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The Leader

Catarafting in the Wild, Wild East

by Ben Hammond
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 1996.


"Do the Bart-Man" is scrawled in tortured graffiti on the wall of the elevator hoisting me to the Moscow apartment. The words seem almost as incongruous as the duffel of spanking new river gear balanced atop my sneakers to avoid the puddle of urine seeping from the corner. My jet-lagged eyes take in the scene as we exit the elevator on the 12th floor, considered a privileged perch in these parts. Outside a sea of drab apartments bleed over a gray urbanscape. A large tank-top shirted man who answers to the name Igor beckons us into his apartment with a hearty hug for our host Boris, and a bear paw hand shake for Van, Eugene, Bruce, and myself. "Velcom river men!!" is the translated greeting.

I'd known Boris Yachnis for approximately three hours. A Ukraine native living in Latvia, he had met the four of us earlier that day at the Moscow airport. Bearded and shaggy, sporting a lopsided grin, Boris was on the end of a canoe paddle hoisted high into the air, the sign "Looking for four American kayaker to go Kalar River" duct-taped to the blade. Within minutes we'd loaded a borrowed car-a Soviet version of a Gremlin-wedged all of us in, and swam away from the curb, the sound and smell of tires grinding in the wheel wells ushering us along for a two-hour ride to the tenements outside of the city. That Boris had been at the airport at all was fluke. I'd met George, a friend of his, on the Dolores River in Colorado earlier in the summer. He had suggested meeting with Boris in Moscow on our way to Siberia. Boris could be our host, help us make travel arrangements, and act as a resource for Siberian travel, he said. We had other contacts in Moscow we had planned to have help us, but it ended up they had been delayed in Turkey with Project Raft, so we found ourselves in Boris' hands.

Before you could say "borscht," we were in Igor's three-room apartment feasting on pickled vegetables, herring, belinies, chicken, and fresh bread. Igor and his wife Marina had sent their daughter to stay with neighbors so that they could put us up. Immaculately clean, the walls were decorated with photos of Igor on various river trips. The plumbing and electrical appliances looked and performed like science fair projects. Vodka in water glasses followed dinner, and a trip across the hall scored the only VCR around. We watched frightening footage of near capsizes in hellish whitewater from a trip to the Bauskaus River that Igor had taken the previous year. Boris and "Team Konkas," a whitewater club from Riga, Latvia were about to head off for a month-long whitewater journey on the Bauskaus. They were here ferreting out information from Igor before their departure.

Team Konkas met at the University in Riga, and over the past 14 years they have taken extended river trips to all corners of Central Asia and Siberia. Originating near the junction of China, Mongolia, and Siberia, the Bauskaus snakes northward, carving its way through an immense batholith where it creates a deep gorge known as the lower canyon. It is this feature-with its countless class V and VI drops-which sets the Bauskaus apart. Once in the canyon, only one escape is possible, and it requires an arduous five-day hike out of the gorge to the Chulishman river. It is for this reason that boaters on the Bauskaus limit their gear to what they can carry. When I heard this, I flashed to images of lounge chairs, coolers, port-a-johns, dutch ovens, and lanterns-all requisite gear on river trips back home. The notion of carrying my portion of our camping gear, in addition to boats, PFDs, paddles, and rations seemed inconceivable.

Playing the role of river sage, Igor doled out the specifics of big drops, scouting spots, and portages. His team was forced to camp for 10-days waiting for water levels to drop. In the interim, three people from other parties died trying to push through. Igor and his colleagues ended up hiking to the Chulishman. But his stories didn't daunt Team Konkas.

Bruce, Van, Eugene and I had received a Shipton-Tillman grant by the makers of GoreTex for an exploratory river trip to Siberia. Our intended route-the Kalar River northeast of Lake Baikal-looked like just the ticket. Accessible via a trunk line to the trans-Siberian railroad, a week of hiking would take us to the put in. Some 600 river miles later, cruising amidst towering peaks, teeming berry bushes, arms tired from landing fat, hungry fish, we would emerge not far from a village, hike to the railroad, and thumb a ride home to boast of this glorious Huck Finn life. Or so we thought. In describing our plan to Boris, he was skeptical that the railroad was operating, or that the river was worth the bother. Instead he tried to persuade us to pair up with Team Konkas in a joint Latvian-American expedition. We tried repeatedly to reach our contacts in Moscow from Igor's apartment, with no luck. Finally, we agreed to travel with Boris and his team as far as the Siberian city of Barnaul.

