A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
24 January 2021
In the wake of the 1986 disaster, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant became a hotspot for UFO sightings. While writing Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide I came across a number of reports of strange aerial phenomena in the area around the plant itself, as well as over the nearby Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Then I started digging deeper – looking at the historical connection between UFO sightings, and places associated with nuclear research and power. Eventually this led me to Canada, where I realised that a famous 1967 UFO sighting – the ‘Falcon Lake Incident’ – might actually share a surprising and uncanny connection with the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.
Originally I planned to mention these Chernobyl UFOs in the book. But the story quickly grew from a few interesting reports – a passing curiosity – into a whole chapter of its own. And this new UFO chapter, jumping about from Chernobyl to North Wales, to Roswell and Winnipeg (and filled throughout with unreliable words like “allegedly,” and “claimed,” and “believed”), increasingly felt like it didn’t belong in this book… which was otherwise evolving into quite a tight, keenly-focussed and evidence-driven volume.
So instead, I decided I would share this ‘missing chapter’ here: a deep dive into the subject of Chernobyl UFOs, starting in Ukraine, and ending with an account of my own trip to Falcon Lake, in 2019, to visit the site of an alleged UFO encounter that the press called the ‘Canadian Roswell.’
The Black Bird of Chernobyl
An event as unusual as the Chernobyl disaster tends to attract extraordinary stories.
In April 2005, an article titled ‘Black Bird of Chernobyl’ appeared on the now-defunct website American Monsters. It described how employees at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the weeks before the 1986 meltdown, had been having nightmares and receiving strange, threatening phone calls, that warned of impending disaster. Some had even reported sightings of “a large, dark, headless man with gigantic wings and fire-red eyes”… though in the absence of evidence, their superiors dismissed these claims. The article describes how some first-responders at the disaster site reported a “20-foot bird” seen flying in and out of the column of smoke.
In 2019 the story was back in the news again. An Australian archeologist called Robert Maxwell, who previously made field trips to Chernobyl in 2010 and 2012, told the press that he heard legends about the Black Bird from locals while he was in the Exclusion Zone. However, in my own 20 trips to Chernobyl, I am still yet to hear the story there. Even online, the earliest account in Russian or Ukrainian links back to the American Monsters website as a source.
As it turns out, the Black Bird of Chernobyl was an American invention all along. The 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, is based on the ‘Mothman’ urban myth – about a mysterious, winged humanoid that allegedly warned citizens in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, of their impending doom in 1967. A character in the 2002 film alludes to similar phenomena that happened at Chernobyl; but according to the cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, who worked on the film, this was pure fiction. “There were no sightings. It was all made up for the movie,” he explained on Cryptomundo in 2011.
Elsewhere in America, another source would claim that intelligent alien lifeforms had taken an interest in the Chernobyl disaster. Dr George King – founder of a New Age religious movement known as the ‘Aetherius Society’ – claimed to have been sent a warning of impending disaster 4 hours and 53 minutes before the Chernobyl plant went critical, by his extraterrestrial contacts on a Martian spacecraft called Satellite Number Three. Dr King was ordered to immediately activate the earth’s “spiritual energy radiators,” and the story would then be used as evidence for the Aetherius Society’s claim that the “Cosmic Masters … have always regarded nuclear experimentation as the greatest threat to humanity and have made it clear that they would intervene where they were karmically allowed.”
However, unlike the Chernobyl-Mothman story, the idea that extraterrestrial lifeforms played a role in the disaster was not a claim limited solely to theorists on the other side of the planet. In fact, in the years following the Chernobyl catastrophe, many local people – and newspapers – would share stories about UFOs spotted in the skies over Chernobyl and Kyiv.
Chernobyl UFOs: Eyewitness Reports
Mikhail Varitsky, a senior dosimetrician with the Dosimetry Control Department, alleged that on the night of the Chernobyl disaster, he and many others had observed a UFO above Reactor 4. His statement was published in UFOs – Guests From the Future by V. Kratokhvil, in 1992: “We saw a ball of fire, and it was slowly flying in the sky. I think the ball was six or eight meters in diameter. Then we saw two rays of crimson light stretching towards the fourth unit. The object was some 300 meters from the reactor. The event lasted for about three minutes. The lights of the object went out and it flew away in the north-western direction.”
