Monthly Archives: September 2018

Into The Wild – By Kayak

 

 

My last post left off where we found ourselves totally alone about to put our “glorified pool toys” into the water and take our first paddle strokes towards the one and only direction out of the mosquito and bear infested wilderness.

It was a moment characterized by laughter with hints of uneasy apprehension. It was mostly just the feeling of something new. None of us had much experience with any of this so the feeling of being in a tiny inflatable watercraft just felt a bit strange, and the reality that to have such a feeling, while being in such a totally wild and remote place, is a bit absurd if not idiotic did not escape any of us.

So we began to paddle, to get used to it all… the most comfortable way to sit, the best place to put our daypacks where they would be safe from water but accessible, how to get the most power out of each stroke, little by little we slowly found our groove, a process that lasted the entire trip.

The biggest revelation that occured in the first hour of paddling was one that would probably, quite literally, play the most pivotal role on how the rest of our trip would unfold. The area where we started was where the Ikat river emerged from the Ikat lakes and it was a beautiful spot. Very quiet, very peaceful. Sometimes the riverbanks would be crowded with trees, other times they would open up to grassy expansive landscape exposing the nearby hills. And the river itself…well it was more like a lake – pretty much devoid of current. The 2 person Kayak (which we began to refer to as “Idiot Two”) cut right through the water with no problem. The packraft (Idiot One) did not.

Siberia 2 (111)

 

We knew the packraft would be slower. We had been told this by people with more experience than us. But we never expected it to be quite as slow as it was. In our mind the person in the packraft would just have to paddle a bit harder to keep up with the kayak, but that would be fine because we would constantly be in rotation so after a couple hours the packrafter would end up in the kayak and would be able to rest a bit. The reality was that it was nearly impossible to keep up with the kayak for anything more than 10 minutes or so before being totally exhausted.

Two idiots tying together Idiot One and Idiot Two

And so it was that within the first hour of our mission we had already tied a rope to Idiot One and were dragging it along with its idiot passenger behind Idiot Two. Any chance of looking like a team of experienced and well prepared river runners was….well, ok…there was never really any chance of that.

So there we are, paddling along, giddy with excitement at having finally gotten into the water, when we come around a corner and there, standing in the middle of the river, majestic and regal, was a big moose. Just standing there looking straight at us. It was incredible. We stopped paddling and for about 60 seconds we just sat looking at each other, us at him and him at us. And then he slowly turned and walked towards the riverbank, climbed out of the water, gave us one last look and disappeared into the taiga. It was totally exhilarating. This is what we had come for.

 

 

We paddled on, the river picked up speed a bit which is what we wanted, but then the rocks began to appear, the water became shallow, and the bottom of the kayaks began to scrape against the rocks. This was definitely not what we wanted. The only thing that seperated my ass from the millions of liters of water below it was a 1.5mm thick piece of plastic, which was now being dragged by a swift current through sharp rocks – making a horrific sound as plastic scraped against river-reef. Once again we were all reminded just how fragile our existence is out here and dependant on these pool toys. We had no previous experience to know just how resilient this 1.5mm bit of plastic was to these scrapes. So as the water got more shallow and the scraping sound more caustic to our ears we began to abandon ship each time a shallow rapid came up and just walk the boats over the shallow parts.

This problem stayed with us until the very end of the trip, and did wonders to slow us down. Way down. Especially those first couple days on the Ikat river which had less water in it. Somehow though it threw a few more logs onto the fire of adventure that seemed to be raging just barely within the boundaries of control.

Standing up to your knees in the middle of a river as the sun casts that magical Siberian late-afternoon light onto the surrounding wilderness, gripping onto your pool-toy/ticket-out-of-here with one hand while walking through the white water of an ultra-remote Siberian river, your ass still sore from the multi-day horse trek through the bear infested wilderness, knowing that this is just the beginning of this trip… it was another one of those “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” moments.

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

 

We followed this smaller river, the Ikat for a couple days. There was some spectacular scenery, huge imposing rock formations, and one quite intense rapid that I would characterize as a class III. We stopped before to evaluate it and seeing that it was a pretty powerful shoot of water thought it best to try and avoid it somehow, but we couldn’t quite figure out a safe path around it so we just secured everything real tight, braced for it, and barreled through it. Once again a great feeling of adventure and experience-inadequacy laced together. We were smacked in the face by huge waves of water but came out the other end alive, extremely wet and cold, and with just a tiny bit more experience than before. We had to stop right there in the middle of the day and build a fire on the riverbank to dry out and warm up.

