Colin Kemp 16/10/2018 | Posted in Creeking, Internationalisation, rivers, Trip Reports, Trips, United States, Whitewater, WW Disciplines
If you have ever been kayaking in Ecuador you likely know Don and Darcy. They love to boat and this is a bit of their story and journey for the love of WW and the crazy places it takes us.
Kayaking trip to the Altai Mountains, Russia
Don and I have been slackers on the blog since buying the business back. A combination of traveling, getting Small World back up and running, my Amazon Woman book, podcasts, and other projects have been drawing our attention in other directions. But this is the fall of catching up!
I’ve missed a lot of updates in the past few years and I’m just going to start tackling them one by one, in random order. Enjoy!
I’ll start with a trip to the Altai Mountains in Russia that Don Beveridge, Maxi Kniewasser, and I took in July and August of 2016.
In April of 2016, Don, Liam and I bought Small World Adventures back and we were gearing up for our return season to Ecuador. For those of you who don’t know the back story, here’s a very quick version: Don, Larry and I sold SWA to an Apple engineer named Guy Erb in 2012. The plan was to stick around as guides while Guy ran the company. We found out after working one season together that our personalities didn’t mesh very well in the business setting so we went our separate ways. Don and I kayaked the entire Amazon—with ex-SWA client David Midgley—while Guy continued to run SWA. Over the next two years, Don and I traveled extensively looking for the next Ecuador. We paddled in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Peru, Bhutan, and Nepal. We started a new guiding business called Global River Explorations and ran a commercial trip to Bhutan. While we found good, and sometimes even great, whitewater in many of these countries, none of them compared to Ecuador. The amount of amazingly good whitewater in Ecuador with truly minimal travel was starting to look like a unique characteristic. We thought about what the next chapter of our lives might look like and debated whether or not it should include kayak guiding. During this process, it dawned on Don and me that we missed Ecuador and we missed SWA.
Meanwhile, Guy realized how pathetic the pay is for kayak guiding and he went back to the engineering world, this time at Google. He had his step-daughter running the business. This was fine for the short term, but she wasn’t a kayaker and wasn’t passionate about it. Guy also got married during this time to a Norwegian woman who didn’t have much interest in kayaking in Ecuador. His life was swinging quickly in another direction.
Liam was a bit more tuned in to all of the SWA goings on and he suggested it couldn’t hurt for us to ask Guy if he was still happy running the business or if he wanted out.
We sent the email. Now we are owners of SWA once again.
Because we know how time-consuming running a business is, Don and I decided we should plan one more big trip before settling back into the routine of kayak guiding in Ecuador. I sent an email to Maxi asking if he’d be keen to join on a kayaking mission to Russia. He recently had shoulder surgery and was unsure if he’d be strong enough for a Siberian paddling trip. At the same time, he didn’t feel he should pass up an invite like this—he’d be scheming his own Russian adventure for years now. He waited a few more weeks to see how his physical therapy was progressing and then he committed.
With a team of three we bought tickets and started making arrangements. The three of us knew we wanted to paddle the Bashkaus River and to write our names in the Book of Legends. This was the main impetus for the trip. Before I even knew what the Bashkaus entailed, I was intrigued by this concept of the Book of Legends—a book placed so deeply in a canyon guarded by Class V whitewater that only a handful of people in the world will ever inscribe their names into it.
Over the years, I did some research scanning articles online and reading Eugene Buchannan’s Brothers on the Bashkaus The more I learned about Russia’s history, the horrors of Siberian prisons and labor camps, the rich and deadly river-running history around the Altai Mountains the more intrigued I became. I wondered if I was ready to tackle these huge, out of control Russian Rivers? If I wasn’t now, I probably never would be—I wasn’t getting any younger. When I heard stories about how big and scary the whitewater was in Siberia from some of my paddling heroes, I got nervous. If they were scared, am I going to have a heart attack right on the spot? But Don and I had been focusing on big water paddling lately and I convinced myself I was ready.
