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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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://photos.app.goo.gl/cQeLFah3scPZu35dA