Rafting Russia’s Bashkaus River
by Eugene Buchanan
first appeared in Canoe & Kayak May ’07
Editor’s Note: In 1993, four Americans embarked on a 28-day descent of the hardest whitewater river in the Soviet Union, with 10 Latvians they met by chance. Eugene Buchanan, Bruce Edgerly, Van Wombwell and Ben Hammond had received a Shipton-Tilman grant—the first that W.L. Gore & Associates had ever awarded for a river trip—to run the relatively mild Kalar River. But when their connection fell through, Latvia’s Team Konkas found them at the airport. Soon after their vodka-fueled introduction met the Moscow dawn, all 14 adventurers were boarding the train for Siberia’s feared Bashkaus River. The following is excerpted from Buchanan’s Brothers on the Bashkaus, available from Fulcrum Publishing (www.fulcrumbooks.com).
Today we face four Class Vs as soon as we put on.
“If that’s the case,” says Van, pouring coffee into the pot as nonchalantly as John Wayne gearing up for another shoot-out, “then we’d better make a pot of some good ol’ American joe. Olga be damned.”
He’s only half joking. Olga is the wife of the Latvian trip leader, Ramitch, and resident food cop for our diminishing rations. Earlier in the trip, she had admonished Van for using too many grounds. After yesterday’s flip in Kamikaze Rapid, he’s not taking any chances.
In analyzing the flip (and buying into superstition), a couple of things went wrong beforehand. First, I accidentally left my cotton underwear on beneath my pile suit and rain gear.
The cataraft tubes are made from old germ warfare suits.
Second, Van only left one cigarette behind at one of the memorials we passed yesterday commemorating rafters who had drowned on the river. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t have any coffee before we shoved off.
“I’m telling you, that’s what did it,” he continues. “Never underestimate the power of coffee.”
“Strong coffee, strong country,” Edge chimes in, on cue.
Draining our steaming mugs, we load our catarafts and put on. During a rare flat section leading up to the day’s first rapid Edge launches into a soliloquy about the difference in team concepts between us and the Latvians.
“Think about it,” he says. “Where we brought four cameras, they brought one. Where we brought four journals, they brought one. Where we brought four books each, they brought one that they pass around page by page.”
“At least they don’t share their underwear,” Ben says.
“At least not that we know about,” Van adds.
What we do know is that the homemade catarafts we’re paddling, made from old germ warfare suits and log frames, had gotten us this far. That and our growing camaraderie with the resourceful Latvians, whose lifejackets are made from old soccer balls and wine bladders. We’re in the heart of the Lower Canyon, a 30-mile abyss with inescapable 2,000-foot walls that will take us a total of two weeks to negotiate. Ever since the start of our trip nearly three weeks ago, Ramitch, the trip leader, has fretted about both the water level and Lower Canyon. “You have to be strong to run her,” he said one night, adding an ominous toast to “running the team’s strongest rapid ever.”
At times, Ramitch has displayed an almost militant approach to his leadership, but it’s one we begrudgingly admit has helped us survive. The only woman along is the coffee miser Olga, who monitors our deplorable food rations with the same attention Ramitch gives the rapids. Despite the language barriers—Olga, Ramitch and two other Latvians named Boris and Yevgheny are the only ones who speak any semblance of English–we’re starting to work as a team. We have to in order to make it to another round of Van’s coffee.
It won’t be easy. The meager rations have everyone lethargic around camp. According to Ben, an assistant director for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming, most expeditions pack two to two and a half pounds of food per person per day. The Latvians brought 400 grams per person per day, less than half of that. We’ve been augmenting it with some of our rations (they’ve never seen peanut butter, popcorn or PowerBars) and on one occasion, by trading rotgut vodka to gun-wielding horsemen for a sheep. It’s not that they don’t like to eat. It’s just that they’re used to carrying everything they need for a 28-day river expedition on their backs, oftentimes hiking for days just to reach a put-in. We’re simply starving by association.
By now, everyone has gotten pretty good at sizing up portions. If you get to the lineup early, you have a few extra seconds to pick before the hordes move in. While deciding, I see Boris, who has an uncanny knack for selecting rations for maximum caloric value, go for one bowl of fish-eyeball soup and then put it back in favor of another. That’s all the data I need. Since he at least touched it, I figure it has to be a good choice. The same tactics hold true when picking out pieces of dry bread. Does the wider girth make up for the broken-off corner? Watch Boris.