According to Varitsky’s dosimetric readings, the radiation levels coming from the reactor dropped from 3000 to 800 milli-roentgen per hour in that time, and the Russian news outlet Pravda, reporting on the sighting in 2002, would conclude: “The UFO brought the radiation level down. The level was decreased almost four times. This probably prevented a nuclear blast.”
‘Chernobyl UFOs’ became a hot topic in Ukraine in the years that followed. Dr Iva Naumovna Gospina (a medical doctor and author of self-help books) claimed to have photographed an object hovering above the station during subsequent malfunctions in September 1989. In August 1990, the Chernobyl Bulletin (Issue #64) reported another sighting:
“From 5:00 to 7:35 in the morning of 7 August, a new meeting with an unknown phenomenon took place. It was at this time that the workers of the Zone, living in the rotational village of Zeleny Mys, before leaving for work, observed in the area of the Ivankov township, at an altitude of 5-8 km, a shiny, luminous cylindrical object, resembling an empty spool of thread. The object periodically changed its configuration, the end discs were detached and their number changed from two to three. A red dot revolved around the cylinder. At 7:35, after the appearance of a military aircraft on the horizon, the UFO disappeared.”
In October 1990, the atomic scientist Alexander Krymov reported sighting another such craft above the Chernobyl Zone.
The following year, a fire broke out in Chernobyl’s Reactor Block 2 on the evening of 11 October (the event that would lead to that unit’s final closure), and five days later a local photojournalist, Vladimir Savran of the Chernobyl Echo, would report another sighting. He was documenting the semi-collapsed roof in the generator hall, and saw nothing unusual with his naked eye: “The sky was autumn grey, but absolutely clear.” When he developed the film however, it appeared to show an object similar to that which Iva Gospina had photographed two years earlier, only this one seen from beneath.
Chernobyl Echo published the photo in November 1991, adding the editorial comment: “The property of UFOs being invisible to the human eye and appearing only in photographs and on film was reported in the press more than once… Specialists who, at the request of the publisher, have carefully studied the negative, do not allow any falsification.”
Before the Chernobyl disaster, reports of UFO sightings were a fairly rare occurrence in the Kyiv region. Four such claims were recorded in total, over the previous 30 years. However, in the years after 1986, numerous citizens, photographers and military personnel in the region would report sightings of strange, glowing objects in the sky, and these were recorded by the Commission on Anomalous Phenomena at the Ukrainian branch of NTO Radio Electronics and Communications.
Between 1986 and 1990, the pilot Pyotr Vladimirovich Wojciechowski claimed to have made more than a dozen sightings of individual objects and groups of UFOs.
In September 1988 the Kyiv resident Vadim Vasilyevich Shevchuk reported a sighting of two luminous objects floating above the Kyiv Institute for Nuclear Research, in the Exhibition (VDNKh) district of the city. His description was very similar to what Mikhail Varitsky said he saw, above the power plant on the night of the Chernobyl disaster.
On 12 November 1989, at 7.46 pm, the radar operator Lieutenant Colonel V. Shavanov, on duty at one of the region’s air defence radar stations, was notified of a luminous object sighted in the sky over the Exhibition district by residents of Kyiv. Shavanov called home, and spoke to his daughter who confirmed that from their ninth floor balcony she had just witnessed: “a white cross, a rectangle, and in it – like a fiery spiral, it seemed to be pulsating, illuminated.” A fighter-interceptor pilot was sent to the location, which was again very close to the Kyiv Institute of Nuclear Research; but he found nothing.
On 20 December 1989, another anomaly was sighted above the village of Irpen, between 6-7 pm, by the local resident Ivan Kucher. He reported a luminous flying object, which moved in the direction of Kyiv – and then later, at 8 pm, a similar glowing UFO was reported above Kyiv’s Central Stadium by the photojournalist Lyubov Kalenskaya.
