Stephen R. Kemper 1948-2004
Editor’s Note: The building systems industry lost a longtime friend and valued compatriot Jan. 7th, when Stephen R. Kemper, 55, died in an automobile accident. Kemper was in route from his home near Grand Junction, Colorado, to Hamilton, Montana, on behalf of his business, the Kemper Company. Freezing rain and snow rolled in from the west during the trip. Kemper’s red Ford sport utility vehicle rolled on Interstate 15 just south of Idaho Falls. Police are investigating the accident. Kemper’s obituary, which appeared in the Grand Junction Sentinel newspaper Jan 11th, is posted here. Look for another notice in the March/April issue of BSM. You can also read Kemper’s obituary by clicking here.

A Trip To The Russian Outback: “Siberiaâ€?

By Stephen R. Kemper

This spring Vadium Ledjaeva, one of the owners of the Braskana Door & Window Company of Brask, Siberia, invited me to visit his country and their plant. The Kemper Company had been contracted to distribute their doors here in the United States. This turned out to be the trip of a lifetime for me.

After some confusion on my paper work and getting everything in order, I was ready to leave the safe shores of our country for the Russian Outback.

Prior to my trip, I read everything I could get my hands on about Siberia, which wasn’t much. Some of things I found out were the size – larger than the US. Western Europe would fit inside Siberia and still have room to spare. Irkutsk, the largest city in the area (630,000), was established in 1651 as a Cossack Garrison. Siberia is like our western United States and our cavalry forts are very similar to the Cossack forts. It is a very busy railway hub and offers 11 universities and technical schools. A full 98% of the Russian students have graduated from high school. Lake Bajkal is 20 miles east of the city and is the largest fresh water lake in the world. It holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water and is the source for the Angara River, which flows through Irkutsk and turns north. On the Angara, 350 miles north of Irkutsk is Brask, the city where the doors are produced. North of Brask is the Kara Sea in the Arctic. Brask is a city of 200,000 people that has three major industries: coal at the rate of 5000 rail cars per day, an aluminum plant which produces 1/5 of the world’s aluminum, and a very large forestry complex. A lot of people have asked about the weather. Irkutsk is on the same latitude as Calgary, Canada.

My trip started April 25 when I left Grand Junction for Seattle. I boarded a Boeing 777 Aeroflot flight nonstop to Moscow by way of the Artic circle – 11 ½ hours. We left at 7:30 p.m. and arrived in Moscow at 7:30 p.m. the next day. The gentleman seated next to me was from Prince George, B.C., had retired from the phone company and was on his way to meet his Russian mail-order bride he had met on the Internet. I missed my connecting flight from Moscow to Irkutsk because of our late arrival so I spent the night at a Moscow airport hotel. Vadium had his driver, Sergey, meet me at customs and helped me with all of the arrangements. For as modern as we think Russia is, they still use ledger books everywhere for keeping records. Sergey took me to my hotel and said a bus would take me to the airport the next afternoon. What a strange experience that was. I couldn’t speak Russian and Sergey couldn’t speak English. That evening I met a gentleman from Calgary on his way to the Russian oil fields. We had a great dinner, shared stories and noted how small the world really is.

The next day as I boarded the bus for the domestic airport I was really on my own. We traveled on very rough roads to the west end of the Moscow airport. Thankfully their number system is the same as ours and after a very nice trip though security and ticketing we boarded a bus bound for the tarmac and a flight on an older Russian Aeroflot plane bound for the wilds of Siberia. Our flight left at 7:30 p.m. and arrived at the next day. We landed in Irkutsk as the day was beginning and as we deplaned we found ourselves being ushered to baggage claim by armed guards carrying AK47’s.

