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Sikhote-Alin adventure in May 1995

“Sikhote-Alin adventure in May 1995”, summarized for the Meteorite Times magazine

I bought my first Sikhote-Alin collection sample, an explosion fragment (shrapnel) with some 270 g, from an US dealer in about 1987 or 1988 and a smooth individual sample from another source at about the same time. I was amazed to see that there were two fundamentally different types of finds from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite fall. Torn, razor-sharp-edged explosion fragments and on the other hand smaller individuals with a gray-blueish fusion crust, flow-lines and regmagypts. The thought quickly developed in my head that I wanted to travel there and search for it. To mention: the Sikhote-Alin meteor shower area is just over 50 km from the Chinese border and about 200 km from the Japanese Sea. The known coordinates are 46°09’12 “N, 134°39’12” E.

Looking back to the mid-nineties: In autumn 1994 I was invited by my two Russian colleagues Petrovich and Sergej to take part in a short Sikhote-Alin tour in May 1995 due to our good contacts. A commercial search order of >250 kg explosion fragments (shrapnels) for a major international US customer had to be fulfilled, this is what I remember. The invitation and the tour itself were “semi-official”, that means without official approval, but probably with the knowledge of the authorities that search activities are taking place in the Sikhote-Alin area after years of silence again. Fortunately, I had to worry about almost nothing. Everything, from scheduling, flights booking, accommodation, etc., was organized by my two colleagues. The meeting point was in St. Petersburg / RUS. There my luggage was “optimized” by my tour colleagues, which means that besides my protective clothing, a sleeping bag, my analog camera and some personal items such as some clothes and underwear to change, a Swiss Army knife and my toothbrush there was hardly anything left. I only understood that later, because we had to lug all our luggage to reach the Sikhote-Alin strewnfield for a few km through a swamp area with backpacks and carrier bags that cannot be passed by vehicles …

Aeroflot Flight to Vladivostok, arrival there on May 8, 1995. Onward travel a day later, exactly 50 years after the End of the Second World War (WWII). All of Vladivostok was overcrowded with marines. The number and size of the Russian Navy gathered in the port of Vladivostok was gigantic!

Picture 01 – Russian Navy parade on May 09, 1995, exact 50 years after the end of WWII
Picture 02 – Russian Navy ship, close-up

Various workers demonstrations also took place in the city of Vladivostok that day.

Picture 03 – Workers’ demonstration in Vladivostok

Unfortunately, it had rained very heavily on the day and we had great time pressure, as we still had to get food somewhere and almost all shops were closed due to the naval parade.

Picture 04 – Buying food in Vladivostok

I was instructed to be as quiet as possible because foreigners in Vladivostok and the region usually do not have a residence and travel permit, even though the Soviet Union opened its borders a few years ago. In 1995 Vladivostok and the area north of it were all still military restricted areas. Overnight trip by train to Dalnerechensk.

Picture 05 – Map with train route from Vladivostok to Dalnerechensk
Picture 06 – Train ticket from Vladivostok to Dalnerechensk

Once there, we had to drive approximately 85 km with a military truck to the village, which today is named on the meteorite fall of Sikhote-Alin: Meteoritnyy.

Picture 07 – Map with car route from Dalnerechensk to Meteoritnyy

The few people living there, work in the timber business.

Picture 08 – Main Street through Meteoritnyy

We were greeted happily by a forest keeper, called Sasha, well known to my two colleagues, who was given different kinds of tools and household goods as a gift (or on order?). On the same day, this kind forest keeper took us with a 4WD Jeep a roughly 15 km long rocky and difficult-to-drive route deep into the forest until fallen trees and rocks made it impossible to continue driving. All pieces of luggage were unloaded.

Picture 09 – Unload of luggage, put on protective clothing

We put protective clothing and rubber shoes on and then we went with metal detectors, tent, sleeping bags, food, protective clothing and rubber shoes (all against mosquitoes, ticks and snakes) and a few other things about four km over rocks and through the swamp to the camp area.

