Author Archives: Jordan

Sailing the Cosmos, Canaries to Cabo Verde

I last left you in the Canary Islands after a crash landing onto a nude beach following a 6 day sail on open waters from Portugal on La Fortuna, an old Swedish built sloop. You can click here if you missed that update.

So I had a beer (on land!!!….first beer in a week – all boats flying under a Swedish flag are dry) with Richard and Ivy to celebrate our safe arrival then we said our farewells and off I went to stick my thumb out once again, traveling to three islands hitting up marinas and posting my “personal ad” wherever I could. Some tidbits from the Canaries….

I knew exactly one person in the city of Las Palmas, the guy who had rented my bedroom while I was to be away traveling. He’s from Las Palmas and would be there for the Christmas holidays. In the 5 days that I was there, in a city of 600,000 people. I ran into him two times randomly on the streets

I got a feel for just how much competition I was up against when I saw a motley crew of more than a dozen vagabonds from all over, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, etc. They were camped out on one of the main city beaches next to the marina cooking over a little gas stove. I knew immediately when I saw them that they were hitchhikers. I struck up a conversation with them….of the 6 or so I talked to they had on average been there for more than two weeks looking for a boat. 😬

I celebrated Christmas Eve alone eating in at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It suited me just fine 😊

I was contacted by two guys readying to set sail for the islands of Cape Verde, they had room for more crew, had seen my profile and thought I might be a good fit. I met them for a beer and toured their boat, a 45 year old 12.8m(42ft.) Danish racing boat….They would become an big part of this next chapter of the story…

I had a good connection with them from the start, was happy to see the boat was well equipt and kept tidy and organized. The only issue was their itinerary, they were heading to Cape Verde and from there crossing the Atlantic making landfall in Suriname (For those who have no idea where/what that is you are not alone….it’s a Dutch colony part of “the Guyana’s” between Brazil and Venezuela)

The boat and crew were a great match, but the destination would make it really hard for me to stay on my schedule and keep my goal of not flying. But I talked it through with the guys and it was decided I would go with them to Cape Verde and once there give them an answer as to whether I would stick around for the crossing.  And like that I had found my next ride! I was gonna set sail again. So on Christmas morning I caught a ferry to the next island (Tenerife) where they had sailed to and boarded my new ride…Cosmos.

Our captain was William, a 35 year old Dane (via Lebanon & Syria). He had bought the boat 5 years ago and had slowly slowly been making his was south from Denmark with the ultimate goal to cross the Atlantic and do a full circumnavigation. There was no doubt that Will was a character. A strong personality, full of energy and bravado and with his own brand of logic. He’s very intelligent and full of all sorts of knowledge and facts, I just had to learn to sort through them to find which were based in truth and which were based on conspiracy theories. He had some Trumpian qualities for sure (who he openly admired). Political correctness had no place in his discourse, he could say things that would offend the likes of most people. But unlike a Trump, his brash ways would often be contrasted by actions or remarks that showed (genuine) empathy and a big heart. He’s a walking talking paradox, you never know what will come out of his mouth or what position he might plant his flag in on a subject.

Will’s first mate was a 30 year old polyglot who grew up between Luxembourg and Ireland. Kevin (or Kev as he prefers to be called) loves beer (was a professional brewer for years) and had done a fair share of traveling in his days. He got the sailing bug when he was living in Panama managing a hostel and went out on some sailing trips with some people he knew there. He had joined the crew of Cosmos also as a hitchhiker for the first time in 2018 back when Will was still in France with the boat and had spent bits of time onboard off and on since then. He knew the boat well and had a good working relationship with Will. From the get-go I knew I wouldn’t have any problems with Kev. He had the Irish propensity of joviality and good humor and a well-balanced demeanor.

I also met Aksel for the first time when I reached the boat in Tenerife. Aksel would be the fourth crew member who was also just joining the boat and had found Will and Kev in the same sailboat hitchhiking group on Facebook as I had.

A young 20 year old from Denmark, still wet behind the ears but well on his way to being a proper sailor (he already had his own small boat back in Denmark.) I got to like Aksel a lot, he was mature for his age and resolute in his desire to become a true sailor. He had a good head on his shoulders and kept a positive attitude.

On December 27th we set sail from the island of Tenerife bound for the neighboring island of La Gomera.

The Cosmos Crew

Some stories and observations from my time onboard the Cosmos…

In total I sailed 960mi/1550km miles on Cosmos, this was the route:

While moored in Tenerife climbing onto the boat, my phone (Fully loaded with podcasts and apps for the crossing) fell out of the pocket of my hoodie, bounced off the deck of the boat and fell right into the 15in/40cm gap between the boat and the dock. Plop….right into the water.

In the same marina where I lost my phone we had been admiring this beautiful fancy 50 meter yacht that was moored near us. On Christmas night we noticed they were throwing quite a party onboard…music and dancing. We walked closer and I said, “Wait! I think I know that girl!” In a crazy random coincidence I did! A friend of a friend I had spent a week hanging out with doing some day-sails in Barcelona. Small small world.

I was involved in another disgraceful crash landing in a dinghy on a rocky beach in La Gomera, did some nice damage to my shoulder and ribs which made it impossible to sleep on half of my body for the rest of the trip

I decided to try and dive down and recover my phone in the marina, at least I would have my SIM and SD memory card. We guessed the water was 20ft./6m deep. After a couple attempts I just wasn’t getting down fast enough, so in addition to my fins I made myself a weight belt (to the amusement of the rest of the crew) and tried a few more times. It was only after those failed attempts that someone finally thought to just check the depth meter…62ft./19m!!! .😳 R.I.P Sony Xperia XZ1

Having completed my second long crossing, I learned that for me they are not a thing of constants. Your mental state is in always in flux. One day you are totally exhilarated by the experience, the next you might just want it to be over, many days are just apathetic and/or lethargic. It’s only natural out there that your emotions come in waves too.

