DIRTBAG DIARIES: Following Tomass

Self-support paddling Siberian style

— The following appears in the March 2014 issue of C&K, available on newsstands now.

Photos and text by Matt Young

The hardest part of traveling to Siberia is traveling to Siberia.

Tony and I started with a five-hour drive into a nine-hour flight to Moscow. Then it was seven hours flying to Irkutsk, Siberia’s largest city, where we met our expedition leader, Tomass Marnics.

After another day of driving, we’d completely lost track of time, when we last slept, or where exactly we were.

We didn’t need to know. At least that’s what we got from Tomass, a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed Latvian whose first language was Russian, but who never wasted a word. Everything, including instructions for a complex line on an un-scoutable rapid, was condensed into a few thickly accented words: “Right, left, go this way, or you swim.” Tomass never gave more information than you absolutely needed, and never left a reason for second-guesses.

It was August. We were in the high plains of the Sayan Mountains near the Mongolian border. Our international group of 10 had all come here to kayak more than 190 miles down the Kiltoy and its gorged-in tributary, the Biluti.

But this was nothing like any multiday kayak trip I’d experienced. Usually you slide into camp, pull out a tiny high-efficiency cooking device, boil water, add freeze-dried meal, and chow down. In Siberia, you kayak with a pot between your legs and when you get to camp, you start looking for firewood. On our first night, Tomass pulled two raw chickens out of his boat, butchered them on a kayak hull and threw them in a big pot of boiling water with a massive pile of potatoes.

When the whitewater picked up, we got down to the real expedition food: canned horse meat with mayonnaise, garlic, and either buckwheat, lentils, or rice. In camp, we’d fish for trout in the crystal-clear water, or Tomass would forage colorful mushrooms to supplement the concoction.

Tomass’s typical advice on the Kiltoy’s lower canyon, with too many big-volume rapids to count? “Go down right and deal with holes.” I stuck to his stern, punching waves and dodging massive holes in my fully loaded boat.

At the confluence with the Biluti, the real work began: bushwhacking six hours upstream. Tomass effortlessly trotted out of sight while I was left fumbling, sinking knee-deep in moss, snagging my boat on branches. Occasionally Tomass would re-appear, smile patiently, and point in a direction.

When we put on the stressful upper gorges, facing the trip’s most difficult whitewater, a four-day trek from civilization, Tomass kept his cool. It rubbed off on the group and we meandered away from the Biluti’s granite domes unscathed, entering rolling countryside.

Before I started chasing Tomass, again, through the remaining 60 miles of Class I-II, I looked back on the trip of a lifetime with a new perspective on multi-day paddling, and a taste for canned horse meat.

— Matt Young, Tony Gianfagna, Russell Patterson and Matthew Beauchamp are the first Americans to paddle the upper Biluti.

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