Up ahead, Egor pops his skirt and takes a big, fire-charred pot out from between his legs. He places it on the deck of his kayak and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief. We can relax for a moment. The pot coming out had become the international sign that the whitewater ahead was calm, at least until the next river bend.
North American “flatwater” and “Russian flatwater” hold two very different definitions and it didn’t take us long once we arrived in Siberia to learn this, even if we couldn’t speak the local language. In fact, Russian flatwater is essentially a misnomer, as the water is anything but flat. The pot became our gauge, and for some stretches of “flatwater,” the pot stayed inside the kayak and we stayed focused. And thus it became this way, through signals—both implicit and explicit—and stoke, we overcame cultural and language barriers.
Our Russian liaison, the whitewater czar, Egor Vozkoboynikov, led our group throughout Siberia with consistency and inconceivably smooth lines. It was a unique experience to paddle with Egor and Two Blades Adventures. Having a local guide gave us much more insight and cultural context to our experience and really maximized our paddling days. It took a few days for our different styles of river-running to sync, but once they did we got along famously.
Our time in Siberia completely shattered our expectations and any preconceived notions of the country we had had. So, before we delve any deeper, let’s start with some quick myth-busting: True or false, it’s always sunny in Siberia? False. I think it rained on us nearly every day. Russia is just as big as it looks on a world map? Oh yeah. Russians are the greatest sandbaggers? Very true. But maybe that’s because the idea of flatwater in Russia is false. (See above.) Vodka and horse meat in a can? You betcha!
Prologue: The Russian Plan
Getting to Russia took time. It’s far away, especially for our crew, comprised of all North Americans and one semi-drunk Czech, who bounced in and out of our crew every now and again.
Some of us crossed the Pacific, while others crossed the Atlantic, but we all rendezvoused in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia and Russia’s third-largest city. From there began the marathon drive to Gorno-Altaisk and the republic of Altai. The plan was simple: bumble around the grocery store, stock up on food for a month and then paddle as many big-water, multi-day rivers as possible. Fortunately for us, we were in the right place. The Altai is a unique region in southern Siberian that shares borders with Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan and it is stacked with powerful rivers. It also happens to have the perfect combination of gradient and geology to create high quality, steep and runnable whitewater, all constricted between canyon walls.
Nearly all of the rivers we paddled in the Altai flowed into the Ob River, a huge river that runs north, back to Novosibirsk, eventually feeding into the Arctic Ocean. Our initial impressions of the people and the mountains were eye-opening, as they broke any preconceived notions we had of Russia. We were in a super diverse region inhabited by many different ethnic groups at the nexus of four different nation-states; the mountains were bigger, and the people were not the cold, ex-soviet hardmen we’d been conditioned to expect.
Chapter I: The Chuya and Argut Rivers
The Chuya River is one of the greatest whitewater training grounds I have ever visited. It also boasted the shortest shuttle drive that we experienced while in Russia. Hours of class IV/V whitewater with a short, thirty-minute shuttle allowed us to get tuned up before we began our first self-support trip: the Karagem-Argut.
The Argut adventure began the moment we stepped into Andre’s magic yellow school bus. Andre accompanied us for the majority of our time in Russia, was always waiting for us at the takeout in a wifebeater with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. And the man made a mean Borscht, (Russian beet stew). He wordlessly shuttled us to the middle of nowhere and left us waiting for a second, unknown driver. This was the plan, and there we waited somewhere on the Siberian plateau. The scene was almost apocalyptic—a group of kayakers sitting in the dirt at some nondescript point, on a barren wasteland with no point of reference for as far as the eye could see. We dealt with the uncertainty by drinking beers and bantering amongst the sprawling piles of kayak gear.
Fully expecting to see the next shuttle vehicle approaching from miles away on the tundra, the sound of a squealing engine surprised us as the Zil—a goliath, six-wheel, Soviet military vehicle— popped into view from behind a hidden hill. Yuri, our new driver, had repurposed the massive vehicle to accommodate passengers and helped us strap boats to the roof. Yuri drove up and over mountain passes, past herds of yaks and camels, up river valleys, across them and even down them. Yes, straight down the middle. “In wild place, we sometimes use river as road,” he explained.