Another sighting was made on 13 March 1990, in the area around Kyiv TV Tower (as reported in Junior Technician). At 10.13 pm, the local residents Denis Gnatyuk, Yuri Goncharenko and Dmitry Pinchuk say they saw a “mushroom-shaped” object with pulsating lights hovering in the sky. Another witness, Sergey Bryzgunov, made a similar report, saying that he watched the same display for roughly half an hour from the Golden Ear Hotel. A further witness for the 13 March sighting was Alexei Kurganov, who described watching the same object from the Borshchagovka area.
On 16 May 1990, the engineer Sergey Ogarkov, a member of the All-Union Astronomical Geodetic Society, claims that at just after 9 pm he observed through his telescope a single UFO moving in the western sky. Later that night, residents of the Troeschina residential district claimed to have seen two such objects (resembling “inverted plates”) hanging in the sky above them.
On 17 October 1990, another UFO was reportedly watched by many Kyiv residents, hanging in the sky above Khreshchatyk and Maidan Square. (The story likely first appeared in Evening Kyiv (Вечірній Київ), printed on 2 April 1991.) The following month, on 7 November, Kyiv resident Yuri Novikov was outside with his daughter just after midnight in the Kharkov district, when they saw what he would later describe as: “An object of enormous size, a cylindrical shape of a grey metallic colour, framed by a flickering halo, hanging from under low clouds.”
For context, it should be noted that most of these reports were not made public until the 1990s. In those early post-Soviet years, the newly-free press of Ukraine published an abundance of extraordinary stories, and convoluted conspiracy theories. Beginning in the late Soviet period, post-Glasnost, and into the post-Soviet period, large-scale financial scams and pyramid schemes were also prolific in the region. UFO reports were very much in vogue in these years, and while numerous sightings detailed above were allegedly made by photojournalists, very few actual photographs exist to back them up. Of the sightings detailed here, those which don’t link to other sources were listed by a 2011 article on a website calling itself Russian News Agency – where the writer also offered their own explanation for the connection between Chernobyl and UFOs:
“From these facts, the conclusion suggests itself that on the night of 26 April 1986, it was not only the people, heroically marching towards their hellish deaths, who were concerned about the impending catastrophe. In the light of these testimonies, it becomes clear that these elusive extraterrestrials are in fact not at all indifferent to the fate of mankind and the third planet from the Sun.”
Flying Saucers & Nuclear Power Plants
The suggestion that extraterrestrials had taken steps to protect humanity from its own nuclear technology was not a new idea. Around the world, sites of nuclear significance have historically shown some of the highest frequencies of UFO reports – a correlation that seems to continue today.
In March 1993, some kind of object was sighted hovering over the Hartlepool Nuclear Power Plant in northeast England. The ufologist Richard D. Hall was cited in a local newspaper, saying: “There is a history of UFOs taking an interest in nuclear energy so the sighting in Hartlepool is not a surprise.”
In 2014, nuclear power plants in France and Belgium were put on high alert after unidentified objects were sighted flying overhead. In total, eighteen overflights were reported in France alone, between the beginning of October and the beginning of November, with some of these flights taking place simultaneously, to suggest some kind of coordinated group action. The immediate explanation was that these were drones, though the identity – or motives – of the drone pilots has never become apparent. The director of one French plant refused the drone explanation however, insisting that the objects seen flying overhead were UFOs.
By French law, it is forbidden to fly a drone within 5 km of a nuclear power plant. Such laws can often be enforced through the use of signal scramblers, as well as ‘no-fly zones’ hardcoded into the software of the drones themselves. In 2015, on a road trip through Wales, I was with a friend when he tried flying his drone close to Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Plant. We weren’t interested in the plant itself, our target was the dramatic view of a dammed reservoir downstream – but apparently we were too close for comfort, because as soon as the little drone was airborne it switched to autopilot, firing itself as fast as possible in the direction away from Trawsfynydd. It wouldn’t respond to manual controls again until we were far away from the nuclear power plant.
