CANOE & KAYAK: How did you get involved with this big and diverse international crew?
Adrian Kiernan: It's always been a dream of mine to paddle in Siberia, a small handful of B.C.'s best boaters when I was growing up had done expeditions over there. I knew I wanted to go, so I contacted Tomass Marnics from Kayaking in Siberia (now Two Blades Adventures). It was basically his idea, Olaf Obsommer and his friends at Adidas like Egor Voskoboynikov were already keen. After I signed up I convinced some of my friends to join the mission too!
Where exactly is this?
The Onot River is in the Sayan Mountains on the border of Mongolia — close to Lake Baikal — the largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the world, containing roughly 20 percent of the world's unfrozen surface freshwater. We all flew into Irkutsk and drove from there over two days to the put-in. The first day was in a minivan, and one very full day bumping around in the old army truck.
So that's what kind of vehicle that was then? Seemed like quite a journey overland …
On a previous expedition by John Grace and company they used a heli to access the headwaters. What we used was called a GAZ66 from 1972. It was designed by women for the Soviet army and only discontinued in 1999. It was used as a cargo and infantry vehicle, but a great deal are still in use. Simple, strong and easy to fix (which was very handy for us!).
Did you feel in danger going into the closed area?
We didn't feel in any great danger, but there is no way in hell I would push it. We pondered just hiking in over a pass instead to avoid the roadblock. We were told there were still special forces on horseback with a shoot-to-kill order.
How about the local paddlers with the catarafts on Day Four? Did they run that canyon stretch downriver? Their boats and gear (at 6:10) look insane!
Russia has an amazing whitewater culture, maybe even stronger than here in North America. However its not about running the hardest whitewater, but going on the hardest "man missions." They had already paddled a portion of the Kitoy River and then hiked everything over a pass into the Onot valley over three days. Impressive considering there is virtually no dried food in Siberia. They had sacks of potatoes and cans of horse meat, which they proudly told us were developed by the Russian army and have no used-by date!
Any other memories from the Onot experience that percolate up?
Just the absurdity of coming across a roadblock that far in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Much of our day had been spent driving up a dry riverbed — apparently totally normal for the Russians. Waiting at the roadblock was a tent, fireplace, a tank and too very rough looking Russians — that's it. The tank had actually been repossessed from the illegal miners who had converted it to haul jade out of the valley — one of the many Soviet inventory items to go "missing" after the union fell apart.
— Check out more of Kiernan's expeditions and videos, photos from another horse meat-fueled, Tomass Marnics-led expedition to Siberia, plus a Digital Feature on an recent expedition through the Altai mountains, and a deeper read of an excerpt from Editor-at-Large Eugene Buchanan's 'Brothers on the Bashkaus,' detailing his 1993 descent of Siberia's infamous Bashkaus River in hand-built catarafts.
— Watch expedition kayaker Chris Korbulic's artistic take on getting to, and through, some of Siberia's toughest runs.
— Plus hear about an all-female Siberian Source to Sea