I’m in the middle of Siberia, roughly 300 kilometers from where the boarders of China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia converge. Sweat drips off my back and shoulders. I’m in a Russian sauna or banya, crammed in with 12 other people from eight different countries. It’s more than 175 degrees and I’m being whipped with tree branches to the point of pain. This traditional Russian practice—using a bundle of birch branches called a venik —is new to me. It’s said to promote circulation and open pores. I’m wondering if it will draw blood.
Around the sauna, those who have room to swing are whipping friends and strangers. The now-crisp birch leaves litter the stone floor. Every once in a while, my new friend from Denmark stops the “massage” to wet the venik in a wooden bucket of river water. Then it resumes. Inside the banya are people who have never been whitewater rafting before, and paddlers who have competed for their country at international rafting races. It’s loud in here—boisterous and steamy. I can count four different languages intermixed with lots of laughter. How cool is this?
A banya is a bathhouse, similar to a Finish sauna, fueled by a woodstove. Historically, each village had a banya, but today it’s not uncommon for a household to have their own. This banya stands a couple hundred feet from the Katun River in central Siberia. I’m nearly 4,000 kilometers east of Moscow and eight days into a 14-day trip through rural Siberia. I arrived in the city of Tomsk as one of 30 young people invited to a Whitewater of Siberia, International Cultural and Rafting Forum—essentially a whitewater-themed tour of Siberia.
In search of drier, cooler air, I exit the sauna, following the three people who I convinced to come with me to Russia: my Peruvian friend Sandra, British paddling friend Jenny, and my adventure partner and big sister Haley. We descend the rough, wooden steps of the banya and walk the sandy trail leading to the river. Standing in the Katun River there’s current but no whitewater and sun bathes the trees on the opposite shore, about 400 meters wide at this point. Earlier today we had put-in here and rafted the Katun for four hours. Now, looking out over the river, the low, late summer light fades as the sun dips below the rolling mountains upstream.
Earlier in the summer, I received an email from a friend on the Canadian Rafting team. He forwarded me the short message, which in broken English described a free trip to Russia to explore whitewater and culture. Russia was near the top of my travel list since reading The Tiger, where Canadian author John Vaillant examines the illegal tiger trade in Eastern Russia. The book introduced me to the history and geography of Russia and this trip would allow me to experience it firsthand, with a splash of whitewater. It was the chance of a lifetime. I had to apply. I sent an application and persuaded my friends to do the same. We emailed our passport information to a Russian stranger and eventually received an email with a plane ticket to Tomsk and a detailed itinerary filled with events, tours and paddling.
We arrived off various red-eye flights, and were treated to a display of Russian dancing, food and games—an opening ceremony of sorts. After a few speeches and a traditional offering of bread dipped in salt, we mingled amongst locals, many who were dressed in ceremonial clothing for dance, and who gathered to welcome us. We played games with kids, learned traditional folk dances and ate soup warmed in a military trailer cook-stove that looked like a small army tank.
Alexi, the head coach of the current Russian Rafting team and the director of Odyssey, the local rafting club, introduced himself. His smile, much like the other smiles on the faces of the organizers, told me they were proud to host an international group. And I felt deep gratitude for being there. On our route to the event, the bus drove through the city of Tomsk, passing towering apartment buildings that looked like they were pieced together with scrap materials. Next to them stood log cabins with trails of silver piping, left above ground to prevent them from freezing and crazing in the winter. I got the feeling that this was a place where people worked hard. Where things didn’t come easy. And I had just been flown here, given gifts and souvenirs and treated like rafting royalty. I felt humbled and a bit shell shocked.
The opening ceremony took place in Kopylovo Village, a recreation park where the Russian national rafting team trains. The water was extremely low on the narrow section of river and the current hardly moving. A few gates hung upstream where there was barely enough water to get a slalom kayak down. It was hard to imagine the river holding enough volume for a raft, even at higher flows. But with the multiple disciplines involved in international raft racing (down river, sprint, slalom, head-to-head and time trial), the team uses what water they have to train here throughout the warmer months. We spent a couple days at this training site, on and off the water, simultaneously teaching the whitewater-newbies how to raft, while the professional racers talked strategy and training.
I was part of the middle group, the raft guides and whitewater kayakers which meant I was in a unique position to observe. This part of the trip acted as a rafting forum and offered an opportunity for racers to develop a sense of community, fostering the development of a sport between international clubs and teams. Downstream, three rafts, filled with paddlers from the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Denmark and Austria, were learning about forward strokes. Upstream, members of the Serbian, Bosnian, Argentinian and Costa Rican rafting teams were deep in discussion about starting line techniques. Members from team Argentina and team Serbia hopped in a raft with members of the Russian team. They wore different clothes and spoke different languages but, once they were in a raft together, they became one unit.
