In the Siberian taiga you are “no hunter without a dog,” says German film director Werner Herzog, and the dogs are “phenomenal”—big, strong, intelligent, and agile. Often the only companions of trappers who spend months at a time in the roadless taiga, dogs can spell the difference between life and death.
“You’ve never seen anything better about dogs,” Herzog says, introducing his film Happy People: A Year in the Taiga at a screening in New York in 2010, the year of its initial release. It came out on DVD last year and this year made at least an appearance on YouTube before being taken down for copyright violation.
Herzog dramatically reshaped a four-hour documentary by Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov into this 94-minute film with new editing, new voice-over narrative, and music. Herzog is generally the best narrator for his films because his voice is uniquely expressive of his High German Romantic sensibility, and in Happy People he has found individuals who mirror his enthusiasms.The focus is a group of trappers operating out of Bakhta, a village of 300 people on the north flowing Yenisei River in the heart of Siberia. The village, we are told, is accessible throughout the year only by helicopter and, during the several ice-free months of summer, by boat as well.
Alcohol is here and gasoline to run snowmobiles, little outboard motors and generators in some structures. Together, gasoline and alcohol, appear to be washing into the Yenisei what is left of the culture of the Kets, indigenous Siberians who have given up their traditional hunting and gathering ways to call Bakhta and other villages along the Yenisei home.
They seem to subsist on hunting, fishing, and salvaging logs from the river and cutting and splitting them into firewood. Clearly, they are more likely the “tragic” than the “happy people” of the Taiga.
Indeed, the “happy people” of the title are the trappers who are alone in the wilderness with their dogs, from fall through early spring. They are “utterly alone” and “utterly free” in a world where there are no governments, no laws, no police, no bosses, no taxes, and scarcely anything that could be called a modern amenity. Living in accordance with the dignity of nature, Herzog says, these men despise the greedy ones among them who overfish, overhunt, and trap out of season for a few extra rubles.
Only their skill, their knowledge, their wits, and their dogs keep them alive in their daily confrontation with wild, raw, impersonal, all conquering nature. That these happy people seem to be Russians who at some point were awarded trapping territories—sable are the staple, ermine the prize—is barely noted and not commented upon because Herzog is looking not at society and its discontents but at individuals who embody his own code of rugged self-reliance.
Gennady, a fit 60-year-old Russian and the most thoughtful and articulate of the trappers appearing in this film, recalls that when he was 20, he and a friend were delivered by Soviet helicopter to their newly assigned traplines and left for their first winter season. Supplies did not arrive, because things go wrong. He had little food and no winter clothes. His friend abandoned his trapline, but despite his suffering, Gennady stayed. He had a good dog, and she carried him through the winter with her hunting ability, he explains.
The material on dogs is not abundant, but it is rich in details one hears wherever dogs and humans have formed a productive relationship. The Siberian taiga is dog country since the earliest days of the dog, back to the time, perhaps, of what I have called dogwolves, for doglike wolves. They give a glimpse of how deep and broad a bond could have formed between wandering hunters and their dogwolves.
Gennady is one of those people who has a profound understanding of his dogs and recognizes not only that each is an individual with its own character and eccentricities but also that the exceptional all purpose dog is a rarity. He also recognizes that beatings will not keep a dog from doing something it is set on, like stealing bait from traps, but they will teach a dog not to respect or work well for its abuser.
He knows too that sometimes dogs have their own ideas and stick with them. Thus, he wants generalist dogs who will hunt a variety of game and fish, and we see his dog help with fishing, diving from a dugout boat after a moose, working with Gennady to flush and catch a sable denned in a downed tree trunk, and running 90 miles nonstop, often breaking his own trail through deep snow, alongside Gennady on his snowmobile.
Gennady knows that sometimes dogs get fixated on moose, for example, to the exclusion of all else. They want to chase nothing but moose or they lose interest. He knows that once a dog has lost interest, it is lost. He introduces a handsome white dog who he says no longer goes into the taiga; the dog stays in the village, where he is first to get to females in heat and where he enjoys the choicest pieces of meat or fish.
Gennady remembers the great ones like his most recent, now retired hunter, whom he says he will feed for as long as the dog lives in recognition of his service. Finally, he remembers holding his great old bitch in his arms while she died. He tells the tale of how she fought a big brown bear invading the village, standing her ground after all other dogs had run. Sensing something was wrong, Gennady had grabbed his gun and run to the scene. He fired at the bear who was tearing her up and whom she was ripping at with her teeth and dying strength. His shot grazed its paw, and in its rage it charged him at high speed. He shot it point blank in the face. The shot knocked it backward and without even waiting to see whether it had gone down, Gennady grabbed his dog and raced for the nurse’s station, trying to figure how he would save her.
As I watched and listened to the film, I thought of other people I’ve known with their dogs from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and how the people of the taiga and they in many ways were interchangeable, how the fundamentals for dealing with dogs remain surprisingly consistent: you cannot teach a dog to do or not do something using force and expect it to follow you willingly and happily. You cannot ever underestimate the fealty of people to their dogs.
Gennady and his fellow trappers still build their world the old way with hand axes, adzes, and wedges. That is nowhere more apparent than when they are hewing the beams of a cabin, making a deadfall trap, fashioning cross-country skis from a carefully selected birch tree, and carving from a single massive tree a dugout boat.
The dugout Gennady and one other man fashion in such a way is sturdy enough to hold a man standing and checking fish traps and to haul a snowmobile and winter supply of grits, bread, ammunition and other staples. Like Gennady’s way with dogs, these are ancient skills that are easily lost if not used.
The dogs of Happy People are laikas from the large landrace of northern dogs from the taiga, from Siberia across northern Russia, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
The Yenisei River divides Siberian laika into eastern and western populations. There are also Russo-European laika and perhaps several others, since the inclination now is to consolidate new breeds from larger indigenous populations.
The rise of purebred dogs with their putative breed specific behaviors that are said to be related to their sometimes exaggerated morphologies has come at the expense of the common all- purpose dogs of many regions. Those were the dogs of the people, whom they served well for centuries and, in some cases longer. Indeed, even with purebred dogs ascendant, it is interesting that the most popular dog in America is the Labrador retriever, a direct descendant of the St. Johns water dog—water cur is more accurate because it was a a mix of every European and Native American dog to make that island home over several centuries of extensive exploitation of the cod fisheries.
Laika—I sometimes call them the “curs of the taiga” because they remind of the curs of the American South. We need more dogs of that sort.