Picture 10 – Welcome in Sikhote-Alin strewnfield
Picture 11 – Campsite

The campsite was west of a chain of hills on the edge of the marsh.

Picture 12 – Map sketch (V.F.Buchwald, Vol 3, page 1124). The orange arrow points to the approximate location of our campsite

The Sikhote-Alin crater field lay higher up on the chain of hills, which was delimited from below by a swamp on three sides.

Picture 13 – Swamp
Picture 14 – Path through the swamp
Picture 15 – Another view to the swamp

The swamp area was full of Amur snakes, lizards and frogs.

Picture 16 – One of many Amur snakes
Picture 17 – A hidden lizard
Picture 18 – Amur frog

Near the swamp area there was an easy trail that led to a water-filled impact crater with a diameter of 4 to 5 m.

Picture 19 – Narrow trail between the swamp and the camp
Picture 20 – Water-filled impact crater near campsite and the swamp
Picture 21 – Water-filled impact crater near campsite and the swamp, close view

Two rivers flowed in the same direction on both sides of the chain of hills.

Picture 22 – Small river “First Khanikheza river” near the campsite

Crossing the two rivers (so called: First and Second Khanikheza River) into the swamp was dangerous and unnecessary. This defined our search field for meteorites.

After dinner

Picture 23 – Cooking a first dinner on the camp fire
Picture 24 – Our cooking pot
Picture 25 – Delicious camp fire food :-)

I made my Sikhote-Alin first find, a small approximately 15 g fragment, with the metal detector on May 10, 1995, shortly before sunset.

Picture 26 – On the way to the first Sikhote-Alin find

Beep beep beeeeep! It was my first meteorite I had ever tracked down with a metal detector. It was a really great moment that I have not forgotten until today!

Picture 27 – And here is it :-)

Since the fall occurred on the deep-frozen ground in winter time in February 1947, small pieces (individuals and the explosion fragments torn after the impact of the larger masses on the hard-frozen ground) mostly fell through the white blanket of snow onto the frozen ground and thereby only insignificantly penetrated the ground. The vegetation has therefore only grown a few cm over the falling pieces and working with the metal detector is or was therefore relatively easy.

Even 48 years (1995) after the fall of the meteorites (February 12, 1947), most of the impact craters were still in an unusually good condition, only the vegetation had partially overgrown and recaptured the craters. It was a great experience to stand on the rim of the largest crater (26 m in diameter, acc V.F.Buchwald, Vol.3), to look into the depth of the impact hole.

Picture 28 – Impact crater, 26 m diameter

For comparison, here is an old b/w picture of the same impact crater from the first expedition in summer 1947.

Picture 29 – Impact crater, 26 m diameter (1947)

Unfortunately, this gigantic view is not nearly recognizable on the two-dimensional scan image of the slide photo print. Some of the craters were so big that I could not get their size onto a picture with the standard photo lens. Without a wide-angle lens, I then took several pictures side by side and used old adhesive technique to make a large overview picture.

Picture 30 – Impact crater
Picture 31 – Impact crater
Picture 32 – Impact crater

Additional images of larger or smaller impact craters have been photographed as single images.

Picture 33 – Impact crater, see also Pic 60
Picture 34 – Small Impact crater
Picture 35 – Impact crater
Picture 36 – Small Impact crater

Another b/w picture shows an impact crater as it was photographed in 1947.

Picture 37 – Impact crater (1947)

The dense vegetation made it impossible to walk through the forest in many places. There were a striking number of Amur snakes, especially near the swamp, not far from the campsite.

Picture 38 – Amur snake

Wild boar tracks were also quite common. We took water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene from the small river (“first Khanikheza river”) next to our campsite area.

Picture 39 – “First Khanikheza river”
Picture 40 – Ouh, it is so cold…
Picture 41 – Fisherman Petrovich

The following b/w image shows the “first Khanikheza river” how it looked in 1947.