The drive ended the next day when the vehicle suddenly burst into flames, forcing us to hike the remaining kilometers to the Karagem river, a glacial torrent of a tributary that fed into the Argut River. After helping put out the fire, we left Yuri in one of the most remote places in the world, with only five of six wheels attached to his vehicle, as he completely disassembled and rebuilt a ball joint and axel.
The frigid water of the Karagem met the Argut and soon we worked our way down one of the largest volume rivers any of us had ever paddled. The Argut is a special river, not just for its whitewater, but also for the mountains and canyons it passes through. It was both massively impressive and extremely daunting. Mt. Belukha—Siberia’s highest peak—created an impressive backdrop to the equally impressive whitewater. Yet, the Kazakhstan border loomed a mere ten kilometers from us and our passports which were tucked neatly (and inaccessibly) away in our boats.
The Argut eventually made its way into the Katun river, bringing us to our takeout and camp. Campsites were common as the rivers spill out of the canyons and into the flats, and we often used the most upstream one as our takeout. We shared these camps with Russians who came to fish, bathe in the river, and enjoy nature, and it always provided an enriching cultural experience, complete with vodka, good food, and laughs despite the language barrier.
Chapter II: The Bashkaus River
After taking off the Katun, we headed to the upper Bashkaus valley. The Bashkaus is the most infamous and storied river in the Altai. Choosing to go as light and fast as possible on our two-day descent, we packed the last of the supplies and bid farewell—again—to Andre. As I shouldered my kayak, Andre’s parting words to me were: “do svidanye” or “until we meet again.” Andre was a man of few words, either by nature or by function of surrounding himself with anglophones, but as I gave him the routine fist bump and “spasibo,” or thank you, I began to ruminate on his words.
Between the legendary history, the sinister rapids and the forbidding nature of the canyon, the Bashkaus had a solemn feel to it, at least for me. Class V river trips always have this warm-up period where you’re still getting into the flow; however, by the time we had made it down to where the Book of Legends perched, on a cliff high above one of the largest rapids, we were fully in it and had that special feeling of being in the exact place we were supposed to be.
The Bashkaus tested our paddling skills and ability to work down the river as a team. It also reminded us how fortunate we were to be river travelers and experience such powerful places from the seat of our kayaks. After signing our names in the Book of Legends, we paddled away feeling inspired by the stories of those who came before us. Their poignant words reminded us what was at stake and simultaneously filled us with courage as well.
Plaques appeared on the canyon walls of nearly every river we paddled in the Altai region commemorating the storied history of river-running in the area. This was a constant reminder of the great, guiding ethos that most rivers have been paddled with higher water, worse gear and less beta; and in Russia, paddled way before we were even born.
We paid homage to the paddlers that came before us, completing descents of nearly all of the rivers in Siberia in makeshift gear and bubliks, or homemade catarafts. And we continuously felt grateful to be moving about the river with relative ease in our modern kayaks instead of trying to navigate the complex rapids in one of the sluggish bubliks.
As we paddled out through what could only be described as a lost kingdom with verdant, terraced walls towering high overhead, we rounded a corner and suddenly saw two ibex that had descended to river level. We eddied out and watched as the beautiful creatures leaped up the vertical cliffs in powerful ten-foot bounds, granting us a momentary reprieve from the whitewater to reflect on the incredible place we were in.
Chapter III: The Kitoy
The Sayan mountains lie to the West of Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake in the world. The whitewater jewel of the range is the Kitoy river. Our plan was to put on at the source of the river and paddle all of the whitewater back to the lake. We packed our boats with ten days worth of food and kept an open mind, not sure what to expect but glad to be spending time with good friends in a wild place. Each day proved to be an absolute adventure.
At the put-in, as we started to parcel out and organize the colossal pile of food and gear for nine people, it began to downpour rain. (Did I mention it’s not always sunny in Siberia?) We abandoned any sort of organization, hastily stuffed everything into our boats and forced our sprayskirts over the heaping piles of food shoved between our legs. We paddled a short way downstream before making camp in the rain, trying to keep morale high and wishing our gear to dry as we waded around the soaking wet loam.