We completed the crossing in record time with nice broad reach winds behind us. Cosmos may be old and heavy but she was still built for racing. We averaged 6.65 Nautical miles per hour. Most boats do the crossing in 6 ½ days. We did it in just under 5.

For three days the sky was muted, a dull miserable yellowish color. We were sailing through a massive sandstorm that originated in the Sahara Desert, sometimes it was so thick you couldn’t see the sun at all. Massive amounts of dust where being blown into the air and would eventually be taken by the trade winds across the Atlantic where they provide essential minerals to sustain the Amazon forest on the other side of the pond. But before reaching there much of it had opted out of the wind in lieu of hitchhiking on Cosmos, which was completely covered in dust.

Check out the dust on that line

I became convinced that the word “lurch” defined as “an abrupt, unsteady, uncontrolled movement or staggering motion”, was most certainly invented by a sailor. I have never lurched so much in my life as I have since I started sailing.

We sailed the entire way hand-steering in shifts (for those who aren’t sailors, this is almost unheard of nowadays as most boats utilize some sort of autopilot to maintain their course). This despite the fact that we had one of these fancy autopilots onboard that cost several thousand dollars and works perfectly well. Just one of Will’s little quirks.

I got to scramble up the mast with a safety harness to free up a line that was stuck and I got a birdseye view of Cosmos.

You always need someone awake at the helm which means you often have to wake up at one in the morning to sit alone in the darkness of night for several hours, this along with the rocking motion, the constant noise from the water and the boats rigging, and just general sleep irregularity on a crossing totally messes with your biorhythm and leaves you in a constant state of impaired awareness, also probably a big contributor to the emotional waves.

In 5 days we never saw a single other boat.

Despite diligently putting out our lines everyday, and checking on them incessantly, by the last day of our sail we had still not caught a fish. And then all of sudden hits on both lines! A hysteric scramble ensued. We had not quite perfected the protocol for hooking a fish. But we managed to pull in our catch (we were hand-lining). Two nice Mahi Mahi (Dorado)! Our giddy happiness perhaps a bit overexaggerated for our small accomplishment. The smiles say it all.

Aksel got a bit carried away…like I said, we were pretty excited

We rang in the New Year right around here: CLICK LINK

Nightshifts are a solitary march through space and time. It’s hard to describe. First the alone-ness is compounded by the reality of the fact that you are a tiny speck floating through a pitch dark night with no land or man-made thing in sight. The barely perceptible horizon extends evenly in every direction creating a sense almost akin to vertigo. And then above you there is a full 180 degrees of dark blue sky ripe with shooting stars just waiting to be harvested by your eyes. And then there is the phosphorescence, “magical” blue and green light that flickers and dances in the ripples of the water like telescopic photos of the cosmos. And this magical phosphorescence is delivered by the waves, which on a moonless night you can’t see approaching like you can in the day, so every once in a while a 4 meter wave will hurl the boat in once direction or another and you have to wrestle not to get knocked too far off course. Speaking of which, when you aren’t staring the elusive horizon, harvesting shooting stars, staring at the magical phosphorescence, or wrestling the helm, (and when your handsteering) then your eyes are glued to the glow of a spherical compass that just never seems to sit still no matter how much you try and micro-steer. You can only get away with taking your eyes off the compass for about 4 seconds max or you risk veering far enough off course that the sails could jibe (when the boat changes direction so that the winds forces the sails to the opposite side of the boat). The whole things somehow manages to be both stimulating and monotonous at the same time, all with a serving of introspection, loneliness, and moments of feeling very much alive.

We arrived in the small fishing village of Palmeira in Cape Verde on the island of Sal at seven in the morning on January 4th, very excited to get into the harbor, drop anchor and make landfall. Went to start the engine to motor in – Nada. There was such a thick layer of dust on the solar panels that we didn’t have battery enough to turn the engine over. So we had to sail around in circles just outside the harbor for 5 hours!

Our GPS track upon arriving at the first island in Cabo Verde

The important thing is that in the end we arrived safe. In total I would spend 16 days onboard Cosmos. But after being a few days on anchor in Palmeira, in an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events, Will gave up my space on the boat to a couple who he had sailed with a few months prior. I wasn’t too pleased about the circumstances around this, but I guess being captain has its benefits and there was not much I could do about it other than try not to let it get me down or take it too personally.

So I found myself once again with the thumb out, looking for my next ride, having traveled thus far 750mi/1150km overland and over 2000mi/3200km by sea.

So here I am on a tiny African island nation off the coast of Senegal…a bit closer to my goal but still a long ways away. I’m currently on the Island of San Vicente in the town of Mindelo, spending my days hanging around the marina pestering every new boat arrival along with about a dozen other hitchhikers (most of whom have been here for weeks). I’m trying to keep a positive attitude, I’m sure I will get a ride soon 🙂 But there is more to Cape Verde than marinas, and I hope that in the next post I can share some impressions of the country with you. Until then, click to view a few more photos from the trip (if you move the mouse towards the bottom of the photos you will see some have a bit of commentary)

And if you want to track my movements (and maybe get a sneak peak of any departure across the Atlantic that I make before I get out another blog post) you can always use this link to see where I am in the world: https://share.garmin.com/JordanJones (Click on “View all Tracks” in the upper right if you want to see my prior routes)

 

 

 

 

Setting Sail from Portugal

If you didn’t read my last post feel free to check it out, it explains how I found myself being dumped onto the floor of a 45 year old sailboat while being tossed around in the middle of the sea.