It was cool to see everyone working together, sharing training techniques and strategies. I never knew raft racing was so big in some of these countries and witnessing this camaraderie, I realized that rafting connects people in a different way than kayaking. There’s a unity and a fellowship we don’t get from being in individual boats.
It was clear the Russian team was proud of their venue. Their dedication and passion for the sport strongly visible. The Odyssey Rafting Club was founded in 1985 and in 2006 competitive rafting began when Alexi, son of the club’s founder, came on board as the coach. The team struggled to access gear, a problem that I never considered as gear in North American is easy to order new or buy used. Here, they wear whatever is at their disposal. And they take good care of it. They’re grateful. Here, it’s not about what you look like on the water, although the rafting team proudly trains in their well-worn national team shirts. It’s about just being on the water.
As the sport developed in Tomsk, they managed to find gear and some sponsorship. By the end of 2000 they were training and competing internationally and, in 2010, the Odyssey’s youth rafting team won the national championships in St Petersburg. These young athletes now represent their country on the international circuit as the current national team and have participated in 12 World Championships and 16 European Championships. Hearing their story, I became more aware of how gear and coaches, even a sport can be taken for granted for in Canada. In Russia, to be an athlete and to represent your region is an honor.
In the following days, we got a taste of Russian culture, touring the city of Tomsk visiting magnificent Orthodox churches, and stark elementary schools. We spent an afternoon at a traditional Russian fort and attended an Axe Festival wandering around the birch forests and watching chainsaw sculpture contests.
One evening, after a tour of an elementary school, we were treated to a traditional Russian meal prepared in the school basement. Three women in brightly patterned aprons paced back and forth in the kitchen, serving plate after plate through the cafeteria-style window. I sat at a linoleum table with my new friends from Bolivia and Equator, where we tasted cheese and cured meats, followed by salty fish eggs and crisp bread. In between, jugs of a clear liquid were passed around, and each table took a turn making a toast with over-flowing cups of rakija, homemade plumb liquor. Desserts came out and we barely had room for the traditional cookies and cakes. We stumbled up the stairs and back on the bus, gathering in the bar of the resort we were staying in, drinking beer and dancing on the porch with a view of the Katun River.
We spent a day paddling a section of the Katun River, putting in on from beach in front of the banya. The Katun River is glacier fed, running about 700 kilometers through the region of Altai, with a drainage basin of almost 24,000 square miles. It was a sunny day, and a mellow river float for those of us with river experience but acted as a good chance for others to gain comfort in a raft. Another day trip down a different section of the Katun gave us slightly bigger, more continuous whitewater, all in preparation for the main event: Ilgumen Rapid and a run down a section of the Katun where the Russian National Rafting Championships would be held.
After we hauled our rafts up a loose gravel footpath to meet the bus, the view opened to the vast valley below. The sun deserted us hours ago while paddling through the mountain walls, and sitting in wet gear, on a rolled up raft, hungry and tired, waiting for the bus that has no idea where to find us, I caught myself thinking about home. How will I tell people what this was like? How will I express the new appreciation I have for rafting, for the community it has created and the love of whitewater here?
We watched the National Rafting Championships the next day, seeing both men and women’s teams take on the mighty Ilgumen Rapid in time trials and head-to-head races. Rafts crashed through the whitewater, in some cases so close it seemed one raft could land on the other as they pitched over the massive aqua-colored waves. From a raft, and from shore it was an impressive section of whitewater and one worthy of a national championship. On the bus to the Bernal airport, the mood was celebratory and the bus turned into a mobile finale party.
I returned from Russia with a bottle of vodka, some yak fur socks, a birch bark shot glass and a sticker that says From Russia with Love. I also brought back a first impression of a vast, fascinating and diverse country. I recognize this trip provided a filtered view of Russia. But in another sense, it gave me a broad view. We saw urban areas and small towns, resort regions and the arid and remote rivers of Altai. Although I traveled many hours by road and water, I saw only a tiny fragment of this enormous country. A book initiated my desire to see Russia. Two weeks instilled a yearning to see more. The trip featured less whitewater than I hoped for but I feel fortunate to have developed friendships and joined the international rafting family.
But the most important thing I brought back from my time rafting in Russia is a new understanding of what it means to be a whitewater paddler. A world of paddlers exists who don’t care what brand of gear you wear, what kind of vessel you paddle or what class the whitewater is. They paddle for the feel, for the family and for the challenge. For some, it might even be an escape from the struggles of life. They’re grateful for every stroke, for every chance to get on the water. Whitewater is whitewater whether it’s a rowdy river full of big hits, or a mellow backyard training trickle.
As we head back into the banya, a local man offers me a cup of tea and a small, oily fish. It’s stinky and completely unappetizing but I bite into it, chase it with a splash of hot tea, then a gulp of cold vodka. I’m banya-bound, birch bundle in hand, soaking in the whole experience, feeling the love. Spasiba Russia! See you again soon.