shorter, it was more impressive than the collection’s largest brown bear skull, which I balanced in my other hand. The Amur tiger can grow to more than three metres long and weigh nearly 300 kilogram, but despite its size, habitat loss and the lucrative lure of smuggling body parts and pelts across the border into China have conspired to endanger the animal.

Beyond this theme, Vaillant thoroughly researched his main characters — tiger conservation squad leader Yuri Trush, a blend of “kind and playful neighbour” and “wilderness cop ready to throw down at a moment’s notice,” and poacher/subsistence hunter Vladimir Markov, a man trying to eke out a living in the taiga — and weaves them into the narrative in ways that make them endearing. Especially the ones who were eaten. Even while they were being eaten.

But what I found most interesting is how Vaillant delves into the fear, resentment and danger such deadly encounters perpetuate among those who think they own the land, while indigenous peoples who exist in harmony with the land live fearlessly, as if the respect with which they regard the Earth and its creatures keeps them safe. This disparity, he writes, “is traceable to a fundamental conflict — not just between Russians and indigenous peoples, but with tigers — around the role of human beings in the natural world. In Primorye, ambitious Russian homesteaders operated under the assumption that they had been granted dominion over the land — just as God had granted it to Noah, the original homesteader.” This point is especially poignant to me, because I put up with this attitude all the years I ranched in “grizzly-ridden,” Bible-pounding southern Alberta.

Compared with what has gone on in Russia over the past few centuries, we’re very sheltered in North America. Vaillant mines Russian history deep enough to see that considering the way violence has defined so many lives, nothing else could be expected in Primorye. The death of Markov is part of a continuum, although Vaillant speculates that Markov probably would still be alive if he never had a firearm. Long ago, guns eliminated our need to get along with animals of the forest.

Over the past 50 years, I have worked hard at exploring ways to peacefully cohabitate with animals as formidable as the grizzly bear. Had I lived in tiger country, I wonder whether I would have had the imagination or the guts to explore the same questions. Probably not, because the “czar,” as natives of Primorye call the tiger, makes the grizzly look like a would-be vegan that can’t quite give up eating fish. Of course, there was no opportunity to live in close contact with tigers as I did with grizzlies — and thanks to their endangered status, there probably never will be. But Vaillant’s book opens a window into the possibility of living peacefully with many of the planet’s fearful creatures. After all, before the Russians came to Primorye, the region’s indigenous peoples coexisted with the Amur tiger for thousands of years.

Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell is a naturalist and the author of Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka. He lives in Twin Butte, Alta.

Audio interview with John Vaillant: The Tiger

Northern son

Journeys Through the Changing High Arctic
By Jerry Kobalenko
Greystone Books
208 pp.,
Truly representative Arctic photography, says veteran northern trekker Jerry Kobalenko, is hard to find. Collections of pictures from the region tend to focus on its wildlife, but Arctic Eden — Kobalenko’s second book on the North after 2002’s The Horizontal Everest — focuses on features of the High Arctic other observers might dismiss as being barren. He has captured rich, colourful images of polynyas, glaciers, rose rocks, polar mirages and sastrugi (and has included a glossary). And while Arctic Eden does contain vivid wildlife photos — five young Arctic hares huddled together napping; a curious Arctic wolf peeking into an open tent — the book is dominated by dramatic pictures of the region’s majestic, sprawling landscapes.

Seamlessly combining history, adventure, memoir and photography, Arctic Eden intertwines personal tales of Kobalenko’s travels on Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Devon islands with the stories of the explorers who visited before him. A regular contributor to Canadian Geographic, with more than 35 Arctic trips under his belt, Kobalenko creates beautiful images not just with his camera but also with his descriptions of the place he so clearly loves: “Emptiness is rarely this pure. Once an Arctic fox wandered like a line of haiku through the scene. Then nothing for several more days.” Indeed, Arctic Eden is written so passionately, it could inspire even the warmest-blooded Canuck to head north.

Mandy Savoie

Read a Q&A with Jerry Kobalenko.

From here to eternity

Expanding the Boundaries of Cartography
By Michael J. Coulis and Matthew J. Rangel
University of Alberta Libraries
92 pp., $25 softcover
Not a single text but a shared volume transected into two collections of work with mirroring titles and subtitles, running from opposite covers to meet in the centre of the book, Neatline/Cartography publishes the works of two cartographer-artists who exhibited at the University of Alberta earlier this year. Other than sharing a gallery, a middle initial and the broad theme of integrating personal experience into spatial data, these two works have little in common.