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak
That’s Idiot Two there in the middle of the shot
Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

We had tried our luck at fishing a couple times but we caught nothing. At one of our campsites I spotted a squirrel and the excitement this brought on made me realize that in fact, despite keeping our eyes peeled every day for wildlife, hoping to catch a glimpse of another moose or a bear (from the relative safety of our kayaks) – there seemed to be very little wildlife. Maybe they were just smarter than us…all hanging around the river on the other side of the mountain that dad no mosquitos?

Sometime during these days the boats also suffered their first punctures from the beating they were taking and essentially began to sink. No problem, we had a kit with everything necessary to repair them. Except none of us had ever repaired a PVC boat before. BUT… one of the three idiots had watched some YouTube videos explaining the process. Simple, sandpaper the area, clean with acetone, apply glue to both sides, wait 5 minutes. Stick together.

We felt this was simple enough…even for 3 idiots. We were wrong. We followed the directions exactly but the glue wouldn’t stick. Shit. Was the glue bad? Did we have the wrong kind of glue? We tried it again…same result. It was a very unnerving moment. Remembering where we are and how much further we needed to go. Luckily through trial and error we figured out that the cold weather (yes, nights were cold) meant that you had to skip the 5 minute waiting period entirely, and like this the patches seemed to stick…man, that was a good feeling. This patching procedure became an almost daily ritual for the rest of the trip.

Rambo had told us that at some point before Varvarinskiy (The first tiny settlement we were supposed to encounter) we would come across a single homestead on the bank of the Ikat river that was inhabited by a Russian guy named Andrei, a photographer who lived there by himself. And sure enough, after a few days on the river we came around the corner and saw a little cabin on the riverbank. From a long ways off we saw a guy come out of the house, he had obviously spotted us. He was walking down the river surrounded by a pack of dogs holding something in his hand. Was it a gun? Shit….is that a gun he’s holding? No, just a camera. Thank god.

Andrei invited us into his little home for tea and some scraps of hardened homemade bread. This guy literally lives in the middle of nowhere. By himself. The nearest little town would be Varvarinskiy (the place we were so eager to reach). He said sometimes he walks there…it takes 3 days.

He also told us that he has been living in that same spot for 45 years (!!!), and that in 45 years, other than the occasional hunter who actually lives in the area, we were the first people he has seen come down this river! I have no idea what he thought of us. He was not an easy character to gauge. He was friendly enough…as friendly as a Russian misanthropic hermit can be, but well, he was still a Russian misanthropic hermit.

He showed us a book of some of this photos that was published. Shots of local wildlife, Buryat people, landscapes, none of them all that impressive considering he had the last 45 years to work on this full time.

The most useful and concerning bit of info we got from Andrei was when he told us he has done the same trip we planned to do 3 times in his life, to float down the Vitim river to Romanovka. He said the FASTEST he ever did it was in 12 days.

To catch Tyler’s flight back to the US, we needed to be there in…..ready for it?…. 9.5 days. Our guru Valentine with is incredible speed had done it in 11.

Anyways, we had confirmed beyond any doubt what we already knew, we were WAY behind schedule. So we thanked him for his hospitality and shoved off.

Andrei waving goodbye to us as we paddled away

The next 24 hours was filled with constant analysis and disagreement on the progress we were making and estimations of when we could expect to reach Varvarinskiy. The mood was tense after the sobering news and reality of just how far behind we were falling. Rain did not help.

Luckily reality aligned with our most optimistic of guesses and a day after we left Andrei, off in the distance we saw the small settlement of Varvarinskiy. Woohooo!!!!

 

Varvarinskiy has a population of about 150 people. It is inaccessible by land using any normal 4×4 and the inhabitants count on monthly deliveries of food and supplies made

Varvarinskiy

by a small plane that arrives once a month or so. And as we made out way up the river bank to what we believed to be the one store in town a woman magically appeared with the keys to the store in her hands as if she was expecting us. Cold and wet we stomped in to behold the massive stockpile of food. It was really quite a decent selection considering the circumstances. The woman asked Bartek a few questions in Russian presumably about who we were, where we came from and how the hell we got here and I saw her eyes get bigger and bigger with each answer he gave. There was laughter, raised eyebrows, and lots of headshaking.

Varvarinskiy varvarinski vitim russia river

As we pointed to things on the shelf that we wanted she added it all up using an abacus (yes, as in “5,000 year old Babylonian counting device”). Halfway through our shopping spree we heard a rumble coming from outside that came to a stop just outside the store. Just a camouflage-clad guy stopping off for a bottle of vodka… in his tank. He paid for the bottle jumped back in his tank and cruised off. Siberia.

