Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2004


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The Tundra by Tank

The Tundra by Tank

Professor Siver called a Russian tank “home” for his summer research

by Carolyn Battista

Last spring, Professor of Botany Peter A. Siver was eagerly e-mailing Russian colleagues who’d invited him to join their expedition north of the Arctic Circle. Their mission was to help document the diversity of algae in Russia. “How will the field sampling take place?” he asked. “How will we get to the sites on the tundra?”

“We will take a land cruiser,” they e-mailed back. Siver recalls that he envisioned a kind of Toyota.

But his colleagues simply used “land rover” as a generic term for something that cruised the land — something that turned to be a Russian tank. “I think it was from World War II,” says Siver. “They’d just taken off the gun turret and expanded the storage.”

In July, outside the far northern city of Vorkuta, he boarded the tank, for what would be the trip of a lifetime. Also aboard were two microbiologists (both women), a geologist and two students, all from St. Petersburg State University. Completing the crew were a driver and mechanic.

Siver was delighted to be in a land of permafrost. A faculty member at CC since 1990, he has long studied algal floras, particularly diatoms and chrysophytes with his students. Recently they’ve focused on northern climates, including areas where, he says, “People don’t think these organisms exist, but they do.” The tundra, he adds, “was really beautiful, except for the insects.” Mosquitoes and black flies attacked steadily throughout the 10-day trip.

Tank travel itself was “exciting — at first.” There was no steering wheel; the driver used both hands and both feet to work levers. On the very first day of the expedition, en route to the farthest sampling site, the tank rumbled over uneven ground and through mighty rivers. Then trouble started.

“The massive machine went down an embankment, then came up on a rock. One side was raised off the ground, with the track spinning,” says Siver, who with three other men was on the outside of the tank. That was fortunate, because with the tank’s door was sunk in thick, wet clay. “The people inside couldn’t get out,” he says. Also inside were his boots and all the food.

After several unsuccessful attempts to extricate the tank, the men outside considered walking back — but how could they could cross the cold, deep, fast-flowing rivers? Siver suggested radioing for help. But, he says, they were out of range for any radio communication.

Finally, the three men were able to dig a hole behind a boulder, pound a pole into the hole, and use cable to help pull the tank over small willow branches laid on the soggy ground. After 18 hours of work (during which a student broke his hand and the mechanic slashed his), “The thing started to move,” Siver recalls. “It was our last effort, and if it hadn’t worked, I don’t know if I’d still be there.”

The tank rolled on, and eventually the travelers spotted the site of their proposed encampment. “Heaven up ahead!” they said. “Heaven” turned out to be one of two huts, borrowed from the Russian Army (which occasionally flies officers in, to hunt and fish). All seven would sleep and eat in one little hut heated by one decrepit stove. They would eat mostly the non-perishables brought along in the tank, including something called “canned cow.” Some of the team members managed to shoot a duck and catch a few fish.

Then there was another tank problem. “One day we lost a wheel,” he recalls. He and another man walked 10 miles back, looking in vain for the 300-pounder. Since it had come from the middle of a track, the men were able to remove a link from that track and keep going. “If the wheel had been at the end,” he notes, “the track would have fallen off, and we would have had no way to get out.”

Everybody did get out, with stories and more. “We got lots of samples and are beginning our analysis,” Siver, who regularly works with his Connecticut College students on many projects, such as investigating the distribution of algal floras along the Atlantic coast. “We have a project that includes sites from Florida to Maine, and that we hope to extend to Canada,” he says.

Now his students are hearing about bug bites, tank troubles, and canned cow — and about spectacular scenery, fine comrades and new discoveries. “I tell my students they can never complain about insects again,” he says. “And I tell them, ‘This is what science is like.’’’

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