The Train

It wasn't hard to spot Team Konkas at our rendezvous point in the Moscow train station the next morning. They were the guys with the search-for-the-Holy-Grail backpacks stuffed with five-weeks worth of gear and provisions. We introduced ourselves to Ramitch, Andrew, Genya, Olga, Sergi (the tall), Sergi (the quiet), and Sergi (the small). Compared to their light loads, our stack of flashy river gear, rations, and camping supplies was an embarrassment requiring numerous shuttles to load.

Boris disappeared in a sea of people milling about the train station to purchase our tickets. We were instructed not to follow. Despite the four-day stubble, our rattiest polypro, and a vodka hangover, we were cautioned repeatedly to quit smiling, and by all means not to speak English. Tickets for the five-day, 3,200 mile train ride from Moscow to Barnaul were roughly $5 U.S. for Russians, compared to the $2,000 price tag for the privilege of Intourist accommodation. The evil conductress responsible for our car, who would have joyfully sent us packing to the flashy Intourist train reserved for foreigners, eyed us suspiciously. While we looked Russian enough, Olga explained; "You smile too much and your teeth are too good to be Russian." I shot a glance to Andrew who responded with a smile; all but a few of his top story of teeth were missing.

We managed to pass as Russians, and for $5 headed east out of Moscow. Our rail line paralleled the Trans Siberian to the South, and had been open to Westerners for only a few years. Towns such as Omsk and Novisibirsk, end of the line for those banished to Siberia, were oppressive, gray, and disturbing. We bought fruit and bread from babushkas selling their wares to travelers from our train windows. Our windows were the only one that opened in the July heat, thanks to Sergi (the tall), who had squirreled a train window key from Latvia.

We had time on the train to get to know our Latvian companions. Ramitch and Andrew made truck tarps, though both were trained as chemists. Boris worked half time in a factory as a computer programmer for $40 per month. The others had similar stories-stories of their struggles to make a living in the post-Communist world where all the state supports had been stripped away in favor of capitalism.

Ramitch, leader of this particular expedition, was blunt in his skepticism of the Kalar as a reasonable river. "People don't boat the Kalar because it is a mosquito-infested bog," he said. Our fall-through option, the Ketoi River, didn't sound much better. "You must know the river very well," Ramitch explained. The previous year a group of boaters had missed a must-make eddy. All six perished in the maelstrom below.

Reluctant to abandon plans of our exploratory expedition, and wary of the pitfalls that plague even a well-rehearsed joint expedition of friends, I had reservations about tying in with these folks. Glimpses of what I perceived as a stiff, autocratic leadership style had begun to emerge on our train ride. But when we arrived in Barnaul five days later, ravaged by bed bugs and feeling surly, I was beginning to waver. We tried to reach our contacts in Moscow again. The phone patch took half a day, and they still hadn't returned. I had visions of spending my entire time in Siberia thwarting logistical snafus. It was decided; we'd join the Latvians, but vowed to maintain an equal say in matters.

Getting to the put-in

The Latvians nearly changed their minds about us when we stared down at the mound of gear unloaded on the railroad platform. We'd brought an oar raft, frame, chow for five weeks, and lots of spiffy gear; all of which in this new context struck us as ridiculously excessive. The decision to "go Russian" was easy. No one was stupid enough to want to carry all the schmutke (Russian for you know what) we had brought. The offer to use the spare four-person cataraft brought by Ramitch was accepted. Stashing our raft and frame, half our rations, and anything not absolutely necessary in the Gorno Altisk Bus Station was at once liberating and scary.