(After Gatwick Airport was temporarily closed due to a drone panic in 2018, the UK began looking at a whole range of new counter-drone technologies that might be applied at sites such as airports or power plants. In addition to RF and GPS jammers, this report from the ADS (representing the UK’s Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space industries) considers further options, such as the deployment of ‘hunter/killer’ drones, laser defence systems, and even trained birds of prey.)
Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Plant was closed and began its decommissioning process in 1991. Perhaps their installation of anti-drone technology was a caution built on experience – as in 2002, the plant had its own UFO sighting. In March that year, Officer Brian Roberts claimed that he and his wife had seen a flying craft hovering for around 10 minutes near the plant one evening. He described it as saucer-shaped, with “a brilliant perimeter of light moving in a circular pattern along its vertical midline” (as cited in UFO FAQ by David J. Hogan).
In 2017, The New York Times reported that of the US Defense Department’s annual $600 billion budget, $22 million was spent on its Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. This military intelligence program (which was allegedly discontinued in 2012) investigated reports of UFOs, and it was run out of an office on the fifth floor of the Pentagon building by Luis Elizondo. The program collected unidentified aeronautical debris, as well as compiling archives of video and audio recordings of UAPs (Unexplained Aerial Phenomena) going back as early as WWII. According to Elizondo, many such sightings correlated with nuclear facilities and test sites.
In the 1940s, what is perhaps the most famous UFO incident in history is linked to a location less than 100 miles from the site of the first nuclear bomb test. The seven-mile high mushroom cloud that rose above White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, in July 1945, was visible from Roswell – where two years later, in July 1947, a local ranch foreman discovered unidentified debris in his field after a thunderstorm. The Roswell case has since been explained (revealing that this wreckage was not alien in origin, but rather had been an experimental Cold War-era listening device, named Project Mogul), but there have been many sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena at the location since, which are harder to explain.
The journalist and UAP researcher George Knapp interviewed more than a dozen workers from the New Mexico atomic test site, where allegedly such sightings were so commonplace that a specific security detail was assigned to monitor them. According to Knapp, “At the facilities where we were first designing and building nuclear weapons… at the places where we were processing the fuel… at the facilities where we were testing the weapons… at the bases where we deployed those weapons, on the ships… the nuclear submarines… All those places, all the people working there have seen these things.”
The Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to set foot on the moon, grew up in New Mexico himself, and in 2015 he told the Observer: “it seems that most likely what the aliens were interested in was the fact we had a weapons testing facility at the White Sands Proving Ground and were also interested in what we were doing or what the U.S. military was doing. They were observing our activities at the White Sands Proving Ground and were monitoring our development.”
Mitchell has also been quoted talking about more recent incidents, in which UFOs were suggested to have interfered with – or even prevented – nuclear missile tests. “I have spoken to many Air Force officers who worked at these silos during the Cold War,” he says. “They told me UFOs were frequently seen overhead and often disabled their missiles. Other officers from bases on the Pacific coast told me their [test] missiles were frequently shot down by alien spacecraft. There was a lot of activity in those days.”
Regardless of the accuracy of such claims, it is a fact that UFO sightings have been reported with a greater frequency around places associated with nuclear technology. Perhaps this is because some extraterrestrial species is guiding our scientific development… or perhaps there’s a more human explanation for the correlation. Centuries ago, our wars left cities in ruin; industrial disasters could destroy a forest, or pollute a water stream. However, since the beginning of the Atomic Era – the dawn of the Anthropocene – we have been living with the existential horror of knowing that our mistakes, and conflicts, can now cause damage not just on a local, but on a planetary scale. How reassuring it would be then, to believe that we had grown-ups supervising us… to suppose that we weren’t truly left alone in the universe, to live with the consequences of our own (atomic) actions.
The reports of UFOs over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant certainly conform to this trend in the West, going back as early as the first atomic tests, which supposes that extraterrestrial craft are taking an interest in our nuclear activities, with the ultimate goal of protecting us from ourselves. But of all the Western sightings, there is one in particular that shares an unexpected connection with the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: an event which the press called the ‘Canadian Roswell,’ and which occurred at Falcon Lake, Manitoba, in 1967.