About 24 hours prior to that I was meeting the boat’s skipper for the first time at a marina just outside of Lisbon. Captain Richard is from Sweden and got into sailing a few years back. He bought his boat and has been sailing around in the North Sea gaining the experience he would need for his big plan….to sail from Sweden along with his fiance Ivy to the Philippines where she is from. Not bad!

I felt comfortable with the crew right away. Richard turned out to be a super easy going mellow kind of of guy.

Ivy was the lively, expressive and spontaneous one.

Ivy

Richard had also accepted another crew member who was in the same boat as me (damn pun…literally and figuratively). Maksym was about the same age as me and aside from some sailing lessons as a kid had not been on boats as an adult and was also just curious about the world of sailing, wanted to do a decent size crossing to see what he could learn and how he liked it.

Maksym

I got a little introduction to the boat, went on a shopping mission with Max to get provisions to feed 4 people for a week at sea, and then when the wind started to pick up around midnight we hoisted the sails and floated out into open waters. I would spent 9 days aboard La Fortuna. So what was it like?

  • I learned a LOT about sailing. The most important and scary thing I learned? Just how much more I have left to learn
  • Max jumped into the freezing cold Portuguese Atlantic waters and swam all the way to the beach near where we were anchored. After this he was affectionately referred to onboard as “The Crazy Ukrainian”.

  • I watched a giant full moon rise out of the sea three nights in a row and bathe the boat and the water with pearly light
  • We set sail from Lisbon and traveled a total of 870miles/1400km.
  • In all my travels it has always been my way or the highway so to speak, well, actually it was my way AND the highway. But the trip was always my own or I had entered it with a partner and it was “our” trip. Now it was interesting for me to have to adjust to being the tag-along on someone else’s trip. I learned a lesson in letting go of control, that not every decision was mine to take.
  • I learned to cook in a tiny galley with waves tipping the boat to 40 degrees in each direction
  • This journey has been to learn to sail but also to learn how much sailing I would like to do. I don’t want to buy a boat and outfit it for a circumnavigation only to find that after 2 months of it I am bored. My hopes are this trip will let me know what my true appetite for sailing really is. I can say that on the first day, in 4-5 meter swells and feeling slightly seasick, I already had doubts just about finishing this one Atlantic crossing I had just set out on! By the end of the trip I had gained appetite for more, but still not for a full circumnavigation (something that would take 2.5-3 years). At the time of writing this I would say I am still excited to buy a boat and do a real sailing mission of my own. But I think I would have my fill of life at sea after 8 months or so. We’ll see how this appetite grows or diminishes as I the journey continues.
  • I had to make some adjustments to my bed so that I wouldn’t get dumped on the floor every 5 minutes.

  • Max and I tried for 30 minutes during the peak of “the high seas” to capture with the camera what a 5 meter wave looks like as it rolls towards the boat. We hung off the side of the boat from different angles and tried different perspectives, trying to include more or less of the horizon or the boat in the photo…we tried everything. But  camera simply cannot capture the depth of field necessary to get a feel for the height of the waves. So you’ll just have to trust me, they were big 😉
  • During one of the times we had no wind and were motoring the motor suddenly died. This will deliver a shutter of anxiety to any sailor. Luckily it was just a fishing net caught in the prop and we had a crazy Ukrainian onboard who didn’t hesitate to dive in with a knife and free us.
  • Seasickness. I have been on several boats in my life and on more than one occasion there were crew members vomiting off the side while I was making myself a sandwich. I thought I was well immune. But when we first set sail from Portugal in rough seas with swells of 3-5 meters….I did not feel well. Nothing to the point of wanting to vomit, but I was definitely “on the spectrum” of seasickness. I didn’t eat anything for almost a whole day. This was very disturbing considering that it was the first day of an adventure that was to keep me at sea for 6 weeks. I hoped and prayed it would not last

 

  • I pined for a shower. By the time I first got one it had been 10 days since I had had a proper shower.
  • We conversed with a pod of dolphins

  • When I was still on the boat but about to disembark, I remember thinking to myself that if someone offered me another ride across the Atlantic leaving that next day that I would find it hard to accept…I felt I really needed at least 2 or 3 days on land before just heading back to sea. But the next morning (after one night on land), I had already had my fill of land and would have happily joined another boat
  • While Max was swimming through the icy cold Portuguese waters to the beach, Ivy had already donned her wet-suit and was swinging from the halyard line into the sea. Feeling the pressure, Richard and I each took a pathetic swim barely making contact with the water long enough to get wet.

  • We reveled in the fact that with each day’s sail we were going further south, away from the European winter and the cold. By day 3 I had shed one of my layers, and by day 5 I was even walking around in shorts for a brief moment. But we were always hoping for weather that we never got. We just wanted one day of full sun. It would peak out here and there, but never for long. This shot was taken during the brief 40 minutes we had on day 5 when the sun came out in full and the water was nice and calm
  • For three nights after making landfall I would wake up in the middle of the night, in a bed, on land, feeling my body move side to side with the waves.
  • I listened to LOTS of podcasts and audiobooks.
  • Arriving in the Canaries I immediately sprang into action looking for the next ride across the Atlantic. I hitchhiked from the south of the Island to the north stopping at 3 marinas to leave my little flier on their announcement board. Even on this much-less-trafficked island there were already about 8 fliers up from other crew seeking boats. Competition was going to be fierce!
  • The seasickness I felt as we cast off from Portugal only lasted for about 18 hours. After that I was happily cooking down in the galley while 4 and 5 meter waves tossed us about. HUGE relief that it was something I just needed time to get used to.
  • On the last night in the boat we dropped anchor in front of a beach at about 11 at night after 6 days on the open ocean. The next morning, we piled into the dinghy to motor to shore and made perhaps the most disgraceful landfall ever. We totally botched the timing of the waves and came careening into the beach sideways getting totally soaked with people jumping over into the water trying to keep bags from getting wet everyone shouting conflicting orders….a total disaster. And when we finally gained composure and looked up, about 4 meters away was a couple in their late 60’s naked as the day they were born with big smiles on their faces having just thoroughly enjoyed a good show. We had anchored at the nude beach.