Ramitch haggled with an official intent on charging all 14 of us a tourist use fee, and though Latvians are now also tourists, the $4,500 threat was more directly aimed at us Americans. A bribe, and more haggling over use of a bus followed. Ramitch won. No tourist use fee was required, and we scored a vehicle, but it looked dubious. At least the driver was unruffled, as I suppose I would be if I'd been drinking as much vodka. The ride that ought to take 12 hours took 24. A black radiator hose jury-rigged from the radiator cap periodically erupted in a geyser of steam and water. The drill became routine: get off the bus, look for water, fill the radiator, and hang out until it cools down. We stopped to pay homage at a shrine for travelers. For luck, it was custom to toss coins into the stream near the shrine, which of course we did. Genya, we learned later, lost his wallet at the shrine, with the equivalent of about a thousand dollars in it. With an average Latvian wage weighing in around $40 to $50 per month, this was devastating.... But maybe an offering that would bring us great luck.

The River

Three airplanes, five cars, a three-day train ride, two busses, and an army dump truck later we arrived at the Bauskaus. That evening, the four of us were presented with honorary sadushkas-chic ensolite butt patches attached with webbing used as a cushion when sitting about and assembling our gear. In the ensuing unpacking and sorting, it became apparent that light years separated our bright nylon from the gear brought by the Latvians. The catarafts were home built from bladders of re-assembled chemical warfare suits, glued together with some concoction Ramitch the chemist brewed up on his kitchen stove. These were then encased in a nylon upper made of parachute material, and a vinyl sole of semi truck tarp material. Tents and packs were made from nylon scavenged from parachutes. Ensolite strips were sewn into pants and jackets which assumed the look of a Michelin man costume. PFDs were enormous, each with inflatable bladders of empty wine box inserts. Just in case this flotation wardrobe, already capable of floating a large anvil, needed some extra oomph, Sergi (the small) had constructed his entire helmet with glued together ensolite pieces. Genya picked up my Extrasport lifejacket with a glower and a grunt, as if to say I wouldn't be caught dead in this flimsy piece of trash. Where our gear appeared to have landed from Mars, by way of a Chinese sweat shop, theirs had grown from the Earth. Every stitch of their PFDs, tents, paddle jackets, rafts, and packs had been sewn by hand.

Ramitch, Genya and Andrew directed us to cut larch saplings by the dozen, about as big around as one's forearm and 15 feet long, for the catarafts. Three days were spent at the put-in cutting trees, peeling their bark, cutting to length, assembling frames, and strolling about in our sadushkas and underwear. The final product-a cataraft-was tight, maneuverable, and looked to belong in Fred and Barney's Bedrock garage.

We broke for lunch, and officially began our rations. Lining the ground tarp were 14 identical ovals of dried bread, about the size of one fourth of a bagel, with a fat slice of pork fat jiggling on top. Imagine a mouthful of cool, raw bacon with a crouton chaser. The bread had been purchased months before, sliced, and dried in the sun, leaving it was so hard that some days later, Genya cleaved a molar in half taking a bite. The pork fat had been soaked in a salt brine to cure. That day it did cure-my appetite. I glanced over at our rations and noticed a lot of dried bread, pork fat and not much else. Olga, who had orchestrated the rations packing, told me it had been compiled at 400 grams per person per day; this is a little over three quarters of a pound. But it is funny how one's appetite kicks in doing lots of physical labor on 400 grams per day. It wasn't long until I was nibbling my portion of pork fat right down to the rind. We became serious foragers, too. Mushrooms, wild onions, and berries boosted the caloric punch of most dinners. Plus we fished for calories, keeping anything with a heartbeat. The billy of water boiling on the fire became a pail of hot fish flavored water, all parts intact. At especially hungry moments, Van and I took great delight in taunting Boris with vivid descriptions of eating what we considered the finest hamburger on the planet-the Billy Burger.

The river itself was lovely, lively, and crystalline. Draining an area about 8,200 square kilometers and dropping 1,295 meters before the take out 275 kilometers downstream, the Bauskaus is runable in July and August. Ramitche's river description from Moscow identifies it as the most difficult run in the former Soviet Union.