The Incident at Falcon Lake
On 20 May 1967, a Polish mechanic and amateur geologist named Stefan Michalak was out in the woods 150 km east of Winnipeg, Manitoba, prospecting for silver and quartz in the rocks around Falcon Lake. While he stopped to eat lunch, Michalak spotted something in the sky. He later described: “Two cigar-shaped objects with humps on them,” which “appeared to be descending and glowing with an intense scarlet glare.”
While one of the objects stopped roughly 25 feet (7.6 metres) above the ground, hovered and then departed, the other landed on top of a flat rock at the water’s edge. After sketching the shape of the craft, Michalak approached it, initially believing this to be some kind of experimental US aircraft – though he saw no markings or insignia on the hull. An opening appeared on the side of the craft, and Michalak assumed it had landed here to make repairs. The warm air radiating from the craft smelled strongly of sulphur. He heard voices from inside and called out to them, offering help. There was no reply.
According to Michalak’s story, he got close enough to the craft to touch its hull (burning his glove in the process), and he peered inside the open hatch to see an interior full of blinking lights; before the hatch suddenly closed, and the craft turned, blasting him with a wave of intense heat from an exhaust that set his shirt and undershirt alight, before taking off and flying away.
Stefan Michalak became severely unwell following the encounter. In the immediate aftermath he suffered from nausea, vomiting and some visual impairment, eventually making his way back to a hospital where he was treated for first degree burns on his chest. Dr Horace Dudley, a radiologist at the University of Southern Mississippi, described the symptoms as “a classical picture of severe whole body [exposure to] radiation with x- or gamma rays,” which might have implied that, “Mr Michalak received on the order of 100-200 roentgens.” However, on 22 May, Michalak was taken to the Atomic Energy of Canada Laboratory at Pinawa, where examiners found no evidence of radiation sickness – while his burns were identified as thermal and chemical, rather than from radiation. Nevertheless, over the coming days the pain in his head persisted, and a complete loss of appetite caused Michalak to lose significant weight.
Soil samples later collected from the ‘landing site’ showed above-average levels of radiation, at 0.3 microcuries. The burns on Michalak’s chest, meanwhile, swelled up in a grid-like pattern of rashes. These would continue to fade and then reappear until his death in 1999.
The press began referring to the Falcon Lake incident as the ‘Canadian Roswell.’ What set it apart from most UFO reports was the amount of physical evidence left behind – Michalak’s peculiar scars, his melted glove, his burnt cap and undershirt, along with samples of radioactive dirt – which were passed from expert to expert (the universities, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Air Force), none of whom were able to explain it. When investigators sent their lab reports to the Department of Health and Welfare in Ottawa, it raised panic over a possible risk of radioactive contamination. There were talks about closing off the area and creating an exclusion zone, though eventually, it was decided that the radiation levels – while unusual – were not sufficiently dangerous to justify such extreme action.
In 1968, Stefan Michalak returned to Falcon Lake. He had a theory that the radiation might be emanating from something beneath the rock itself. When he chipped open a crack with his rock hammer, he found metal: smooth zigzags of silver roughly four to five inches long, that fit the fissure of the rock as if the metal had been poured in molten. These silver artefacts were shown to be unusually radioactive, and according to his son, Michalak would joke that “this was alien refuse. Perhaps the craft had landed to offload some waste and what they had was, basically, UFO droppings.”
A Roadside Picnic in Manitoba
A few years after the press reported Michalak’s sighting at Falcon Lake in Canada, two authors in the Soviet Union wrote a sci-fi novel about an alien visitation. In the book, called Roadside Picnic, it is suggested that extraterrestrial craft have landed on earth to conduct routine maintenance (or even perhaps for a ‘roadside picnic’) before travelling onwards to their final destination elsewhere. The areas where these craft landed are subsequently left scattered with alien litter. Strange artefacts, dangerous substances and lingering radiation pollute the landscape, and necessitate the creation of an exclusion zone around the landing site. The novel’s authors, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, did not set this story at home, in the Soviet Union – but rather it is hinted, and later explicitly stated in Ursula K. Le Guin’s foreword for the 2012 edition, that the events of Roadside Picnic take place in Canada.