On day two we completely re-packed before snapping our skirts and shoving off into the river. Just to un-snap our skirts, step out and push our way down the riverbed. The river, at that point, was still just a trickle. We “wheel-chaired” our kayaks through shallow, braided channels until ultimately we just started walking down the middle of the river, pulling our fully-loaded boats behind us, or letting them float ahead. Sometimes when paddling from a river’s headwaters, you don’t start with much water, but that was about to change.
Flow increased substantially as we made downstream progress each day and more and more tributaries poured in. By the time we reached Rapid #47, the Motkin Gorge, the river was huge. Logistics were complex on the Kitoy and we all emptied our boats and portaged our food and camping gear three kilometers downstream to camp. The next morning the team returned to the top of the gorge. Half of the team opted to portage the kayaks the rest of the way, while the other half took advantage of empty, light boats and paddled through the crux canyon. The combination of a spectacular campsite and an incredibly powerful sequence of rapids made this a highlight of the Kitoy.
Time seemed elastic as we continued to paddle through an otherworldly wilderness. We drifted through meadows, mesmerized by the crystal clear water and the rocks passing beneath our kayaks, and then suddenly, another horizon line would appear, snapping us back to the present moment, totally focused. Each day we gained more water and more gradient until we reached one of the biggest tributaries, the Biluti River.
What seemed like a novelty tributary turned out to be a full-value Russian adventure, of course. At the confluence with the Biluti, we strapped our kayaks to our backs and began the journey upstream through the Russian taiga. At times, sinking waist-deep into the loam and moss of the forest, or falling victim to the inevitable “turtle-shell” dilemma, travel was slow and it tested our zlaebuchet. Zlaebuchet is a colloquial Russian term for grit, or physical and psychological strength. In some ways, we could sum up our experience in Siberia simply with the only two words we learned in Russian: zlaebuchet and zaeebis, (loosely translated as “fucking awesome”).
After a tyrolean traverse to shuttle our kayaks across one of the infamous side-creeks, we reached the second put-in of the trip and the beginning of the Biluti gorge. Journeying from a high alpine meadow back to the confluence of the Kitoy, the crystalline blue waters of the Biluti passed through beautiful gorges full of rapids, wild blueberry patches, and the occasional side waterfall. We were surprised by a couple of stout rapids but made our way back to the confluence camp after a very full day.
Epilogue: The Russian Experience
During our time in Siberia, we always balanced the no-questions-asked, “We go now,” style of Russian river-running by intentionally eddying out each day to stop, take off all of our paddling gear, make a fire and have tea and lunch. These were always welcomed reprieves and created unique bonding time.
Our mid-day breaks quickly fell into a pattern: pull-over, pull out the sticks of salami and toasted cheese, canned sardines, and of course, tea. Lots of tea. Ah, and lest I forget the loaves of Russian black bread! Just like the rest of the country these loaves definitely had zlaebuchet, with a hardy outer crust, but a soft middle. Even after ten days of being stuffed into the sterns of our kayaks, they maintained their structural integrity and flavor.
During our last day on the Kitoy expedition, Egor suggested a layover day and we wondered if we had convinced the Russian to appreciate a slower pace. A layover day seemed out of character; however, as dubious it seemed, we rejoiced. Another night lifestyling on a sandy beach, why not!
Well, rather than kick back on a beach, we ended up paddling 120 kilometers to the take-out that day. (A new Russian myth for you: “Layover Days.”) Our other Russian friend, Vlad, even decided to tow an abandoned jet boat downstream for a couple of hours.
Yet, on that marathon of a day, we had a quintessential Russian experience. Amidst the monotony of paddle strokes—this time it was 120k of actual flatwater—we saw a group of Russians fishing and eating lunch on a beach. They beckoned us over into the eddy.
A heavy-set, middle-aged man in full camouflage and knee-high boots ran around excitedly as we approached. Running into the shallow water of the eddy, he greeted us with metal shot glasses full of vodka and slabs of pork fat in hand. We cheers’d and then followed suit as the fishermen drank the vodka and chased it with a shot of river water straight from the eddy. So classically Russian. Big whitewater, big hospitality and big hearts—a perfect end to our unforgettable trip to Siberia.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Brian Burger grew up whitewater kayaking in Colorado and honed his skills under many mentors and friends in the Pacific Northwest. A true water lover, Brian is grateful for free-flowing rivers and all the wild places kayaking has brought him and the people he has experienced them with.