Vadium was there to meet me and I was very glad to see him. He speaks and understands English very well. We gathered my bags and headed for our car, a 1990 Toyota LandCruiser driven by Leady to the hotel. It was wonderful. I felt like I was in a time machine: log homes and buildings everywhere and old ones in very good condition. They where building a new Russian Orthodox Church out of logs. It was beautiful and I had not unpacked my camera. I won’t do that again. I checked into my hotel where the lady at the counter asked for my passport. She kept it and stated I could have it when I checked out the next morning. I guess she had to check with headquarters in Moscow. After I checked I, she gave me a small piece of paper and stated in very good English to proceed to the 5th floor and pointed to the elevator. Arriving at the 5th floor we where greeted by the “Floor Managerâ€?. I presented her with my small piece paper and she gave me my room key, and pointed in the direction of my room – a corner suite at the end the hall right out of the 20’s right down to the worn red velour sofa and chair. As I sat there, looking out over the Angara River, I wondered how many Russian military meetings had taken place there over the decades of Communist rule.

After a quick nap to try and recover from jet lag, I was picked up by Vadium and we drove up the Angara River to the source, Lake Bajkal, where I saw a true wilderness. Larger than all of the Great Lakes combined, it holds 1/5th of world’s fresh water, and has over 350 streams and rivers flowing into it with only the Angara river flowing out, gin clear. There are no roads around the lake and it has the only fresh water seals in the world, 60,000 of them. There are two major fish populations, the seak (like our kokanee) and omul (like our Trout).

The area was very smoky, and we noticed several fires in the mountains around the lake, Vadium stated that in the spring of the year, after the snow has gone, while the ground is still wet they set forest fires to burn off the under brush. This way the fire travels across the ground and does not get in the crown, and cause major damage. Siberia has 24% of the forest reserves in the world. We retuned to the city and I was treated to a very fine Russian dinner, borsht and all.

The next morning at the hotel I was treated to a Russian continental breakfast: juice, rye bread and cheese, and one cup of coffee. The waitress offered me sausage, which I accepted. She returned with two waterlogged hot dogs. I had a couple of hours to kill before Vadium was to arrive, so I went for a walk to visit the park by the river and the surrounding area. 75% of the buildings were log homes that were 100 years old and older, still in great condition most needing stain or paint by our standards. They had very elaborate window trim, no two alike, all painted in white, green, or blue. The style of log was round log with dovetail corners, and some were chinked with moss (new construction). Vadium arrived, I checked out, they returned my passport as promised and we were on our way. We drove past the capital building where Vadium had had an office, when he was a major in the Russian Army. Across the street was a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church, which was receiving a fresh coat of paint. I also saw a Catholic Church that looked to be well over 100 years old that was being restored after decades of being boarded up. As we drove though the city I was surprised to find no centerline or lanes painted on the roadway. Thus, it was a free-for-all with no apparent speed limit, a surface marked with potholes, and everyone in a hurry.

As we traveled out of the city I felt that the only thing that had been added in over a hundred years were the power poles. As we drove into the country there was something very different. It took me a while to realize that there were no fences in the 350+ miles to Brask It was true open range like Texas was 150 years ago. We passed a dairy, where 3 cowboys were herding maybe 100 dairy cows to pasture for the day. In the next group we saw, the cowboys were on foot and their herd was made up of dairy cows, goats, and sheep together. Everyone seemed to be getting along. There were ladi
es along the road in villages with crates of fresh chickens to be purchased on your way home, children sitting with one or two pails of potatoes, two young girls selling potatoes and 2 liter pop bottles of fresh milk and a little boy 6 or 7 years old selling small brooms made of birch twigs tied with wire. All of the villages we passed through were of log construction and several new buildings were being built in small yards using tractors to move the logs.

The first half of our trip was through large grain fields. Vadium said most of them were rye. Rye bread is a staple of the Russian diet. As we drove north, the terrain became more rolling and more forested, more pine and less birch. More than half way, we passed though Tulum, a city that was once home to a very large PVC plant that had been closed. Farming, coal mining and coal-fired power plants were the major industries of the area. It was sad to see that the coal companies were not reclaiming their mine sites. Maybe someday they will.

We arrived in Brask late that afternoon; I checked into my hotel and noticed from business cards on the bulletin board in the lobby that there were a several oil companies that used this hotel as a base. After the passport routine I head for my room. Vadium said he would be back in an hour to pick me up for dinner.

Vaduim, his wife and her sister live in a 5th floor apartment in a typical government apartment building, small but very nice. We had a wonderful Russian meal with salted omul, borsht, winter salad, veal with pasta, cookies and coffee. It was a great meal and it was nice to meet his wife and sister. Vadium’s wife helps with his businesses and his sister in-law works for customs.

