DISPATCH: Journal entries from a Volga River source-to-sea

Inside Mark Kalch's 71-day solo descent of Europe's longest river

PHOTOS AND STORY BY MARK KALCH

Day 0: It's the night before I start my Volga River descent. Once again I find myself with my kayak, camped by the water in a strange country and about to begin an epic journey. That I survived the hair-raising car ride into the Valdai Hills 400 miles northwest of Moscow is a miracle in itself; it seems like every Russian car trip is a mandatory test for the driver to break a personal-best speed record.

Day 5: Today starts much the same as the last couple: bleak, overcast and often accompanied by rain. Not fun. The river still winds back and forth in huge arcs below forests of pine. It still flows ever so slowly too. It’s as though I’m right in the middle of that transition between easy "real life" and the more testing "expedition life.” You know, swapping a comfortable bed, flushing toilet and good food for an inflatable mattress, crapping in the woods and tinned sardines. I know it won’t last long. Soon the river will once more be my world.

Day 7: I stop just above the bridge in the town of Staritsa and question two young lads on bikes where to find the local magazin (store). Their confused looks lead me to believe they didn't speak Russian. Or maybe it’s me? In any case, they couldn't help me. Then, on river-right a group mills around a Russian army truck. I paddle over to realize it’s loaded up with kayaks. Instead of asking for directions to the magazin, I’m find myself stuffed full of hot tea, sandwiches and cookies by the group of paddlers! I leave them with smiles and a kayak loaded to burst with every type of camp food imaginable. I never did find that store …

Day 14: Met by the dam at Dubna by Ilya, a giant ex-Marine, upon hearing about my journey, volunteers to help on the difficult portage. No need for the cart he says. We carry. With national pride at stake neither of us admits the kayak is far too heavy to carry on our shoulders. He breaks first on the pretense of a cigarette. We rest five times on the way back down to the river, each time taking a long pull on his army-issue canteen filled with vodka. I paddle off a little unsteady but with a huge grin on my face.

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Day 36: Finally reach my halfway marker at the city of Kazan. I love this place! I’ve become a bit of a celebrity in town with a couple of press conferences and TV interviews, including a live appearance. Kazan is the sport capital of Russia hosting world championships of all persuasions. The entire side of the massive new football stadium is a television screen … crazy.

Camp 41: The Volga has grown wide over the last week. Sometimes just a few miles, then suddenly 10 miles across. Storms hit, wreak havoc and disappear fast. Today I hug river-left, offering more campsite options; river-right is sheer cliffs. Unfortunately this leaves me to contend with the full fury of gale-force winds whipping across the water. I high-brace into waves which break on my head or surf sideways down their open faces. Just making landfall still in my boat is a relief.

Day 44: As night threatens I reach the city of Ulyanovsk. Nowhere to camp except maybe by an old factory. From the riverbank, I hear a shout. Within minutes my boat’s out of the water and I’m being shown a room in an old dacha, or summer house, plus offered a cold beer and food. It goes on. Dimitri and his huge friend Alexander introduce me to the legendary Russian banya, or sauna. Strip down, hat on, let's go. In between rounds we run stark naked to the edge of the Volga and jump in. On our third entry to the banya, Dimitri has his brother translate that this time, 'there will be some pain.’ WTF? Now, two large, hairy Russian men whipped my bare ass with birch branches while I cook myself via steam. When in Rome …

Day 59: Vodka by night + paddling by day = pain!

Day 71: After some 2300 miles and 71 days I've done it. I’ve paddled a river so beautiful that it was almost unreal: Picturesque lakes, pine forest, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, open dusty steppes, huge cities and small villages. But what really has made my descent one so special are the people of the Volga. From beginning to end the Russian people welcomed me, cared for me and extended a hospitality I had never expected. As I near my final takeout I’m genuinely sad to be finished. My time on the Volga River is over. It's time to go home.

On July 14, Mark Kalch paddled into the Caspian Sea, completing two and half months paddling his P&H Scorpio 170 down the Volga River, thus completing the third river (following the Amazon in 2007/08, and Missouri/Mississippi in 2012) of his ambitious 7 Rivers 7 Continents project to complete source-to-sea paddling descents of the longest river on each continent, a distance of some 22,000 miles, and also marking the first complete solo kayaking descent of the Volga.

— Kalch’s solo source-to-sea journey on Volga earned him a nomination for the Spirit of Adventure Award at the 2015 Canoe & Kayak Awards.

— Read more Dispatch stories: from the Amazon’s first kayak-only descent, a traverse of Baffin Island, and a speed circumnavigation of Ireland.

— Check out Kalch’s comparison of his Missouri/Mississippi and Amazon river descents.

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