We saw few people. An occasional herdsman of Mongolian origin, known as Buryats, mounted on horses, flowed in and out of the timber like a ghost. We traded alcohol for some Ibex-a type of deer-for dinner, and then a flag was hoisted, quite literally the drinking flag. Vodka was mixed with some tea made from grass and berries, glasses were filled by Ramitch, and nothing was sipped until everyone had their cup and a toast was made to our shared expedition. Afterwards, the river guitar made an appearance and was passed around. The Latvians knew some great songs; one of them equated running the Bauskaus with working a circus high wire act. Another proclaimed that you're not a man until you return from the Chulishman River with a broken nose and an oar through your leg.

Later, we saw another herdsmen and made a deal to trade a liter of grain alcohol for half a sheep-of the 12 liters we brought on the trip, eight were traded in such manner. But the deal turned sour when not all of the sheep was delivered. Problem was, this guy was big, had a gun, was mean as hell, and counted Ghengis Kahn as a blood relative. He eventually stormed off, and we quickly packed and hit the river. Boris later related a story of a being on a trip when some drunken horsemen plowed through their camp tearing through their tents. Boris leveled his paddle and dismounted one of them, breaking his collarbone in the process. Another story was told of a group on the Chulishman who were forced into their boats at night by gun point above a class V rapid. All eight of them died. After these stories, I was not too surprised the next day paddling into the small village of Saratan when a group of teen-aged yahoos took great delight in unloading a volley of rocks and sticks as we passed under a bridge. And yet, while bartering for bread in the village, no amount of persuading would entice a kind family to take our money for an enormous jar of fresh jam and glugs from a vat of Salamat, fermenting mare's milk.

Lower Canyon

Our first rapid of note was a drop called Barricade. We portaged gear to a spot in a jumbled talus slope that passed as camp for the night. A large boulder had fallen recently, carving a swath of splintered trees through the forest above us. Rain had raised the water level enough to put us all on edge. All things considered, including the incessant roar of the rapids, it was an unsettled and gloomy place. We talked of bailing to the Chulishman, but now that we were in the canyon that would only be possible several miles and class V rapids away. Next morning we milled about, nervous, hungry and grouchy, deciding whether or not to run the drop. We portaged the upper section, but some run the lower portion of the rapid. We were into the difficult water now, and understood this would be our reality for a while. The tension rose when a few days and countless rapids later Sergi (the quiet) bailed after a long and ugly surf above a class V rapid. We'd set up safety, but he failed to catch any of five throw ropes thrown his direction and took a long, scary swim. He was finally hauled to shore, but our nerves were shot.

The psychological pummeling became worse the next day when we began to encounter memorials for rafters who had died. We came upon another expedition that had decided to bail for the Chulishman rather than face the higher flows we were experiencing. We discussed options, knowing the worst was upon us and decided to carry on with the expedition. In this portion of the canyon we were making two kilometers per day of downstream progress. The next day found us in the bowels of the canyon faced with rapids named things like "Trap," "Meat Grinder," and "Troglodyte."

Two boats decided to run a portion between drops and ended up on the wrong side of the river. The tyrolean we set up to bring them back across took an eternity. Suspicious of my Z-drag suggestion, Genya chose to have eight Russians heaving and grunting to tighten the ropes. His stubborn nature infuriated me. Tension was high. As Bruce put it, the day reminded him of a Russian novel: complex, tedious, and time-consuming. Much of it was spent shuttling gear downstream, and now we were camped in rocks amidst sheer walls rising 300 meters or so on both sides. The river was loud enough here to thwart discussion. We passed four memorials, all inscribed with the date August 10, which was that day. Below camp another memorial was tucked into the rocks with a small journal, an offering of food and vodka, and a note from a lost rafter's parents begging for news of their son. Other entries indicated far more deaths than memorials.

Our bad luck came on the 12th of August when two boats capsized in "Kamikaze" rapid. Bruce and I managed to shinny back on top of our overturned boat and paddle into an eddy downstream. Our comrades were upstream, wet but unhurt. The worst that came of it was that we'd soaked our dry bread supply. Needing every calorie, we kept the bag of mush and boiled it into a horrible spiced soup that was reminiscent of paint thinner. Not even Boris-who had a legendary appetite-could eat his share.