“Transect” describes not only the format but also the images that Matthew J. Rangel produced on his walk due east from his hometown in California’s San Joaquin Valley into the looming peaks of the Sierra Nevada. His sparsely coloured mixed-media works map his route precisely, but their most apparent theme is human interaction with nature. Anecdotes, images and sketches are overlaid atop landscape backgrounds, illustrating what Rangel terms “the shifting and layered histories of the land.” The resulting images starkly represent some of California’s best-known landscapes in unfamiliar, even ominous ways.

Michael J. Coulis’ maps are equal parts meditation on bicycle touring and reflection on grief over the loss of his wife in a car accident. His erudite musings on life, death, consciousness and physicality are juxtaposed with the bright, almost childlike watercolour maps of his journey. Peppered with reflections on connecting with the landscape and the grind of the journey, parts of Coulis’ work are intensely personal. Other observations are sure to be familiar to all who have travelled by bike and know the struggle and elation that seemingly unending locomotion can bring.

Tyrone Burke


By Farley Mowat
McClelland & Stewart
210 pp., $32.99 hardcover
Throughout his long and prolific career, Farley Mowat has been no stranger to controversy. Most famously, a 1996 cover story in Saturday Night questioned the truthfulness of his 1963 classic Never Cry Wolf. For his part, Mowat has called the distinction between fiction and non-fiction arbitrary. Whether readers love or hate his colloquial storytelling, Mowat has long been a feature on the Canadian literary landscape. In recent years, the octogenarian’s output has slowed somewhat, but his celebrated style is in evidence from page one of Eastern Passage, which addresses Mowat’s critics but, more broadly, recounts his turbulent personal life and struggle to become a writer on his own terms upon returning to Canada after the Second World War. His voice remains as distinct as his themes do familiar. There are obtuse bureaucrats, a reverence of animals, sympathy for aboriginal peoples and a maverick protagonist always on the side of right.

Tyrone Burke

By Mark Schacter
Fifth House Publishers
192 pp.,
To Mark Schacter, roads are symbolic of human ambition, the need to conquer nature and to leave something permanent behind. In his first book, the self-taught photographer (and professional business consultant) explores this idea with his camera and pen. Whether it’s a dirt road winding through trees on Prince Edward Island or the night streets of Québec punctuated by the bright lights of its buildings, Schacter’s atmospheric photography is crisp. Much of his writing, on the other hand, is muddled. He spends too much time explaining his pictures and philosophizing about photography instead of letting the images breathe. Nonetheless, Schacter’s images and words make the case that through wildly divergent landscapes and seasons, the road is what holds Canada together. Roads is a great way to take a cross-country road trip if your budget or schedule don’t allow for the real thing.

Mandy Savoie

Life at the Top of the World
By Wayne Lynch
Firefly Books
240 pp.,

Science writer and wildlife photographer Wayne Lynch has been travelling to the Arctic for more than 30 years, has 50 books to his name and is one of the most-published nature photographers in Canada. It’s no surprise, then, that his intimate photographic compilation of Arctic wildlife, Planet Arctic, is as diverse as it is stunning. Lynch captures images of dozens of adorable creatures (and the very grotesque walrus), displaying their most idiosyncratic behaviour — a beluga rubbing itself on gravel to hasten its moulting process, powerful muskox standing shoulder to shoulder to fight an enemy. Complete with Lynch’s authoritative text tidbits about the animals, Planet Arctic is a great pick for any wildlife enthusiast who wants to get up close and personal with the Arctic’s furry, feathered and aquatic residents.

Mandy Savoie

Endangered Species Memory Game
By Anouk Bikkers
Anouk’s Ark
Gather around, children: what do you know about the blue whale? “They’re beautiful,” says daughter number one. “They’re the biggest animals in the whole wide world,” says daughter number two.  You’re both right — but were you also aware that the species is in deep trouble?

Featuring original hand-drawn pictures of 36 endangered animals on pairs of matching cards made from recycled paper and vegetable-based inks, the Endangered Species Memory Game is a great way for kids to learn about some of the challenges facing the natural world while, yes, having fun at the same time. The art — a red wolf wearing old-school ice skates, a marine otter soaping up its armpits — makes the species memorable for smaller conservationists, as if children don’t already concentrate better (and win more often) than adults when playing board games. At around $30 a pop, the price may not be right for all budgets, but consider this when Christmas shopping: the product is made in Toronto by an artist/entrepreneur who shares at least one percent of her profits with environmental causes. For more info, and more products by Anouk Bikkers, go to

Dan Rubinstein


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