I talked to friends who had gone to Russia years earlier and they told me about other big water Class V multi-day runs—the Karagem and Argut Rivers and the Chulishman. No Russia trip would be complete, they told me, without a few laps down the the ultra-classic day stretch of the Mazhoy Gorge on the Chuya River.
Don, Maxi and I didn’t have a ton of time—3 weeks—and none of us were interested in messing around wasting time looking for a vehicle, figuring out shuttles, and all the other normal headaches that come along with an international kayaking vacation. Plus, none of us spoke even a sentence of Russian. We decided to go through Two Blades Adventures to provide the logistics and to help get us on the rivers we wanted to paddle.
In email communications before the trip Thomas, one of the Two Blades owners, told me there was absolutely no vegan food in the Altai region. I showed up in Novosibirsk with a 50-pound bag full of dehydrated vegan meals and Egor, another owner, promptly shamed for bringing so much luggage. I get it, annoying vegan girl shows up with an extra bag, but come on guys, morals are morals and I’m serious about upholding mine. You told me there was no vegan food, so I brought my own, what’s the problem?
Then we learned that the driver had removed the exhaust pipe from his vehicle for a reason that I didn’t quite catch. We learned this after we all ended up with carbon monoxide poisoning after each long trip in his car.
Despite my bitching, Egor, Thomas and Alona did a fantastic job of getting us on all the rivers we wanted to paddle despite it being a very high water year in the Altai. For that I am grateful. Those rivers are worth the scorn I received for my extra luggage. Egor was our trip leader and he was safe and conscientious on the river, it was a great experience paddling with him.
Because the rivers were so high and it was still raining a lot, Egor wanted to ease us into the Siberian whitewater. No doubt he wanted to make sure we had the skills we said we did before dropping into any committing Class V canyons. We warmed up on a Class III river which was made to feel Class IV by the trillions of gnats that had just hatched. We couldn’t open our eyes as we paddled down river because they’d be instantly filled with bugs.
After that we moved on to the lower Chuya, and then we put on at a rapid called “Baby”—an intimidating pinch in the river where all the power of the Mazhoy gorge is funneled into a twenty-foot-wide canyon—and ran the run out of the Chuya. Satisfied with our skill level, the next day we went on up to the top and ran the Upper Chuya through the Mazhoy Gorge. At the take-out all three of us had big, stupid grins on our faces that we couldn’t get rid of. “That might be the best day of whitewater I’ve ever paddled” I said as we settled in to eat some buckwheat and drink tea before calling it day.
The Chuya truly is one of the best big water day runs in the world. It starts out wide-open but continuous. Big, fun Class IV and IV+ keeps you on your toes because it is non-stop. There are very few eddies up there let alone a pool. As you enter the Mazhoy Gorge itself things get more serious. The walls close in, the river bed steepens and the already powerful water doubles in intensity forcing you to put your full attention into each paddle stroke.
After the Chuya, we headed for the Bashkaus River. It was “high, but doable” Egor said. So we put on. We paddled a few hours of easy whitewater down to a tributary and set up camp on a small beach. Over an open fire, we cooked more buckwheat and huddled under Maxi’s tarp as it rained. I tried to talk myself out of being concerned about the rain. It doesn’t matter whether you worry or not, I told myself. The river is going to rise or it isn’t and there is nothing you can do about it besides just sleep well so you are rested to deal with whatever tomorrow brings.
The river didn’t rise, at least not much. The whitewater was just as pushy and challenging as I had expected, but it was far more technical. Many big water runs are hard because of the sheer force and volume of the water you are dealing with. The Bashkaus had extra kick to it because of the technicality of the whitewater. It wasn’t just dodge two holes and you’re good, it was dodge eight holes while still dealing with normal big water features like reactionary waves and unpredictable boils. Egor routed us through miles of amazing whitewater until we came to the Book of Legends Rapid. He was the only one of our group to run—one of the holes seemed very difficult to avoid to most of us. Egor styled it which was good because there was another couple miles of very continuous whitewater below that drop.