Picture 42 – “First Khanikheza river” how it looked in 1947

The days in the strewnfield were really hard work. With our metal detectors, backpacks and tote bags, we have been searching for up to 8 to 10 hours every day and have marked intermediate deposits of our found meteorite samples at various points in the forest for transport in the evening towards the campsite area.

Picture 43 – Hard work, pure fun
Picture 44 – Concentrated field work with metal detector
Picture 45 – Exhausted

The find density within a few square meters was sometimes quite high.

Picture 46 – High find rate within a few m2

When the larger iron masses exploded by the impact on the deeply frozen ground and were torn apart, the fragments fell near the impact craters fairly evenly over the entire forest floor. In addition to working with our metal detectors, we used simple hand tools to dig out the Sikhote-Alin finds.

Picture 47 – Simple hand tools to dig out the Sikhote-Alin finds

I was grateful that the two colleagues had given me a two to three hours’ time-window in one day as a short opportunity to go “to the Sikhote-Alin individuals” alone. The way there alone was very exhausting and found samples on the way were explosion fragments and always I was hoping to finally find an individual specimen. They shortened the short search opportunity in the actual target area. I then was happy to finally find three individuals somewhere (where I can’t say without GPS data, probably in the middle of the strewnfield) in the densest, almost impenetrable forest.

Picture 48 – Almost impenetrable forest

It seems that the dense forest has remained unchanged since 1947. The b/w image shows a similar view from the dense forest in 1947.

Picture 49 – Almost impenetrable forest (1947)

My first found individual was a very nice piece with 45.7 g (it had left me as a gift many years ago, no longer in my collection). For the photo, I quickly cleaned the individual with my hands and then placed it on an old fallen tree trunk.

Picture 50 – 45.7 g Sikhote-Alin individual after first cleaning

Among the three individual pieces I found, is my top individual with 2.03 kg. What luck! I had photographed the unearthed individual with my analog camera in the exposed find hole and at least I was able to quickly take a picture of the place where I found the individual with the self-triggering analog camera.

Picture 51 – 2.03 kg individual in-situ
Picture 52 – Lucky finder with 2.03 kg individual

Some more views of impact craters. The following picture shows an impact crater filled with water,

Picture 53 – Water filled impact crater

the old b/w picture shows a similar large impact crater, also filled with water. The b/w picture was taken in 1947.

Picture 54 – Water filled impact crater (1947)

View into a large impact crater with a diameter of approx. 10 to 12 m.

Picture 55 – Impact crater

The next two pictures are very interesting because they show how large iron masses were pulled out of the impact craters. The color image was made from the inside of the impact crater in direction to the crater rim. A big mass was pulled out of the crater through this deep groove

Picture 56 – From the inside of the impact crater to the crater rim

by a tractor or a heavy lorry during the first expeditions from 1947 to 1950

Picture 57 – Large mass pulled out of an impact crater (1947-1950)

– hard work! Two pictures of a smaller impact crater filled with water, two to three meters in diameter

Picture 58 – Water filled impact crater, 2 to 3 m in Diameter
Picture 59 – Water filled impact crater, 2 to 3 m in Diameter, close view

and finally the last picture of a large impact crater.

Picture 60 – Impact crater, see also Pic 33

it is the same crater like shown in (Pic 33).

We used a two people tent with three people inside.

Picture 61 – Our Hotel Suite

The middle man slept in the opposite direction. During the day it was a temperature of 25 to 30° C, but without the protective clothing the mosquitoes would have killed us. We were all bitten by mosquitoes of course and also by ticks several times and had to take medication during and after the tour. In the evening, just before the night, we had to examine each other for tick infestation in the hair. Really bad, the ticks crept everywhere into the rainproof protective clothing, into the sleeping bags. Please note: ticks are always present in the Sikhote-Alin forest and also in the swamp. They are trying to kill meteorite hunters in particular. They are the most terroristic “animals” in the forest. They are strong, very strong like a Siberian tiger (just a little smaller) and want to bite you whenever there is an opportunity.