In June 2019 I visited Falcon Lake with Chris Rutkowski, a resident ufologist, and a leading authority on the Falcon Lake Incident.
We met in Winnipeg – a city that has its own tragic connection to the Los Alamos atomic tests in New Mexico. One of the first deaths by criticality accident (an uncontrolled nuclear fission chain reaction) was that of a Winnipegger. Louis Slotin was a Winnipeg-born scientist with a PhD in physical chemistry, who in 1942 was invited to work on the Manhattan Project in the US. In May 1946, he was conducting an experiment to create a controlled fission reaction by placing two hemispheres of beryllium around a plutonium core. But while separating those half-spheres his tool slipped, the upper beryllium shell fell, and it triggered a critical reaction that gave off a burst of hard radiation. The other scientists present for the experiment reported a heat wave, and a glowing blue light resulting from air ionisation.
According to the plaque that now stands in a memorial park near Slotin’s former home, on Luxton Avenue in Winnipeg, Dr Louis Slotin threw his body over the experiment to shield his colleagues from the radiation. All seven of them survived, while Slotin died nine days later in the hospital. The story has since been dramatised in a number of novels and films – and it has also been suggested that Dr Louis Slotin may have been the inspiration for the character Dr Jon Osterman, who becomes the glowing blue ‘Doctor Manhattan’ after suffering a similar accident, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (“The Superman exists and he’s
Two hours east of Winnipeg along the Trans-Canada Highway (and not far from the former Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment), at the west end of Falcon Lake we arrive in a kind of seasonal resort village. There are lakeside campgrounds, a golf course and restaurants, as well as various souvenir shops selling T-shirts, mugs and keyrings branded with flying saucers and grey alien faces (‘Zeta Reticulans,’ for those in the know). Michalak didn’t make his sighting at Falcon Lake itself, but rather a little way north, beside a smaller, crescent-shaped body of water in Whiteshell Forest. It’s only a few kilometres from the highway, but the difficult path alternates between rocks and marsh – so instead of walking, our small group approaches the landing site on horseback.
The forest is still. Pelicans patiently fish the ponds and streams. At times the clatter of our horses’ hooves along the rock and shingle path is the only sound to break the hush beneath the trees. We spot piles of what looks to be bear scat in the grass.
At the landing site, we tether our horses in the trees. Entering the clearing beside the water, Chris Rutkowski stands on the same rock where Michalak said the craft had landed in 1967, as he talks us through the timeline of events. The forest clearing feels like a natural amphitheatre. In the late 1960s, the Falcon Lake incident was big news in the West… and the subsequent novel, written by the Strugatskys in 1971, echoed many of the same story beats. An alien craft landing for maintenance, the radioactive pollution and strange artefacts it left behind; that they also went so far as to set their story in Canada, of all places, seems like too much for coincidence. But I find myself wondering how realistic it is that the Falcon Lake story made its way into the Soviet Union, where state censors tended to be highly efficient at filtering out foreign stories and perspectives.
The Strugatskys’ friend and colleague, Polish author Stanisław Lem, wrote about alien visitations himself: The Man From Mars (1946) deals with the discovery of a downed Martian vessel on earth; in The Astronauts (1951), Lem incorporates a real world mystery into his narrative, revealing that the meteorite which caused the Tunguska event in Russia in 1908 had actually been the crash-landing of a reconnaissance ship from a Venusian invasion fleet. Stanisław Lem also read international news magazines, which at the time were not officially easy to acquire in communist Poland, and he was aware of the growing trend of UFO sightings reported in the West (though he tended to doubt them), as he revealed in a 1981 interview. So it is perhaps not a stretch to imagine that the Strugatsky brothers themselves were similarly informed on such reports, and thus might have been familiar with details of the ‘Canadian Roswell’ event at Falcon Lake in 1969. Though as neither of them is still around to ask, we’ll probably never know for sure.