The next morning Vadium picked me up and we headed for the door plant. It was in an industrial park north of the city and near the large hydro damn built in the 60’s. We entered a large manufacturing complex where we had to get a pass to enter the grounds. We met Sassily, the plant superintendent. We began our tour where the sawn lumber is delivered from the sawmill in lifts with drying stickers in place ready for the kiln.

There were a total of 10 factories in the compound. One of the other plants was one that built self-contained boiler systems for heating everything from homes to large office buildings, with units as large as a train boxcar. We were given a tour of the plant by one of the staff. It was very interesting. We were already inside the compound. We walked to the plant located just north of the main building. As we entered the plant through two pairs of steel doors, we entered a security area with two armed guards in informs who checked my passport and visa to make sure they were in order. Then through another set of doors, we entered the main hall and there on the wall staring at me were four large neon lights spelling CCCP. In addition to the letters were several larger-than-life tile wall sculptures of the Russian workers, one with a large hammer in hand, another with a sickle, in the style I will call 30’& 40’s Industry Art. As our guide lead us through the plant he stated that in the time of communism, there were over 2000 workers building units for their country. Today there are only 200 and most of their units are sold in Eastern Europe. It reminded me of pictures and movies I have seen of World War II manufacturing plants – very bizarre.

Next on the tour was the large hydro dam built in the early 60’s on the Angara River, which held 18 large turbines for generating the region’s electricity – very impressive. It was similar to ones I have seen on the Missouri River.

After a nice lunch at Vadium’s favorite seafood restaurant, we visited a small outdoor museum of log buildings and small structures that had been relocated when the dam was built. It was very interesting to see what great condition the buildings were in. The dry climate had a large part in that. The first section were the shelters of the local tribes of aboriginals unlike the United States, which put our Indians or aboriginals on reservations. The communists took all lands and control of all peoples in Russia and they all have lived together. Their shelters where built of small pine poles assembled in the shape of a teepee, covered with sheets of bark and then covered with a solid layer of poles. Their coffins were of logs that were built above ground in the frozen months of the year then buried in the summer. There was a corner of a Cossack garrison, which was like the cavalry forts of the old west and an Old Russian church with a small onion dome. The log homes were very well constructed with some interesting details. One building had a roof of half logs that had been hollowed out and laid like tile. The rafters were made of logs of the base of the tree, including a main root, which made a right angle at the base, holding a large fascia board. The window header board was carved in a very detailed design that was ornate and striking. They lived with their farm animals in a small fenced compound and in some buildings; the animals lived in the lower level of the home.

We then traveled to the top of the mountain to a small ski area and a bobsled run, their Olympic teams for bobsheld and luge, then back to Brask used which Vadium said.

Vadium had been saying all week that Thursday evening we would eat at his restaurant. He had never said anything about a restaurant before so I didn’t know what to expect. He picked me up at my hotel, then his wife; her sister, Vadium and I were off to his office and restaurant. His office was a nice, clean, well-organized two-story frame building, which contained several offices including his. In fact, it was the nicest one I was in on my trip. Then it was off to dinner. We went down the stairs to the lower level to a small restaurant and bar on the north end of the building. There were no signs to let you know there was anything there. As we walked in, there were 3 or 4 people sitting at tables, and in the corner was an elevated booth with a large stained glass chandelier over a large oval table, holding the most beautiful display of food I have ever witnessed. Each dish was served on fine china or crystal. One bowl was full to overflowing with the largest grapes I have ever seen and sliced pears. There was a large plate of assorted cheeses and our old friends omul and seak lightly salted. There were also salads, rye bread, borsht, and a centerpiece of a large stuffed northern pike. Vadium said it took 2 days to prepare, including small lemon wedges for fins and black olives for eyes. For 4 ½ hours we enjoyed one of the finest meals I have ever experienced. What a dinner! This was the only time that I did not have my camera. Since our driver had gone home, we walked to my hotel. What a country!