The rapids diminished somewhat below Kamikaze, except for the spanking we received in a hole intent on turning us around seven or eight times. Like rodeo bull riders, all we could do was hang on and yell, before somehow sneaking our way out. We finished the run being pinballed through a tough channel and were glad to see camp. We celebrated by making a birthday cake for Sergi using a spare paddle blade as a dutch oven lid, and had a glorious evening of it, rich with emotions generated by making it through the worst of the canyon. Downstream, the character of the river changed abruptly, becoming quiet and lake-like. Drowned trees indicated an obstruction in the river, which we learned was caused by an enormous landslide broaching the river. It turned out the event occurred eight years ago. The ensuing 10 meter high, river-wide drop created by the river claiming back its course is called Peristroika rapid. The two kilometer portage amidst loose, unconsolidated rubble was tedious and exhausting. The drop has been run once by some crazies in a bublik, a raft resembling a pair of giant inner tubes joined by a frame. The run was only half successful since one of the rafters died, his memorial nailed to a tree below the portage.

We'd exited the lower canyon at this point, and a relaxed comfort set it on the group. The boating was pleasant and the fish bigger translating into a heartier version of fish water which could now safely be called soup. At lunch I broke out a big bag of M&M's I'd been saving for a moment like this. The Latvians didn't understand what we were cheering about until they got their share. Genya's face couldn't hide the rapture of eating his first, and most deserved M&M.

Getting Out

In a few days of mellow paddling, we joined the confluence of the Chulishman. Feeling relieved to be through with the river, but saddened to see the voyage coming to an end, we hoisted the flag for a final night of toasts. Banging out songs on our warped guitar, we made offerings of our gear to our comrades. Sergi got my wet suit to compliment his ensolite helmet. Van handed Ramitch his fly rod, and Eugene gave up his sleeping bag to Genya who has been using a threadbare nylon sheet.

Lake Teletskoe, our take out, was a ten-mile float downstream through a broad, mountain-lined valley that could pass for the Montana. Once we reached the lake, we were still 80 kilometers to a village with road access, so we camped on the lake shore to strategize. The mail supply boat had arrived the day before and was not due for another week. Ramitch ultimately persuaded a sailboat captain to haul us across the lake. We filled his 28-foot boat to the gunwales with people and gear and set off, stern awash. We were deposited at the village where we met our beloved bus driver, who was waiting to haul us back to our stored gear. Fortunately he had the evening to sleep off an impressive drunk before jumping behind the wheel.

We gathered to bid our farewells in the Barnaul train station-home to the finest one rupee shower around, if you don't mind the athlete's foot. We planned to try to catch the Aeroflot flight to Moscow that evening. Our comrades waited three days to purchase tickets for the train ride home. Despite being overbooked, $10 got us an audience with the reservation clerk. Our letter from the Jackson, Wyo., mayor identifying us as his personal emissaries helped, as did Ramitch's plea that we were writers researching a Russian travel book. Eugene and Bruce quickly loaded our luggage in the belly of the jet which was waiting with engines whining on the tarmac. We stepped onto a fully-loaded plane in which two people were sitting in the aisle and two others were in the bathroom. Our negotiating got us seats.

On the long trek home, I was struck with the realization that while we had not explored a previously untraveled river as we'd hoped, the things we'd seen, friendships we'd made, and adventures shared were worth much more to me. It has been almost two years since I returned from Siberia, in which time Boris has taken a NOLS water instructor's course and is working his first course this summer. When he arrived in the U.S., we met him at the airport in Jackson, holding a paddle aloft with a sign saying "Looking for Muzzle"-referring to his nick name and legendary appetite-duct-taped to the blade. Boris saw us, and we laughed and bear-hugged before setting off to feed him his first American Billy Burger.

Ben Hammond is currently the NOLS Idaho Base manager, and enjoys boating when not changing diapers or burping his new son, Cole. Ben has been working for NOLS since 1986.



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