Picture 62 – One day after Tick attack…
Picture 63 – Original Sikhote-Alin tick behind a translucent tape

They cause permanent headache, at some point we all had enough. After seven days in the forest, the amount found was so large that we were able to successfully complete the search, mission accomplished.

Picture 64 – Mission accomplished

I had put some of my finds on old wooden benches. The size distribution of the various finds is very nice to see.

Picture 65 – Size distribution of some of my finds

Here are two interesting examples of finds from our tour:
1.) A fragment with a hole through which a tree root has grown! Rarely seen…

Picture 66 – Fragment with hole and tree root

2.) A few fragments were not completely rusty brown and showed 48 years after the fall, almost metallic bright areas that were perhaps protected by the find location in the ground? As an example, here is a 2 kg find, one of my largest finds.

Picture 67 – 1.99 kg fragment
Picture 68 – Not weathered area on the fragment

The removal of the Sikhote-Alin finds was quite difficult due to the large weight of our finds, because we had to walk several times the approximately 4 km route through swampy and rocky areas to the meeting point, where the forest keeper was waiting with his large car. Each of us with backpacks weighing up to 20 kg

Picture 69 – Sikhote-Alin backpack transport

or with load carriers – one man in front, one man in the back – to walk with around 30 kg of iron pieces. The transport of all finds to the meeting point took more than one day. After picking-up by Sasha we had to manufacture transport boxes out of wooden boards, because there were no ready-made transport boxes available.

Picture 70 – Manufacturing the wooden transport boxes
Picture 71 – Manufacturing the wooden transport boxes
Picture 72 – Six of seven boxes, full of Sikhote-Alin fragments

Each box filled weighed between 40 and 45 kg. Seven boxes in total.

Picture 73 – Mission accomplished

During the few days after the Sikhote-Alin strewnfield exploration, we were invited to stay in Sasha’s house in Meteoritnyy.

Picture 74 – Sacha’s house in Meteoritnyy
Picture 75 – Another view of the Main Street in Meteoritnyy

We were kindly allowed to use his simple but excellent working Russian sauna house (no picture, sorry). This was perfect after the exhausting time we had in the Sikhote-Alin forest. We then traveled the same way back to St. Petersburg by truck, train and plane.

Picture 76 – Military truck to Dalnerechensk

The seven boxes found their way on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Dalnerechensk to St. Petersburg in just under four weeks. My hand luggage was full of small sharp iron fragments that I wanted to have with me. Today it would be impossible to carry this in hand luggage in this way because of the airline safety regulations. How the world has changed …

After the seven boxes arrived in St. Petersburg and later in Prague, I picked around 10 kg of my own-find fragments including my three individuals plus a razor-sharp 11.47 kg explosion fragment,

Picture 77 – It is me with the 11.47 kg fragment

found by my tour colleagues, and kept them for myself. I was then able to buy the separated material from the entire find for a very fair price. Today I still have many smaller fragments of my own finds and two of the three found individuals (plus the huge explosion fragment, which is in permanent display of ETH Zurich

Picture 78 – 11.47 kg fragment in display in ETH Zurich

from our tour in my collection and to see in my collection showcases at home.

Picture 79 – Small Sikhote-Alin fragments in display at home

All pieces are natural as far as possible and were only cleaned under running water with ambient temperature with washing soap and with a soft hand washing brush with plastic bristles. When I see the strongly wire-brushed or black boiled Sikhote-Alin meteorites on mineral shows today, my stomach turns with such a rough treatment! Wire brushes destroy the pieces! Maybe not from the shape, but from the appearance. Browning, cooking in hot oil, is also a hardly acceptable change in material appearance. Long time ago, I also used to brush Sikhote-Alin samples temporarily with wire brushes, and even washed occasional, dirt-encrusted pieces with dilute acid. That was the understanding of cleaning at the time in the nineties, but it is no longer acceptable to me today.

In etched condition, all Sikhote-Alin fragments show a totally deformed Widmanstätten pattern. Here is a pretty interesting 227g sample to see.