    Don’t be fooled, this picture was taken during the tiny 30 min. window of nice weather that we had

    So, the journey has begun! I don’t have many pictures from this first leg of the journey but there are a few more to see if you click this link.

    I don’t want to give away too much of what will become the next update, but lets just say that I rang in the New Year of 2020 right about here: Click Google Map Link  I’ll update when I can the story of the boat I ended up on and what’s in store for me next. Happy New Years to all 🙂

 

Hitchhiking Across the Atlantic

….An introduction to the next adventure

I had been laying down for a half hour or so listening to a podcast when I decided it was time to get some sleep. I pulled my earbuds out, turned off my phone and literally within 60 seconds of relaxing my body and turning my focus towards sleep my entire body was hurled off the bed and with a big THUD I found myself on the floor.

About 10mm of fiberglass separated me and the Atlantic ocean that plunged below me to a depth of one and a half miles.  Outside a bright full moon illuminated waves that reached 5 meters in height at times. I had by this time already been sailing for about 24 hours in these huge waves, ever since we pulled anchor from the southern tip of Portugal. I was on a small 45 year old 33ft/10m monohull sailboat bound for the Canary islands. It would be another 5 days before we would spot any land.

“Throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the tradewinds in your sails. EXPLORE. DREAM. DISCOVER” – Mark Twain

So another adventure has begun! I had been preparing for a big Africa trip all year. Much of the planning had already been done, the rough itinerary, visas, even a review of what vaccinations I was due to renew. The idea had actually been conceived of a couple years ago and had already been shelved once in lieu of the Siberia adventure (more on that here) The plan was to fly to Rwanda in late December of this year, buy whatever little Chinese made motorcycle the locals were riding and attempt to ride it overland across Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia, finishing in Cape Town South Africa. Wild camp along the way, and explore a part of the world I don’t know so well.

The VERY rough itinerary would have looked something like this:

However this plan fell apart when I learned that security issues in Sudan have improved some since the last time I had considered a long overland trip in this part of the world. That opened up the possibility that perhaps I was thinking too small. Maybe I should instead be planning to just do the whole thing overland….that is to say starting in Barcelona with a motorcycle and going all the way overland to Cape Town. Once the seed of this new plan was planted it grew like a weed and the decision was made. But a trip like this requires much more planning and money, not to mention I wouldn’t want to set off driving through Europe in the middle of winter. So the Rwanda trip was scrapped to make way for the bigger and better plan that would come to fruition later…perhaps next year.

Maybe something like this…

But I already had my heart set on some sort of adventure to escape the winter in Europe so I decided to make some new plans. I had become more and more interested in learning to sail in the last couple years. Having familiarized myself quite well with land travel it just seemed like a natural evolution to want to tame the seas as well.

One might ask, “But Jordan, didn’t you already try that back in Colombia 8 years ago? Didn’t that end in a near-death shipwreck experience”. Yes…and yes. For those who became readers of my blog after that feel free to read the story here.  But I once heard someone say that there are only two sailors who have never run aground on a boat. One never left the port and the other was an atrocious liar. So I have got that out of the way.

So as a first step back into the world of sailing this last summer I joined several sailboat hitchhiking groups online that are meant to connect sailboat captains with able-bodied crew. I wanted to spend a chunk of time on a boat, gain some experience and also just to see if it was even something that I had an appetite to do more of. I ended up with a misfit group of sea pirates lead by a couple of young Italians who had scraped together some money to buy an old 31ft. boat named Mon Amour. There were six (yes SIX on a 31ft. boat) of us onboard this little boat for the 10 day sail from Rome to Sicily.

Mon Amour

The atmosphere onboard was all “Summer in the Med” lots of fun, beers, snorkeling, swimming, great food (one of the captains was a chef), stopping at every beautiful little island along the way occasionally hitting up a pizzeria in some small port town. Beautiful blue skies and a perfect 80°f/28°c daytime temp with water temperature about the same. There was even an active lava spewing volcano to spicen up the adventure. The crew were all young enough to be my kids but we were all like-minded life-hogs and despite being 6 of us on a tiny boat we all got along swimmingly (sorry for the pun). It was basically hedonism with some sailing involved. I already knew I had a taste for the former, and I learned that I also enjoyed the latter. So this is what sailing can be like? I had a feeling it’s not always like this but I my interest was piqued. I began dreaming about buying my own boat in the next couple years to set off on a long ocean journey.

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For more photos from the summer sailing trip CLICK HERE

So when Africa got delayed I turned all my attention to the seas. Perhaps I could take a more serious crack at learning to sail and turn it into a great adventure, my Plan B for escaping the winter. So I signed up to take my RYA Day Skipper Theory Exam….kindof the first step towards becoming a licensed sailboat captain and as I worked through that I was scanning every website, Facebook group, and forum that exists to connect crew with boats. I first found a couple boats in Asia that were interested in taking me onboard. But I’m trying to fly less nowadays to keep my carbon footprint down so Asia was not my ideal option, it would require two long-haul flights to get over there and back. The ideal plan seemed to be to hitchhike across the Atlantic ocean. A carbon zero ride to the other side of the world so I’d only require one long flight home.