As we left the store with our stash of food, a couple of 10 year old kids who had been loitering around watching the spectacle that was us said “Get the fuck out of here!” in Russian. Which Bartek quickly translated for us. We thought it was just as amusing as they did. It seemed they just wanted to see what would happen if they said this to some random foreigners (possibly the first they have ever seen in their lives). I think they would have been just as happy if we stuck around so their curiosity could be satiated a bit more because they ran along the riverbank waving and following us as our kayaks, laden with fresh supplies drifted down river, out of town, and back into the wild. It would be several more days before we saw another human.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155889939551545&type=1&l=01f3e3dc7d

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Into the Wild – In the Saddle

I left off last time where Vlad had arranged horses for us to get us to the source of the Ikat river. (Click to see the previous post)

He arrived early in the morning to pick us up, but before we got in the car he explained that we needed to perform a short ritual, part of the local shamanistic traditions, that would help to ensure our safe passage. The ritual was mostly devoid of, well, ritual. Perhaps some incantations or magic words were muttered that I missed, but basically a glass of

Waiting for the milk ceremony to begin

milk was passed around and we all had to take a sip. Still, it seemed important to Vlad that we do this and we were willing to accept whatever worldly or unworldly assistance that came our way. Then we piled into his Toyota Corolla and he drove us to where the road literally ends, the last tiny town on the border of “frontierland”. Vlad had promised us that the guy who was to take us into the wilderness was “a solid guy” named Sayan.

Sayan’s home felt more like a wild-west compound or homestead, straight out of a Hollywood Western film. All wood construction, some horses standing around, a high powered rifle hanging from a nail next to a doorway, some kids with hammers and nails working on an extension of the veranda, and Sayan, who for his part in all this had chosen the Rambo costume instead of the cowboy one that went with the rest of the set. He wore his longish hair pulled back into a ponytail, camouflage pants, combat boots, and a nice big Rambo style knife that hung from his hip.

Sayan readying the horses

He greeted us with an air of equanimity and introduced us to Erdem who would also be coming along with us, a young guy who we never quite understood if he was his son or nephew or grandson. Sayan did indeed seem like a “solid guy”, the type you would want to be leading you into the bear-infested wilderness. The compound was a-buzz with his family members and a handful of others who had no doubt shown up just to witness the spectacle of these three foreigners showing up in their tiny town with big plans.

Rambo wasted no time. He led us into the kitchen of his home and pulled out a plastic tube from which he extracted a couple of battle scarred old military issue topographical maps of the area. Some space was cleared at the kitchen table, the map spread across it, and we all hunched over it and began to discuss the objective and agreed on a plan that seemed to be the most reasonable approach to reaching it.

The next order of business was another shamanistic pre-expedition ritual.  A half a dozen little glasses materialized and a fresh bottle of vodka was cracked. A few words were said, and some vodka

Sayan pouring out the first round

was flicked into the air for the spirits, who apparently do not have the same thirst as us mortals. Because the rest was for us, ALL of it. One shot went down the hatch. 3 minutes later Vlad poured the next round. A few minutes after that the third round was placed in front of me. This time I tried to graciously refuse, but that was clearly not on option. He explained that when a bottle is opened it must be drunk. And so it was that, at 9 in the morning, before setting off into the Siberian wilderness, we found ourselves polishing off an entire bottle of vodka.

Vlad (with his eager compatriot) pouring the second round

Round three, or was this four?

As if that was not surreal enough, it was around this time that one of the guys told us he had some marijuana, that Rambo would be bringing some with him because it’s good to help you sleep, and asked if we wanted some right now. “Uhhh, maybe later. Thank you”.

It was upon leaving the little kitchen, returning to the bright Siberian morning light, half drunk, observing some little Buryat kids running around, one guy loading the gun, another strapping our bags onto the back of a horse so that we can mount up and head into the wilderness, another guy rolling a joint, that I felt a wave of “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure”.

Soon it was time to head off and say goodbye to Vlad. My initial intuition about Vlad had been spot on. He was an honest guy, he just wanted to help out, he wasn’t trying to milk us for money. We gave him some anyways which he tried to refuse, but we insisted.  We were very grateful to have met him. We snapped a photo with him, mounted our horses and rode off.

Within the first few hours we made two stops at places that were obviously sacred to the local people as seen by the offerings left there to appease the spirits. Milk was thrown into the air, and of course, more vodka was drunk.

First milk offering

Second ceremony stop (That ain’t water he’s pouring out of that bottle)

We crossed the Garga river several times, each time elevating the “Holy shit – Adventure” feeling a bit more. The mosquitos were relentless, but the horses took the brunt of that attack.  We kept up an exhausting pace. Rambo was being paid to deliver us to the X on the map, not by the day, so it was in his interest to haul ass. We moved at a fast clip with almost no breaks. The romantic idea of heading off into the Siberian wilderness using horses as our mode of transportation was rattled out of me little by little as the insidious and painful reality (and sobriety) began to set in.