Picture 80 – Fragment with etched face and deformed pattern

The structural detail image with a bent thin Schreibersite inclusion is approximately 5.5 x 8 mm.

Picture 81 – Close-up view to the etched section, about 5.5 x 8 mm

The second structural detail image shows also a totally distorted and confused pattern. The size of image is approximately 5.5 x 8 mm.

Picture 82 – Close-up view to the etched section, about 5.5 x 8 mm

The soft cleaned individual with 2.03 kg (see also Pic 51,  52)

shows on one side a bent Kamacite “finger” (or Kamacite “plate”).

Picture 83 – 2.03 kg individual with bent Kamacite “finger” (or Kamacite “plate”)
Picture 84 – Bent Kamacite “finger” (or Kamacite “plate”), detail

This area shows the tremendous force that this individual was subjected to during the heavy fragmentation in the atmosphere before it high-speed hit the ground. The piece is covered with fusion crust on all sides.

However, I can say that the whole tour would have been impossible for me without the support and the language skills of my two Russian friends and without their local contacts. Anyone who would try to find a meteorite there today without knowing the situation on site will not be able to reach the destination without the support of the local people for logistical reasons alone. A good, no, a very good physical condition is also essential for a Sikhote-Alin tour, which is absolutely not comparable with “easy” desert tours. At that time I was physically well trained and prepared for the exertions, but unfortunately unfortunately unfortunately far too little for what I was allowed to experience there as an adventure.

Picture 85 – Last picture – another of many Amur snakes

plus many not shown pictures.

Seeing the 48-year-old impact craters, knowing how many and how big meteorites hit it, was really impressive for me. At times during the tour I forgot the commercial order that we had to fulfill, because the joy was great about every find, no matter whether it was small or large. My total find amount was smaller than that of my two tour partners who were more experienced in meteorite searching. My “mistake” was that I had dug a find for almost every signal. My two colleagues, on the other hand, only dug when the signal was strong. But as a team we worked together perfectly. The search for Sikhote-Alin explosion fragments was connected with the great physical exertion due to the remote location and the transport problems in the area, but it also gave me/us great pleasure and satisfaction. However, from today’s point of view, unfortunately the important exploration of the strewnfield was not carried out. At that time there was simply no time for it. Without GPS (GPS was not yet private use in 1995) it was also not possible to record the coordinates of the “better” of my or our finds exactly. Unfortunately, even after seven or eight days in the forest, it seemed unimportant to me to take some rubble rocks from the largest impact craters. Too bad, for this missed opportunity 48 1/4 years after the fall. But my Sikhote-Alin experience was 25 years ago and the discussion was different. The today’s important, accompanying data collection was not really important at that time for the strewnfield meteorite hunters. It’s been now 73 ¼ years since the tremendous fall of Sikhote-Alin meteorites happened. It was found that in 1995 most of the explosion fragments were brown all around and the individuals had already started with brown, destructive rust. Pieces found near to the swamp or next to water-filled impact craters were all heavily to extremely corroded. The time of good Sikhote-Alin finds runs out faster and faster with increasing time axis. Unfortunately, that’s it. I am happy to have this experience done. For me, Sikhote-Alin is and remains one of the most important meteorites ever.

The information given here in this Meteorite Times article is based on my two photo albums with comments and my todays thoughts on the Sikhote-Alin experience 25 years ago. It could be different today, I don’t know? Would be nice to get an update from a recent strewnfield exploration, if there are meteorite hunters or other people (scientists?) still searching for meteorites. You are the next, not me again… I will focus my future plans on other projects.

The historical b/w photos (scan images) can be found in the original in the following books:
• Sikhote-Alinskij Zheleznyi Meteoritnyj Dozhd, author collective, Akademiya Nauk SSSR (1959)
• Priciples of Meteorites, E.L. Krinov, translated edition (1960)
• Giant Meteorites, E.L. Krinov, translated edition (1966)

Jürgen Nauber / jnmczurich, May 2020

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