When I told my parents about my idea to hitchhike on a sailboat across the Atlantic they were not surprised, they have long since ceased to be surprised by my ideas, the first thing they said was “Ahh well, then you will not be so far from home, you can pass through for a visit before returning to Spain”. The original idea was simply to cross the Atlantic, spend some time tooling around in the Caribbean jumping on other boats gaining some more experience, and then head back to Europe just in time for the arrival of spring. But a visit home added the possibility of a new dynamic and objective to the trip. The objective….Barcelona to Las Vegas without stepping onto an airplane.  If I could just get myself to some Central American coastline by sailboat then I could travel overland through Mexico and into California. Et voilà! It would all depend on what opportunities I could find once in Caribbean, but it’s a worthwhile objective.

“I can’t wait for the oil wells to run dry, for the last gob of black, sticky muck to come oozing out of some remote well. Then the glory of sail will return.” -Triston Jones

Anyways, first I have to get myself to the other side of the pond hitchhiking on a sailboat and the problem is I am not the only one with such ideas of hitching rides across the seas. Especially nowadays with more and more people who have a lust for travel but an aversion to flying. Basically there is competition to get on boats. A LOT of competition especially for the Atlantic crossing. Cute experienced girls get picked first, then cute non-experienced girls, then super experienced sailors next, and then it gets harder and harder for each demographic with non-experienced couples and vegans at the bottom of the list. So at least I have an edge on some.

All boats follow more or less the same route across the Atlantic and there is only one window of time during which the weather conditions are favorable for an East to West crossing, late November through February, with most boats choosing to sail late November or early December in order to reach the Caribbean in time for Christmas and to minimize any time having to endure anything resembling a winter. The route is Europe to the Canary Islands where most boats leave from directly to cross the Atlantic, those that don’t leave from the Canaries will instead continue further south to Cape Verde to start the crossing from there, this somewhat shortens the crossing.

In any event I focused all my attention on the online resources to find a boat. After about 6 weeks of scouring every website, online forum, and Facebook group I finally found a captain sailing a 33ft/10m boat named La Fortuna from Portugal to the Canaries and eventually to Cape Verde. He didn’t have plans to cross the Atlantic but like any hitchhiker you take whatever ride will get you closer to your destination.

So on December 9th I left my home in Barcelona and boarded an overnight train to Lisbon (opting out of what would be a much cheaper flight) where I would meet Captain Richard, his fiancé Ivy, another crew/hitchhiker named Maksym from Ukraine, and La Fortuna….the boat that we hoped would get us all safely to the Canary Islands.  And that is how I ended up dumped onto the floor of a boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by giant waves tossing us about in the sea. I’ll leave you there for the moment and will try and get out another update in the next days to describe the journey in more detail.

LA FORTUNA (?)

Click here to read the next installment….

Out of the Wild

If you are just finding this Siberia story you might want to start reading it from the beginning, this first post. Otherwise…I previously left off as we paddled away from Varvarinskiy, fully stocked with new food supplies but several days behind schedule.

Happy to have reached the River Vitim

Later that same day we hit our next big milestone which was the confluence of the river we were on (the Vitimkan) with the Vitim river, the large river we were always aiming for that we would follow to our finish line, which somehow seemed to be getting further and further away. We had high hopes that once we hit the Vitim the water levels might be higher and thus faster and that we would be able to make up for some lost time. This was not the case.

Our hopes for faster waters shattered, we realized that if we were going to have any chance of making it to Romanovka it was going to be if we pushed ourselves even harder and faster, so that is what we did. Our days became occupied with constant analysis of our progress, and this progress was constantly disappointing. Our routine was to wake up, waste no time in breaking camp, eat a hasty breakfast, pack the boats, and then jump in. Once on the water we would essentially paddle full power with a couple short snack breaks and maybe a 45 min lunch break until the sun was almost down and it was time to look for a camp spot. There was no time for relaxation, or any exploration of the surrounding wilderness that did not serve to get us further downstream.

There were specific forces working against us that we constantly had to fight off, endure, or at times simply submit to. Mostly it was just the long stretches of flat motionless water that we called “pancakes” which separated the occasional whitewater. The slow motionless water resisted our paddle strokes with pure malice. It seems unreal that we could paddle as hard as we did only to feel the boats move like sponges through a giant pool of maple syrup, which is exactly what it looked like. There was nothing more disappointing than coming around a bend to see a kilometer or two of dark maple syrup shining motionless in the sun, and there is nothing you can do but dig your paddles in and slog through it.

Pancakes and maple syrup

Sometimes it was rain we had to deal with, in general we had spotty weather and lower than normal temperatures. If the rain wasn’t so bad we would just paddle through it, other times it just made more sense to stop and wait out the harder rainfalls. And maybe even  more frustrating than the flat water and the rain was the wind. When we faced a headwind it was as if no matter how hard we paddled it always felt like we were dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us. Ahhh wait…we WERE dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us! Idiot Two was still dragging Idiot One behind it, in all it’s exceptionally hydrodynamic glory.

On that topic…for several days we had been pooling our collective genius to sharpen the point on an new plan that we believed might just get us out of this mess and propel us literally and figuratively towards our goal. There came the day when apparently we felt we had debated the intricacies of the plan enough that it was time to put it into action. We called the plan “Idiot Three”.

The idea was that maybe it would be faster if we unloaded some of the weight from Idiot Two onto Idiot One and exchanged that extra weight for an idiot. Thus making Idiot One essentially a cargo ship and making Idiot Two… yes, Idiot Three.  

Three Idiots, preparing for Idiot Three

So on a particularly windy day three idiots decided to pull the trigger on Idiot Three and implement the plan. It was tricky because with three of us on the same kayak sitting so close together we had to synchronize our paddle strokes so that we paddled in unison, otherwise our paddles would collide with each other. This coordination and its resulting failures, as one may imagine, added the potential to earn many extra idiot points, which we racked up in spades. And on top of it all, it just didn’t work. It didn’t add any speed whatsoever to our pace.