Walking up to the where the book hides was the scariest part of the trip for me. We had to traverse a super steep slope (cliff) that was full of lose rocks. I inched my way across one abyss thinking how ironic it would be if I died trying to hike up to the Book of Legends after surviving the paddle down to it.
We read through the book and thought about those who had come before us, especially those who had lost their lives on this river. We each took turns writing our names into the book and then we got back in our boats. We didn’t know this then, but the majority of the whitewater on the Bashkaus lays below the Book of Legends.
We paddled all day, only scouting a handful of times thanks to Egor. Eventually we came to a huge landslide which created a marginally runnable rapid. We all walked around it and then enjoyed an easy paddle out to the car.
Getting back to the car was a mixed blessing—on the one hand it meant we’d survived what we thought was the pinnacle of our Russia trip, but on the other it meant sucking more carbon monoxide on the drive out.
After the Bashkuas we had a “rest” day which involved carrying our kayaks up a side valley. I opted to only carry mine about 30 minutes up. The boys hauled theirs about an hour and a half up the valley. They stashed their boats and then we all did a multi-hour hike to see a waterfall at the back of this valley. After splashing off in the water for a while we started the trek back down to our kayaks so we could paddle back to camp.
The next day we headed to the lower Chulishman. The drive to the put in was my worst in terms of the exhaust poisoning and I arrived at the riverside barely able to stand up. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up. Maxi was hurting too and we slowly got ready while we recovered. We did a 2-day run on this section of the Chulishman—another big water classic (though not quite as classic as the Bashkaus).
Next, Thomas took us to the Karagem and Argut Rivers. I knew almost nothing about these rivers and had no clue what to expect. Getting to the put in was a full day ordeal. Most of the day was spent driving, very slowly, in an awesome old Russian van—no exhaust! Eventually we reached a point where even our van could not continue and we hiked the remaining 5 or so kilometers down to an old hunter’s cabin in a beautiful meadow.
The next day we paddled the relatively low volume (for Siberia) but very continuous Karagem river down to the confluence with the exceptionally big Argut.
On our third day we paddled the biggest whitewater I’ve ever paddled in my life. The river was high, the rapids huge and continuous. We had been joined by a group of three Brits by this point and we all had a few scary moments as we approached the big portage of the run. Thomas couldn’t remember exactly where it was and we were bombing down some huge whitewater towards what was a tiny scout/portage eddy for this big rapid. On what would turn out to be the final approach to the eddy (though I didn’t know it at the time), I watch concerned as one Brit was getting surfed in a giant breaking wave while another one was getting worked on a boil/eddy line near the corner of a big hole. I had to immediately refocus my attention to get myself into the eddy that Thomas was sitting in. I stopped watching the mayhem and drove hard for safety. We all made the eddy, but barely. It was frightening looking into the maw of what we would have blundered into had someone missed the eddy.
We all portaged around this colossal rapid and the big water continued for the rest of the day. The Argut was harder than the Bashkaus and arguably better? But they were of a very different style so it’s hard to pick favorites! They both fall in my top 10.
After the Argut we went back to the Chulishman so we could run the upper section along with the lower. Then, Don, Maxi and I were left to do a few more Chuya laps on our own before heading back home.
We left Siberia thankful for safe passage through some of the most rugged whitewater we’d paddled. The mountains were big, the canyon deeps, the glaciers (when we got views of them) were impressive. The Altai Mountains are more imposing and challenging to travel through than I imagined. For me, seeing them from a kayak was perfect!
We got dropped off at the Novosibirsk airport around 10pm for our 5am flight the next day. We then had a 10-hour layover in Moscow followed by a 12-hour layover in Switzerland. Even getting home from the Altai was tough! But every moment of suffering (waiting around at the airport is relative suffering when you consider it) was worth it for the epic Siberian whitewater.
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