Photo credit: Irene Searles
I remember the moment I sat up and took notice of the risks my cousin Guido Rahr was taking for fish — the same moment I started taking notes about his adventures, notes that would one day become a book. We were sitting in the grass outside our family fishing cabins on the Deschutes River where, since childhood, we had enjoyed days of wilderness and unbroken conversations. Our regular returns to the Deschutes marked our family’s time and highlighted the twists and turns of our personal journeys. Guido’s had long been the most surprising. A born hunter, he had spent his childhood stalking the high desert for snakes and lizards. Then it became fish, and his hunting ground expanded from the Deschutes to the entire Pacific Northwest. Guido pursued salmon all the way to Alaska and became one of the world’s finest fly fisherman. It was when these magnificent fish began to disappear from Oregon’s rivers that he converted his skills for catching wild creatures to humans. This unlikely outlier has since galvanized a small army of well-placed people to protect the habitat he dearly loves.
Guido was assembling his fly-fishing gear while giving me the latest update on his crusade to protect the best salmon rivers across the Pacific Rim, rivers he calls “strongholds” for the safety they offer this invaluable species as their numbers across the region decline. Like many hunters, Guido is a dedicated conservationist, for hunting grounds need protection. Guido has achieved a great deal with his stronghold mission and, against all odds, the Pacific Rim is dotted with protected areas and rivers that he and his organization, the Wild Salmon Center, have fought for from Northern California to the Russian Far East. But the future of Russia’s salmon is still uncertain — and the country is home to 40% of the world’s wild salmon. If he can't protect Russian fish, his stronghold strategy will fail.
He told me now he’d just returned from Moscow. Years of hammering away at Russia’s district and regional governments and agencies had won him both local partnership and protection for some of Kamchatka’s finest salmon rivers. But Russia was poised for rampant development in the far east, and Guido knew of plans to drill, excavate, and clear-cut the pristine region — which spelled disaster for the salmon. At this juncture, he needed to reach the people in control of such development, or those who had the resources to stop it. He needed the support of Russia’s most powerful men.
Under the surface, he was still an obsessive hunter, and he had set his sights on the most challenging and mysterious quarry to date.
He told me that through one of his high-level connections, he’d just met with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and asked directly if he would help protect Russia’s salmon. The story alarmed me. I had studied Soviet Russia in college and knew something of the dark complexities of its power elite. Did Guido know what he was doing?
In 2006, Oleg Deripaska had a net worth of 28 billion dollars. From modest means, and with a background in theoretical physics, Deripaska had consolidated his positions and holdings in the consortium Russian Aluminum, during the so-called “aluminum wars,” in which men vying for control of the lucrative industry “disappeared.” There were also allegations, according to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, that Deripaska bribed government officials and had links to organized crime. While this was business as usual in Russia, the Treasury Department had repeatedly denied Deripaska a visa to the U.S., the free-market haven where many oligarchs romped. Deripaska had taken the meeting with Guido not because he was a fisherman or an environmentalist, but because he had a PR problem in the west. Deripaska was looking to improve his reputation — whether helping an American conservationist would do the trick was anyone’s guess.
But Guido had to try. As he told the story, I noted an undercurrent of fear and excitement running through him, flashing in his blue eyes. I knew him well enough to see that Guido had encountered entirely unfamiliar terrain, and it activated him to the core. I realized that, at 46, Guido had not changed at all. Under the surface, he was still an obsessive hunter, and he had set his sights on the most challenging and mysterious quarry to date.
Guido didn’t totally understand the “in” that had cracked open the door to Deripaska, but he dove through it anyway. Headlong. He flew to Moscow, deciding that for Deripaska he would use the deceptively simple strategy that had worked for him in the past: ask for what you want. The problem was, he knew little of Deripaska, or of oligarchs in general. How did such men operate, and how much power did they really have? More to the point, how much could he ask of Deripaska? By the time he landed, Guido determined he would ask for everything he wanted.
The meeting took place at one of the satellite airports outside Moscow, where Deripaska was flying in from Asia in his Gulfstream V-SP. Deripaska arrived right on time. He was big-boned and tall, and his pale blue eyes were large, keen, and on the cool side. This, Guido saw, was an apex predator. What he fed on, he had no idea. But he knew enough about such men to keep things short and to the point. He watched as the oligarch sat down, crossed his long legs, and turned his pale, sharp eyes on Guido. “Okay, Guida,” he said. “What do you want from me?”
Guido, ignoring the mispronunciation, presented a map of the Russian Far East with its myriad rivers and explained to Deripaska the importance of salmon conservation. In the west, they had lost their best salmon rivers due to ignorance and mismanagement. Once salmon rivers had been so badly degraded, it was nearly impossible to restore them. Russia was in possession of the most pristine salmon ecosystem in the world, a veritable protein factory that could feed millions of people and nourish a massive ecosystem. But, Guido said, the decision to save these pristine watersheds was a Russian one. Which was why Guido was here. He added that the Wild Salmon Center had been partnering with Russian scientists and Moscow State University and the Academy of Sciences had sanctioned the stronghold program in the Russian Far East.
Deripaska listened as Guido went on, telling the oligarch that he needed a few things from him: his money, his contacts, and his political clout to navigate the Russian federal government and provide more support for the local conservation groups. Lastly, he needed him to help stop the logging on the pristine Samarga River, where Guido had just returned from. Then he shut up while Deripaska studied the map. The oligarch thought for a moment and said, “Okay. I will help you. I’m going to give you some introductions and some funding. I will also give you this guy who works for me, and he’s going to help you do all these things.”
Guido rose, shook Deripaska’s hand. A moment later, the oligarch was gone. So that was how it worked, Guido thought. Boom, boom, boom, like pool balls clicking against each other, or dominos falling. It was a world away from the protracted, fraught conservation battles in the west, which were more like a tangle of string.
Guido left with adrenaline pumping in his veins, cautiously excited that Deripaska’s words would amount to something, and that the meeting wouldn’t come back to bite him either. In a country where a few men controlled entire industries, the fate of an ecosystem lay in a phone call.
Done with his recounting, Guido was ready to hit the river, where he would think about it all further. Perhaps conservation in this country wasn’t impossible after all, he told me, gathering his gear. I watched him disappear into the brush, knowing almost for certain that in this in this strange new hunting ground, he was going to find out. I also knew that I had to tell a story that was becoming more fantastic every year.
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is the author of the critically acclaimed and national bestsellers An Obvious Enchantment
. With a career that began at The Washington Post
, her love of human culture and wilderness have since taken her all over the world. She now lives with her son in Berkeley, California. Tucker grew up fly fishing, studied Sovietology, and has traveled to Russia numerous times. Stronghold
is her first major work of nonfiction.