Story by Mark Basso | Photos by Benjamin Hjort

THE ALTAI EXPERIENCE

Saying you’re going kayaking in Russia is like telling someone you are going kayaking to North America.


And just like on our hemisphere’s big continent, Russia too has plenty of mountainous regions. Specifically, in southern Siberia along the Kazakh, Chinese, and Mongolian borders is where the remote and mountainous region of Altai lies.

In Altai, classic whitewater rivers such as the Argut, Chulyshman and Bashkaus begin as wet grasslands and gentle meandering streams before cutting themselves through deep gorges on their way to form the great Ob River of central Russia.

Last July

I left home in Canada to join an international team consisting of Norway’s Benjamin Hjort and Mariann Saether, Ron Fisher (Switzerland), Xaver Freiser (Germany) and Jasper Polak (Netherlands) to make our way to the Altai region—deep inside the great federation of Russia.


It was that biggest part of the world that any of us had never been to. Compromising a large portion of our livable planet in a far-off land once considered an enemy of the Western world, there is no doubt that even thinking about a trip to Russia meant a bit of education, preparation and tolerance for a big paddling adventure well off the beaten path.

How big of an adventure?

Well, those thinking a remote region in Russia might be full of unexplored first descents might be disappointed to discover that, although the hardshell whitewater kayak is still a relatively new craft in this part of the world, many hearty Russian river explorers have been attempting to tame the raging rivers of Altai for some time. Since the 1970s and ‘80s, Russians have been making incredible descents of raging Class V and VI whitewater by means of raft, cataraft and even the oddly designed Russian bublik.

Short Stories from Russia, Part 1 by Benjamin Hjort

The stories of some of these legendary descents are well known:

lasting several weeks, with incredible hike-ins, arduous portages, primitive gear repairs as well as unfortunate swims and tragic endings. Memorial plaques line some of these rivers’ hardest rapids, paying homage to the passionate search for wild adventure that Russian river-runners began long before groups of international kayakers arrived.


Our flights from around Europe connected in Moscow, before a groggy overnight flight east to Siberia. In Barnaul, we rounded up a very well-ridden Toyota van and began adjusting to the food, language and interesting cultural habits, best displayed by our guide Vasily Prosev. We got to know Vasily fast over the next five weeks, including his incredible capabilities as an off-road driver, river guide, highly creative van mechanic, and to our surprise, Class V kayaker.


First, to the Sumul’ ta River valley, where we got our initial dose of Russian four-wheeling with Vasily at the helm. At the point, the primitive road we were hammering up disappeared completely, so we warmed up for the run with a stress-free hike into a remote and lush valley. The next two river days were on easy Class IV before the river grew in volume and the last kilometers threw in some big Class V moves as we joined the great Katun River valley.

Short Stories from Russia, Part 2 by Benjamin Hjort
Altai-paddle

Warm up Complete

We headed to the Chuya River and the infamous Mazhoy Gorge. Vasily was all smiles as he paced us through this short Class V day-run. The Mazhoy was pumping and though we witnessed a few beatdowns, it was only a taste of things to come.


Next up, the great Bashkaus Canyon, known as the Book of Legends journey. In one afternoon we drove out of the the Chuya valley, supplied ourselves for the three-day ahead, and were suddenly floating down into the great abyss that so many Russians considered the Altai’s most challenging river section.


By the next morning the walls of the canyon towered above us as the Bashkaus gradient began to steepen significantly creating long complex rapids and putting us to shore often for scouts and portages. The Bashkaus book of legends appears at one of the biggest rapids that long ago claimed the lives of many Russian rafters attempting to pass through. The book itself serves as a tribute to lost lives here and beyond as well of us who are making river journeys like this across the world.

Short Stories from Russia, Part 3 by Benjamin Hjort
Short Stories from Russia, Part 4 by Benjamin Hjort
The Book

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