Idiot Three

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey

Aside from these struggles we were also paying close attention to an infection that seemed to be inhabiting Tyler’s foot…an infection that looked frighteningly similar to the infection that he got the last time he decided to take some time off work and join me on one of my adventures in the Amazon. That time it landed him 5 days in a Colombian hospital.

There was also one rather technical rapid that we had to pass through. Our guru Valentine had written about it and Andrei the photographer hermit had also warned us about it. It was called the Mariktinskiy rapids and had the potential to turn our entire adventure upside down along with our kayaks. It was a couple hundred meters of fast water completely littered with large boulders that we would have to nimbly avoid colliding with. We had it marked on our GPS so we knew it was coming and had time to stop before, do a little bit of scouting, button down the hatches and get ourselves properly suited up. It was an exciting little run and we got through it without any major damage done.

Getting suited up for the big rapids

Aside from all this we just enjoyed the whole experience for what it was. The scenery was still amazing and diverse, occasional rocky cliffs giving way to rolling hills and taiga. Unfortunately though the wildlife was still strangely missing from the picture. Still not a single siting of anything more than a squirrel since the siting of our royal moose on the first day. We did however come across some large paw-prints on the beach of one of our campsites which we can only imagine came from wolves.

We also started to have some luck with fishing. All of a sudden we started getting hits. We reeled in a few fish within a couple hours. This added a welcome new element to our daily routine but unfortunately we were so hard pressed to keep on schedule we just didn’t have much time to devote to fishing.

So it was that the day came when we were on schedule to reach the tiny outpost of Ust’ Jalinda, about the same size as Varvarinskiy. Also cut off from the outside world. Only about 70km as the crow flies from our goal of Romanovka, it is impossible to reach by any 4×4 vehicle.

By this point Tyler had to be in Romanovka in exactly 5 days. At the pace we were going (still 270 kilometers on the river to go) we were exactly 7.5 days from Romanovka. The plan to solve this problem was to find someone in Ust’ Jalinda who had a boat with a motor on it and pay them to motor us downstream for one day to get us back on schedule, or even better a bit ahead of schedule so we could slow our roll a bit and take things at a more leisurely pace.

Ust Jalinda off in the distance

The town sat a half kilometer from the riverbank so I stayed with the kayaks while Tyler and Bartek wandered into town to buy our way out of this mess. What they found out was that somehow, despite the fact that this town exists at the confluence of two different rivers, in the middle of nowhere, there was not one person in the town who owned any sort of buoyant motorized mode of transportation. BUT, we were in luck. Why? Because once a month the government subsidized public transportation that links Ust’ Jalinda with Romanovka makes the 7.5 hour journey overland, and coincidentally it leaves tomorrow and there happens to be three seats left.  Siberian public transportation?

We had already used airplanes, cars, horses, and kayaks to get to where we were. It was only logical that we would end up in a tank. Right?

We didn’t want to get off the river, but at this point we had no choice but to jump on this opportunity. It was physically impossible for Tyler to get to Romanovka at the pace we were going. So adaptability became the name of the game and we decided to accept the tank ride and then once in Romanovka see what could be done as far as arranging someone with a boat or a tank with whom we could work out some way to get us back on the river for a few more days but still make it back again to Romanovka for Tyler’s flight.

Local Buryat woman watching as they loaded up the tank

The tank left at 7am the next morning. We set our alarms for 5:00 thinking it would give us plenty of time to break down the tents and get things packed. In true idiot fashion we did not realize until we were halfway through packing that we had crossed a time zone sometime in the previous days and that it was already 6:30. We were about to miss our only ticket out of here which had been handed to us on a silver plate. Somehow we managed a wild scramble to get ourselves to the village with all our gear just a few minutes after 7.

We met our “driver” Sergei who looked like he had wrestled a few bears in his day but he had a friendly disposition. We paid the man and piled into the back of the tank along with the other passengers, a couple teenage girls, a 4 year old, a baby, an old man, and a few women. Then we rumbled off into the taiga.

The bone rattling journey took 7.5 hours during which children vomited and diesel fuel mysteriously pooled up around our feet. We stopped for a couple breaks to relieve ourselves, pick berries, and test the tank’s sea legs.  

Sergei our driver

Sergei dropped us off in town center. Romanvoka, with a population of a few thousand people and a (dirt) road that actually connects it with the outside world, Romanovka had become a bit of a Shangri-La in our imaginations. Surely we would find hot water flowing from golden

Our roommate

shower heads and toilets where one would not have to worry about finding 20 mosquito bites on their ass after finishing up.

The reality was there was no guesthouse in the town at all, but a nice Buryat woman who owned a shop offered to let us roll our sleeping pads out on the floor of an empty room next to her little general store, we would just need to share it with the night guard, this guy. Sure. He looks harmless.

We threw our bags down and asked where we might find a shower. There was no shower. No problem, maybe just point us in the direction of the sink so we could wash up a bit. No….no sink. Water? We were pointed in the direction of the Vitim river which sat a hundred meters away. The toilet was an outhouse behind the shop. Ok. So we still had not reached “civilization”, but it really was a Shangri-La in its own way. There was cold beer, hot coffee, and people watching. We indulged in all of these and then sat down on the floor to take stock of our situation.

First order of business was to take advantage of our connectivity (our phones worked here) and check the weather forecast for the next days on every possible weather site we could find. The

Downtown Romanovka

consensus among all of them was terrible, low temperatures, and rain all day and night for the next 4 days. Then there was Tyler’s foot, which was still swollen up like a balloon and while we had managed to keep it from getting any worse it was not getting any better either.