What is known however, is the extraordinary impact that the Strugatskys’ novel, Roadside Picnic, has had in shaping the contemporary culture around Chernobyl. The book and its later Tarkovsky film adaptation, Stalker, created a cultural blueprint for the Chernobyl Zone a decade before the disaster ever happened. The illegal tourists who visit Chernobyl today call themselves ‘stalkers,’ the same name the Strugatskys coined for the trespassers who hunted for alien artefacts in the radioactive exclusion zone around their fictional UFO landing site; while numerous sites inside the Chernobyl Zone today make reference to the novel – such as the ‘Roadside Picnic Grill Bar.’ In 2007, the Ukrainian-made video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. introduced the Strugatskys’ story to a new generation. Many of the tourists who visit Chernobyl today report that their interest in the Zone began with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games… but more than that, even some of the top tour directors, the people responsible for shaping the Chernobyl tourism experience, were fans of the game, and the Strugatskys’ ideas, before they ever set foot inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (a fact revealed in interviews, in Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide).
Beginning in the 1990s, a time when dozens of UFO sightings were suddenly being reported in the skies above a newly-independent Ukraine, Roadside Picnic provided the default template for the mystification of Chernobyl; and its story continues to shape the Chernobyl tourism experience even now. Stood beside a small, marshy lake in the forests of southern Manitoba, I wonder if it’s really possible to trace a lot of that back to an unexplained event that happened here, in May 1967.
We ride the horses back to the ranch at Falcon Lake, where the owners cook up a cowboy barbecue – steaks, baked potatoes and beans – which we eat al fresco, under the dusky early evening sky. Chris says he has something to show me. He keeps the artefact sealed inside a series of nested Tupperware containers like Matryoshka dolls. He pops open the clasps, opens the innermost container, then passes me a cool metallic object in the shape of a zigzag. It was given to him by Stefan Michalak: one of the metal artefacts found in the rocks at Falcon Lake, and alleged, by some, to be extraterrestrial in origin. One of Michalak’s “UFO droppings.” The metal is warped but smooth, like a silver door hinge bent into curious angles, and it looks slightly bubbled at the edges, as if it has been subjected to a great heat. I ask if it’s radioactive, and Chris gives a half-shrug. More than it should be, he explains: lab tests showed the metal was mostly solid silver, but with trace amounts of uranium ore in it too; just not enough to be particularly dangerous.
I move the object about in my hands. It is light, but satisfying to hold, and with a kind of fascinating allure about it. The stalker Redrick Schuhart, the protagonist of Roadside Picnic, had entered the alien landing site in Canada looking for the rarest artefact of all: a “Golden Sphere.” Now here I am at the end of my own expedition, holding a Silver Zigzag – and it feels like a fitting end to a very strange day.
I couldn’t have created this article on my own. Huge thanks go to Anton Lebedev, who spent many hours translating 1990s Russian-language newspaper stories for me. The 2017 book When They Appeared, by Chris Rutkowski and Stan Michalak, has been a fantastic resource on the Falcon Lake incident – and Chris has also been incredibly helpful in answering all my various questions about it since. The University of Manitoba is currently running a fundraiser – the UFOs in Canada Archival Fund – to digitise all of Chris Rutkowski’s research, including interviews and reports of Canadian UFO sightings going back many decades, and to make the whole collection publicly accessible online. This is a huge undertaking, and if that sounds interesting then perhaps you’ll consider donating to the cause.
I also owe a debt of gratitude here to the various lovely people who are supporting my work on Patreon. An article this long, and this dense, takes an incredible amount of time to research and write. I simply would not have been able to create this without your support – so thank you.
For anyone curious to visit the places mentioned in this article, I am now co-leading tours not only to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but also to Falcon Lake in Manitoba. These trips are running through Atlas Obscura, and pandemic allowing, I hope to be heading back to the landing site again this summer…