When it happened, on the way back home, I was still daydreaming, replaying over and again in my mind the capture of a semilegendary behemoth of a fish I had been pursuing off and on for 17 years.
At about 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, the pilot of our Aeroflot L410 had an abrupt change of mind halfway down the mix of mud and loose stones that passed for an airstrip at the Collective Farm Poliny Osipenko. And the dream shattered in the ugliest way.
We had stopped to refuel there, and an unexpected crowd of heavily laden country folk had clambered aboard to join our small group of Americans, who had been fishing far to the north in the dense forest of the Khabarovsk region of Russia's Far East.
We thought we had a private charter, but somebody had been a little overenterprising and had sold off all the extra seats. And then some. Come takeoff time, the L410, a high-wing turboprop plane, reacted to its unexpected load like an abused mule. It picked up speed sluggishly. Then the port-side wheel lost traction in the mud and the captain hit everything he could to abort. He had already retracted the nose wheel. Then the port wheel collapsed. The plane bounced violently down the strip, much like a flat stone skipping on the water. It came to a sliding, shuddering halt 10 yards from the first of the thick-trunked trees.
We bolted from the wreck, but there was no explosion. Minutes later, still panting in the ramshackle hut that served as Poliny Osipenko's terminal building, I turned to Ruslan Galliulin, the student from Moscow University who had been interpreting for us. He was white-faced and looked ready to cry.
"Hey," I said, "come on. We're O.K. We haven't even lost our baggage."
But Galliulin was inconsolable. "The bastards," he was muttering. "The bloody, bloody bastards."
We had been in the wilderness a week with no radio. And, a day late, Galliulin had just learned that the tanks of the reactionary junta were rolling through the streets of Moscow.
I took the first steps on the road to this strange moment back in the early '70s, when the cold war was still in its deep-frozen stage. It had all begun in one of the laboratories in the labyrinthine depths of the British Natural History Museum on London's Cromwell Road. I had gone there to meet Dr. Alwyne Wheeler, an ichthyologist of international repute, because I had become obsessed with an exotic species and I needed his expertise and his connections.
To Wheeler, the fish in question was Hucho hucho hucho; to me it was the huchen, or Danube salmon—though for years the Danube had been too dirty to support it in most of its course. As I had hoped he would, Wheeler worked a piece of magic for me. Through a colleague at a university, he finagled me permission to fish in eastern Czechoslovakia on the Polish border. And I duly caught, and released, my Danube salmon (SI, March 3, 1975). As with many magical experiences, though, there was a drawback. In this case it came in the form of some casual words from Dr. Karol Hensel, the Czech scientist who accompanied me on my trip. The previous year, Hensel said, he had been in Mongolia on a zoological survey and had camped on the banks of one of the rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, which is said to be the world's deepest body of fresh water.