Bartek and I were supposed to continue on from here and do another 500 kilometers on the river. But with the weather forecast the way it was and our pathetic pace, we would be hard pressed to reach the end goal on time (there was no option really to just do a part of it because there was no way “out” aside from the one small plane that would leave from the village 500km downriver.)  Mostly it was just the thought of getting back in the boat knowing we would have nothing but grey cold wet weather for at least the next 4 days, there is just nothing pleasureable in that. All this coupled with general exhaustion from our no-rest full-on pace and a feeling that we had lived one hell of an adventure already was enough to lead us towards what would probably be the smartest decision these idiots would make on the whole trip….to throw in the towel.

Romanovka looking over the River Vitim

It had been an insanely wild adventure. It seems like months had passed since Vlad drove us to Rambo’s wild-west compound where we downed vodka shots to appease the spirits, since we had crossed rivers, mountain passes, and endless bogs on horseback, since our first unsteady days in the boats learning the ropes, since tea with Andrei the hermit photographer, since arriving in the rain in Varvarinskiy like ghosts emerging from the closet to surprise the locals with our presence. Each campsite we stayed at along the way was unique and each one held the stories of the day that had passed, stories which we re-lived over a blazing fire surrounded by our wet gear, our kayaks on the shore nearby turned bottom up, as if the moonlight would help to dry the glue on the freshly patched holes created by that day’s micro catastrophes. And then we reached our (new) finish line by tank…go figure.

So what did we learn in all this? That experience should not be underrated, but that inexperience should not be over-dramatised. Valentine’s footsteps were hard to follow in our freshly minted shoes, but our total lack of experience never felt like an obstacle that could not be overcome.  Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into the deep end to learn how to swim.  Speaking of the deep end…I can’t wait to see what the sailing enthusiasts say when I post in their forum my plans to sail from Spain to Papua New Guinea.

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/54aUbrJumQ6fp2V78

 

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

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://photos.app.goo.gl/DTXQMfCYjWHxeu2J7

Into The Wild, First Steps

You may remember my mention in my last blog post about Valentine, our “guru” who to our knowledge is the only other person to have done the route we planned to do.

If there is one thing that we learned from our attempt at this trip it is that Valentine is no guru.

In fact he is more like a superhero, endowed with powers far beyond the average intrepid adventure seeking idiot, of which demographic shoes we shamelessly filled.

Yet we tried our best to follow dutifully the sound of his pipe, one GPS coordinate at a time.

I guess its safe to say that we didnt, in the end, reach our goal. At least not in kilometers covered. But the goal of radical adventure and of finding that remoteness, that patch of untouched of land? That we accomplished.

The trip was essentially a massive test in problem solving, adaptability, and endurance, all administered with a healthy dose of inexperience and comedic relief.

The problem solving, which had begun long before any flights were purchased, continued the minute we all found ourselves in Irkutsk, a small Siberian city with an international airport. After sorting through all our gear, divvying it up and cramming it mercilessly into our backpacks, in a way we were quite impressed that we fit it all in, but there was still some math that wasn’t adding up. There were three of us, and four huge backpacks, which had a combined weight of about 93 kilos (205lbs). The fourth being the two person kayak.

Problem solving commenced and a throng of ideas poured forth, with contributions coming from as far as Germany and Nevada. Tyler was a big fan of tying the fourth pack to a long pole with each end resting on the respective shoulder of two intrepid idiots. This would have earned us style points no doubt, but it met resistance with Bartek and I. Valentine had used a little two wheel cart thing during his trip, although his blog dropped a few hints that it hadn’t worked out so great. Nonetheless we thought it worth consideration.

We spent the better part of a day wandering around Irkutsk looking for bear spray and firecrackers to ward off unwanted camp visitors, picking up other last minute supplies, and all the while keeping an eye out for two wheel carts with monster truck wheels, with none to be found.

Tyler, riding the Babr. The Babr is the symbol of Irkutsk, a mythical animal that showed up on the citie’s coat of arms in the 1600’s and somehow came to look like the lovechild of a beaver and liger.

The next morning the alarm went off at 6:45 so that we could hastily finish the last bit of packing that had to be done and get to the train station on time to catch our 8:30 AM train to Ulan-Ude. Miraculously we succeeded in this mission, arriving proudly at the train station with even a few minutes to spare to order an instant coffee from the babushka at the station cafe. We were puzzled to find that our train was not showing up on the board that announced which track each train would arrive and depart from. Inquiries were made and a local seemed to take some small pleasure in explaining to Bartek that ALL trains in Russia depart from “Moscow time”. Irkutsk being 5 hours ahead of Moscow, that meant that our train would not show up on that board, or any track, for quite a while.  I think this was the first time one of us referred to ourselves as “Team Idiot”. It wouldn’t be the last.

Tyler was not too keen on waiting this one out so the problem was solved by paying a private driver to leave then and there and get us to UIan-Ude.

After a night spent wandering the streets of Ulan-Ude, basking in the gaze of father Lenin and in the shadows cast by soviet era block housing, we were back on the road heading north east, this time our trajectory was completely away from any and all cities, in fact the highway we were taking literally leads to nowhere, it would eventually be swallowed up by the taiga somewhere not long after our next destination, Kurumkan.

The driver of our transport to Kurumkan was a friendly Buryat* who happened to be from Kurumkan, which was an amazing coincidence considering that it was over 400km away and had a total population of just a few thousand people. His name was Stas.

