The Hunt for Rocket Boosters in Russia's Far North

The boreal forest of the Mezensky district in Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, teems with wild reindeer, wolverines, and grouse. But the hunter photographer Makar Tereshin followed there in January—his fifth trip to the region while shooting his stunning series Fields of Fall— was after bigger, more exotic prey: a 65-foot-long Soyuz rocket booster.

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It crashed among the birches and pines in 1989 after blasting off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Mirny some 200 miles south. Constructed in the late 1950s as the world's first intercontinental missile base, the military facility performed more than 1,500 spacecraft launches between 1966 and 2005—more than 60 each year of the 1970s. Much of the launch refuse—boosters, fuel tanks, and fuselage—tumbled into the uninhabited forests and swamps of the Mezensky district, where hunters eventually found it.

They never dared scavenge the junk for scrap until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union began to fall. At first, they told Tereshin, they hacked the metal with axes. Then someone got the bright idea to use a circular saw. Still, it could take more than a week to dismantle a single booster, sometimes sleeping inside for warmth. They sold the metal—aluminum, gold, silver, copper, and titanium—for cash in the capital Arkhangelsk and also hammered it into whatever they happened to need: flat-bottomed boats (dubbed "ракетаs" or rockets), hunting sleds, fencing, gutters, and even saunas—infusing a region otherwise known for its traditional Russian culture and folklore with a touch of space punk.

These objects still litter yards and houses in the Mezensky district, though metal scavenging has dwindled in popularity, Tereshin says. In the 1990s, the number of launches at Plesetsk Cosmodrome dramatically decreased, and fewer stages fell. By 2013, those that did mostly landed in the neighboring Komi Republic and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Locals had also grown concerned about the environmental and physiological effects of the rocket fuel heptyl, which researchers say is likely carcinogenic. Plus, the scavengers got old. "People who started to collect metal in the early 1990s are now retired and have pensions," Tereshin says. "They are not really interested in adventures."

But Alexei, the hunter Tereshin shadowed in the forest, had at least one more adventure in him. He'd seen a booster in the forest three years earlier and recruited his two grown sons, home visiting, to help dismantle it. They set out from their village on snowbikes before dawn, speeding 40 miles across the tundra through snow, hard winds, and subzero temperatures, before reaching the forest. The booster lay beneath the tall trees, blanketed in white.

The men allowed Tereshin to document their work, so long as he didn't reveal their identities or village, since it isn't technically legal. He did so over four days, photographing as they cleared the snow and carved the gray metal into manageable chunks that they tied up to their snow bikes to drag back home. For Alexei and his sons, it was easy money. For Tereshin, it was a fascinating glimpse at a hunt very few people ever get to see.

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