First river crossing

Second river crossing

After 9 hours in the saddle we were all totally wrecked. The forest opened up to a wide grassy plain upon which sat two tiny wood hunters cabins. The sun hung low in the sky casting a magical light on the whole scene.

We pointed our horses towards the cabins (hoping to God that he intended to stop there for the night) and began to part a way through the clouds of mosquitoes when Rambo spotted a wild boar in the high grass about 100 meters off. He dismounted, took aim, and POW! The boar took off running and then I lost sight of it. He had missed! What kind of Rambo was this guy! He had a perfect shot at him! It wasn’t until we got a bit closer that I realized he had not missed at all. The beast had made it 40 meters and collapsed in the grass, dead as a doornail. A perfect shot. Rambo dismounted again, and cooly tied one end of a rope to the boar and the other end to his horse’s tail (!?) and then jumped in the saddle and off we went towards the cabins, dragging the dead wild boar through the grass by a horse’s tail. The Wild East indeed.

Tyler and Rambo with the felled boar

The hunters cabin was a mess. A bear had recently raided it and left quite a scene. Tyler and I opted for our tent and missed out on the late night bong session that Bartek said later ensued just before bedtime.

I fell asleep in the tent to sleep to the sound of a million mosquitos planning a desperate and futile attack.

In the morning the mosquito siege outside the tent had only intensified. The same magical golden light that had lit up the cabins when we first saw them was back on duty, and Rambo and Son were readying the horses. We were back in the saddle by 7am.

From then on the road we had been following became less and less discernible until it just disappeared for most of the time. Solid ground gave way to flooded grassland and giant muddy pools of water. The horses struggled through, often submerged in mud up to their knees.  We crossed rivers. It rained. Mosquitoes mosquitoes. Some more rain. It was very tough going and Rambo was by no means taking it easy on the new guys. The pace was relentless.

After about 7 hours in the saddle we began to reach some higher (drier) ground as we approached the climb to the Ikat pass. We later learned that years ago this pass was so dangerously inhabited by bears and wolves that prospectors would have to give their horses vodka to give them the courage to keep moving because they were so spooked otherwise.

At the top of the pass the landscape opened up to reveal our destination, the Ikat lakes….the source of the Ikat river and our ticket out of here. The only thing that lie between us was 5 kilometers of what seemed to be easy peasy terrain of short-cropped grass, but was in fact our introduction to what we later learned is the terrain that seems to cover half of Siberia….bog. It looks like solid ground, kind of a lumpy grass, but with each step your foot would sink into a spongy hole halfway up your shin. The horses struggled through the bog while we struggled to comprehend the superpowers that Valentine had called upon to do this on foot.

We reached our final destination at 7pm, 12 hours after we started out that morning. Once again the strange and beautiful late evening Siberian light was casting its magic like a net across the landscape.

Ikat lakes

Ikat lakes

We woke the next day to find Rambo and Son already packed up and ready to start the return journey. They left some offerings of candy and cookies for the local gods, and some marijuana for us, then we said some goodbyes and watched them ride off into the morning light. It was right then that I think we all shared another “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” feeling. We were now completely alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, going back the way we came, without horses, would have been nearly impossible in these post-rain conditions. From now on it wasn’t only about a “fun adventure”, there was literally no other way out of this other than to use our own devices.

Last goodbyes with Sayan and Erdem

After hours organizing our gear, and inflating the kayaks (happy to see they were holding air) we were ready to shove off.  The moment of standing on the bank of this river, about to jump into these boats, provoked another distinct feeling, it had shades of the “Holy Shit – Adventure” feeling, but it was different. At the core of this feeling was the knowledge that we had no fucking idea what we were doing. 

I have strapped dusty backpacks to the side of dustier motorcycles with strange foreign license plates on them, I have methodically packed a backpack with just the right amount of food and all the gear to get myself safely to the top of a mountain. And each time I do those things, when I jump on that motorcycle and start it up, or I take the first steps towards that mountain peak, there is a comforting familiarity to what I am doing.

Standing on the bank of that river next to a kayak loaded up with a weeks worth of food, in the middle of nowhere and with a mandate to reach point X on a map before date Y, using nothing than these “inflatable pool toys” which at that moment seemed impossibly insubstantial… there was absolutely no comforting familiarity.

Team Idiot, about make our maiden voyage

But here we were. It’s not really a feeling of fear, it’s more that feeling when you are about to jump off a cliff into a lake or river or ocean, it’s a little unnerving to take that first step, but you know it’s going to be a rush. For us it manifested itself in laughs, mostly at ourselves and the palpable confirmation of our idiotness.

Readying our steeds

And so we took the first few unfamiliar strokes of our paddles in the direction of the unknown adventures that awaited us. 

More to come….CLICK HERE to see what happens next.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155860663881545&type=1&l=0e7a5ff190