*Just a quick side note….The Buryat people make up the largest indigenous group in Russia. They inhabit the lands around the eastern side of lake Baikal, mostly in the Russian state of Buryatia (where we found ourselves bumping along in the van of Stas) and were traditionally a nomadic people who kept animals, hunted, and fished to survive. Closely related genetically to their Mongolian neighbors, their language (which is still widely spoken in Buryatia) is also similar to Mongolian. The religion they practice is a blend of shamanism and Tibetan buddhism, more on that later.

A photo from the 1800’s of Buryat people that is in the history museum in Irkutsk

Back on the road to Kurumkan, civilization slowly started to take a back seat to dusty roads and taiga. Traffic dwindled to the occasional beat up Lada (the old cars you probably associate with soviet times), and old work trucks and bulldozers who were doing their best to maintain the roads.

With hours yet to reach our destination we had plenty of time to drill Stas for information, help, resources….whatever we could squeeze from him. We were well aware of our need to connect with locals who would be

Bartek translates some grim news to us as Stas makes more phone calls on our behalf

sympathetic to our plan, and/or would be motivated by whatever we had in our wallets. We ran the whole plan by him.  It’s not possible, he said. The rains have been too heavy, the water levels of the Garga river are too high. No truck will be able to get you all the way to where you need to go. He did, however, know someone who had a big 6 wheel truck that would be willing to negotiate with us to take us as far as the road would permit, no promises on how far that might be. He would make some more inquiries when we arrived.

Team Idiot and Stas

Arriving in Kurumkan felt like frontierland. The quietness of the streets, the mountains looming in the backdrop, the people making trips to the nearest public water spicket (most of the town has no running water), and the cows and horses wandering down the main thoroughfare through town.  One had the feeling that not far beyond the town limits lie the wild west, or east as it were, where the eternal battle between nature and man was being fought out, but here the underdog was winning.

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Some weeks before we arrived my friend Dan from Moscow had made a bunch of phone calls to the one hotel in town on our behalf, asking for someone who had a truck that might be able to help us. While we waited for Stas’s call we dialed the number Dan had given us for a guy named Vlad.

When Vlad showed up at our hotel, one of my first comments I made to my brother was that I thought he had an honest face. It would be some time

Tyler, explaining the complex details of our plan to the drunk groundskeeper.

before that sentiment could be confirmed. He echoed what Stas, the women at our hotel, and the drunk groundskeeper had told us. Water levels high, roads washed out, slim chance of any truck making even the half of the trip. He had a new proposal…horses. Horses. This novel idea seemed worth considering. It would certainly add a new dynamic to the adventure. He said he would make some calls and do his best to get some costs and other information.

The next morning Vlad had an answer for us. He found a guy with horses who would take us, but the guy said the water level was still too high to cross the river on horseback, he would agree to take us if we left the following day. It would take somewhere between 2 to 7 days to reach our destination. Two to seven days? Yea.  At this point (having heard no news from Stas) this was literally our only option. We agreed.

The ministry of ministers.

Finding ourselves with an entire day to kill and nothing that we could do to further our personal agenda, we were happy to accept Vlad’s offer to show us around town. But first he wanted us to register with the local…. bureaucratic institution? A building we deemed the “Ministry of Ministers”, ubiquitous in every Russian town or city.  The local haven for pencil pushing bureaucrats and dodgy “fixers” – ready to help you get your divorce papers, acquire some property, register to vote.

Next we checked out the local Buddhist monastery and temple, where a lone monk sat conscientiously chanting while rocking back and forth surrounded by buddha icons and colorful buddhist art that oozed psychedelia. We made our rounds, spinning the  prayer wheels and hoping for the best that buddha could offer us on our journey.

Next we headed to the nearby Barguzin river, where high water levels were confirmed and mourned.

Yep…Water levels are high

Then we had the idea to go fishing. So Vlad picked up a friend who literally carried a tin can full of worms with him and we struck off into the Siberian wilderness in Vlad’s 4 door sedan until the “road” became a swamp. From here we would walk to another swamp, which is where we were expected to throw in our lines.

Gone fishing

This was our first taste of one of the greatest perils of wild Siberia. Tiny, relentless, sanity thieves. The mosquitos will cause your mind to rattle in frenetic abandon in search of some peace. It started to become clear why these people had converted to Buddhism. And when Vlad told us “this is nothing, they will be much worse where you are going” It was these little bastards, not the threat of bears, crushing rapids, or random wilderness related injuries, that made me think for the first time that maybe this idea of ours was a big mistake.

Our fishing mission was a failure, our only consolation was that it was a hasty failure. Within 20 minutes all involved agreed that the only thing that was biting were the mosquitos. So we waded back to the sedan and headed back to town.

Done fishing

The afternoon was whiled away with trips to the ATM (which gave very limited amounts of cash during each transaction) to pay for our horses and to amass a small fund to be used for the next time we had to buy our way out of trouble, and by sitting on the steps of our new abode. Vlad had insisted we move to a flop house on the other end of town that shared a wall with the local mechanic shop. The only other tenant was a politician from a nearby town who we called “The President”. He explained to us that in Russia being a politician is a very dangerous job. Hence he was laying low here in Kurumkan until whatever threat that loomed over his head blew over.

Bartek, Vlad, and The President

We sat on the steps and passed the time by watching a mangy troop of dogs diligently patrol the area, with occasional appearances made by cows. Periodically some local would cruise up in their jalopy eager to meet the three idiots who wanted to cross the Ikat pass so they could float down the Vitim river. News had spread quick in town. Invariably one of the first questions they would ask would be “How many guns are you bringing”. Our answer of “none” was always met with a laugh that seemed to serve only the purpose of reminding us that we knew nothing about their world.  I think they secretly applauded the effort that had gotten us thus far, but were overtly dubious about our abilities to pull this off. 

The next morning the real adventure would begin.

More soon.

If you want to see a few more photos from these first few days just click on this link.

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