Jeffrey Andreoni and Giulio D’Eramo paddled the length of Ukraine’s Dnieper River in 2012. As the country they came to love faces its greatest crisis of this century, we take a look back at their journey and the people they met along the way.
We disembark the train in the town of Kremenchuk, having bypassed much of it’s namesake, the wind-whipped, 90-mile-long Kremenchuk Reservoir. At the train station we decided to splurge, and hire a porter in the style of gilded-age tourists. Paying a man to carry our bags from the train to the taxi rank costs half as much as the train ticket. The cab drops us at a dirty but quiet beach just below the dam, and we set about reassembling our folding baidarka.
Some of the earliest accounts of the Dnieper region come from Herodotus, who called it the Borysthenes. “It has upon its banks the loveliest and most excellent pasturages for cattle; it contains an abundance of the most delicious fish…the richest harvests spring up along its course, and where the ground is not sown, the heaviest crops of grass; while salt forms in great plenty about its mouth without human aid.” These attributes made the river attractive to ancient Greek colonists, and to modern-day travelers as well. We stop off on beaches along the way to grill up the local veggies we picked up at the bazaar for mere pennies.
This section of the river is known as the industrial triangle and was actually closed to visitors during the Soviet era. Numerous factories were located, including a top-secret rocket factory in Dnepropetrovsk. Because of the factories, engineers dredged the river, permanently altering its course so that bigger ships could navigate the river and transport all the products. Most of the factories are now closed, and the hydroelectric plants operate at 10 to 40 percent of their potential because Ukraine now has many nuclear power plants. So while most of Europe is trying to switch to renewable energy sources, Ukraine, which has an abundance of sources, opts for nuclear and allows its clean energy infrastructure to decay.
In Dnepropetrovsk we couchsurf with Anna, an IT headhunter who drives a snazzy new FIAT 500. Anna takes us on a tour of the city and shows us the Stone Babas which go back at least a thousand years, and perhaps even to the Scythian period. Back on the river, we finally are making good time. A few days later we are in the city of Zaporozhye, ready to tour the island of Hortitsa in the center of the city where a model Cossack village shows what life was like for these controversial figures in Ukrainian history.
Entering a small inlet at the southern tip of Hortitsa we find peaceful and clear water. This place seems to be made for baidarkas, and we soon meet three families paddling Neris 3 baidarkas in the calm canals and flowery marshes between the island and the city. We again have a small island to ourselves, apart from some locals who spend an hour drinking and shouting on the neighboring beach. From our campsite, which seems lost in in time and space, we only have to walk 15 feet through the trees to see the lights and factories of the nearby city. Unbelievable.
Giulio asks a motorboater for advice about where to camp next camp, and is rewarded with directions to a small group of islands inhabited by clandestine fishermen. “It’s a shortcut,” the powerboater says, before roaring off into the night.
We set off at 7 a.m. the next morning, and soon see the first of many swimming vipers crossing the canal. It is all very enjoyable, but threatening clouds start to gather over our heads so we take a break and double-check the map. We realize that the islands which seemed like such a good idea the night before are well out of our way. We’re on another reservoir now, this one 15 miles wide. The islands are smack dab in the middle, meaning that if a storm were to set in, we could be stuck there for days. Reluctantly, we turn the baidarka around and head for shore. The wind picks up—against us of course—and we still have 10 miles of open water paddling ahead of us. We stop in a small island to feed and gather energy for a sprint to the coast, and while our bodies recover our minds try to deal with the sudden appearance of about a dozen swimming vipers.
Follow Jeffrey and Giulio’s Ukrainian River Odyssey
Episode 1: Olympic Refugees
Episode 2: Setting Sail
Episode 3: Welcome to Ukrainka
Episode 4: A Day in Town
Episode 5: Hornets
Episode 6: The Yacht Club
Episode 7: The Shortcut
Episode 8: Snakes
Episode 9: The Dam
Episode 10: Take Out