The next morning we on our way back to Irkutsk. On our way out of town we passed a number of senior citizens marching in small groups toward a government building near by. Some were dressed in old military uniforms, some carrying large flags, and some carrying banners. Vadium explained that it was Independence Day and they were protesting their pensions, $20.00 per month. That was a fact that was very sad. We drove past the largest aluminum plant in the world. Then we stopped for lunch in a small log village that Vaduim said dated back 350 years. They were farmers and coal miners, very friendly and warm to us. Since this was a holiday there was a line at the bar to purchase some holiday cheer. We were off again and I kept noticing little motorcycles with a flat bed where a sidecar would be. One such motorcycle passed us with 2 men on the motorcycle and little boy lying on the flat bed. I couldn’t figure out what they were used for and Vaduim didn’t know. 10 miles down the road I found my answer: a motorcycle in a wheat or rye field parked at a small pile of straw being loading with straw on the flat bed with a fork. The straw
was being taken home for mulch or bedding for livestock. The next thing I saw was difficult for me to believe: 3 men herding a herd of goat, sheep, and cattle. Having been raised on a farm I was told such an arrangement did not work. Those cattle would not eat after sheep, and sheep wouldn’t eat behind goats because there was nothing left; yet there they were. Our cowboys would walk off the job if they were asked to herd cattle, sheep, and goats together. That’s sacrilege.

We arrived safe and sound back in Irkutsk where Vadium dropped me at my hotel for my last night in Russia. He stated he would return in 1 hour and we would walk to dinner. I went to their gift shop and found some nice gifts to bring home: little stone bears, small-carved birch boxes, and necklaces. Vadium arrived and we were off to dinner. We walked along the Angara River in a beautiful park to a common area were vendors had small stands set up for the holiday. Everyone was really enjoying the evening, lovers walking on the banks of the river, kids playing games in the street, older men and women sitting on park benches talking of old times and enjoying the beautiful evening. We walked past a very large brick mansion that had been the Tsar’s home but now a museum.

We passed some very fine architecture and a park, which had as its centerpiece a 3 or 4 times life-size bronze of Stalin. We were in the center of the city, on the edge of the campus of one of the colleges. It was like being on any campus in the US. Vadium lead us to an old potato warehouse, which is now a very fine restaurant, another wonderful meal.

The next morning at 5:30am, I was off to the airport to begin my trip home. It was a beautiful day and would be a great day to fly home. I made it though security in breeze, and found myself in line for boarding the plane in front a fellow carrying a 2-gallon bucket of something. As I waved good-bye to Vadium he said ‘omul’ and pointed to the bucket. Perhaps it was his holiday catch from Lake Bajkal. Sweet!

As the plane lifted off, I was not ready to leave. I wanted to know more about this wonderful country and its wonderful people. My plane headed west for over 2 ½ hours and I saw no sign of civilization: no roads, no fields, no towns, only trees, mountains and rivers. That day I saw the sun rise in Irkutsk at 5:30 a.m. and saw it set in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m. the same day.

As I was growing up we all taught that Russia was our enemy and were out to do us harm. They helped back North Viet Nam; of which I was on the receiving end in 66-68 in the Marine Corps. After my visit to Siberia I now know and understand, that Moscow and the Communist Party directed action was with the backing of the Russian people.

I recently attended a conference in the mountains of Virginia, and one of the seminars I attended was one on insects and decay as to relates to log homes, presented by Dr. Joe Loferski, a professor at Virginia Tech. Part of his presentation was about a project he had been ask to inspect an old log church and advise on its care. After his presentation I spoke to him about my visit to Siberia, and visited and shared stories about our visits. While there he was asked to dinner with a police chief in a small village. During the evening he commented on a beautiful painting that hung over his fireplace. As they leaving that evening the chief went to the fireplace and removed the painting and gave it to Dr. Loferski. Amazed I said I too had a similar experience, when I visited one of the custom woodworking shops in Irkutsk, I was in their office discussing their work, and I commented on a very nice hand carved bowl of birch burl setting on his bookshelf. After we finished our tour, as we were leaving he walked to the bookshelf and give me the bowl. He said that it was his gift to me. I look forward to working with and learning more about these talented, kind and caring people.

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