We also get good at holding onto the piping-hot aluminum soup bowls, even if they sear our hands. More than one of us has yelped from being too quick on the draw. But once grabbed, like a raccoon with his paw caught in a trap, we don’t dare let go. The stakes (my diary says steaks) are too high.
After scouting thoroughly, we all get through Obstinate, the day’s main rapid, wet but fine. We’re in three catarafts, us Americans piloting one and the Latvians split between the other two. Two people kneel on each pontoon, with our gear loaded onto the log frame connecting them. The homemade craft handle surprisingly well, both for paddling and portaging.
Obstinate is indicative of the rest of the Lower Canyon: a tight, boulder-choked ribbon of white cleaving the canyon’s impenetrable walls. The flow is maybe 5,000 cfs, which becomes a frightening torrent in any one of the run’s hundreds of steep, boulder-choked rapids. A hole buries and drenches us, but only momentarily. We keep the craft straight, avoid a series of undercut rocks, and emerge well positioned for the rest of the rapid.
Our first portage of the day takes us across bedrock, a welcome change from incessant boulder-hopping. Another welcome change is that I’m starting to develop a rapport with Sergei the Small, one of four Sergeis on the trip and captain of the third raft. Since we’re often scouting the easier rapids together and then reporting the lines back to our raft mates, we’re starting to catch each other’s eye a bit, before and after our respective runs. Despite the language barrier, he is even making a more concerted effort to communicate at camp. Through sign language, he’ll describe the day’s run, using hand signals to indicate waves and fists to represent rocks.
Later, we come upon a rapid called Stubborn. The main rapid is meaty enough that even Edge, our strongest kayaker when paddling back home and who’s always the last to give in to a portage, says it might be worth lining our raft down it. But Ramitch and Sergei each have good runs, so we give it a go with Boris subbing in for Ben, who chooses to walk around and meet us below. We clip an eddy and spin but make it past the crux.
But just after the rapid, when we think we’re in the clear, Sergei the Small’s raft hits an undercut wall on the right while leading the pack around a tight corner. His boat rises up the wall and then flips when the river grabs hold of its bottom tube. There’s not much you can do when this happens. The high tube climbs the wall and upends before there’s any chance of reacting. The scarier part here is that the wall is undercut and could easily trap a body. Thankfully, everyone pops up in the main current. We help gather them up and usher the overturned boat to shore, pushing it with our bow. This rapid isn’t named either, but it broke their raft’s birch-log frame—an indication of what we face every time we confront a rapid with a name.
Although in the United States a broken raft frame might pose a problem, here, we hop out, hike into the woods, and chop down a tree for spare parts. Soon, the broken pole is replaced with a fresh one from the forest and we are on our way again.
“Nice parts store,” Van says once we’re back underway. “Everything you need to fix something grows right on the spot.”
“Except it doesn’t have any candy bars at the front counter,” Ben says.
Soon, the canyon narrows and tightens even more. A series of waterfalls cascades down from dizzying heights on the left. Yesterday, the Ogozo River careened over a hundred-foot cliff into the river. Today, we pass another called Kyzyltak, this one falling in even longer curtains.
We feel as if we’re at the bottom of a giant funnel, its tight spout surrounding us down at the river with a broader, expansive rim surrounding us above. At a rapid aptly named Cramped, the entire river pinches into a channel barely wider than our catarafts. We get out and walk around. I glance upward and actually see the upper level of the canyon broadening out, letting in more of the Siberian sky. It’s a welcome change from the claustrophobic, vertical confines of the past weeks. Today, we also have our first relatively mellow water in nine days: a few-mile-long Class II to III section without horizon lines that we can just read and run as we go. Paddling is actually fun again. We feel like we’ve made it and left the worst behind. But it’s just a feeling, a momentary high, not grounded in knowledge.
We hike into the woods and chop down a tree for spare parts.
Despite the limited supplies, Yevgheny still pawns off scraps to those who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Usually, it’s Boris and Sergei waiting like dogs. Though we miss out on this round of Yevgheny’s handouts, we make up for it with dessert. Tonight, it’s a surprise. Valeri has found some oblebiha berries near camp. You can rub them on your hands to combat dry skin and then eat them. They’re sour and different. And most importantly, they’re nutrients and calories.
“Kind of like edible Vaseline,” Ben remarks.
Valeri also pulls a coup for breakfast: fresh mushrooms with boiled beans. I can tell it’s going to be a good day when Yevgheny sits next to me and dishes off his dry bread and leftover beans—like getting through a rapid when the same drop flips someone else. I get the handout despite the fact that Edge strategically cleared a seat on the log next to him for Yevgheny.
“You bastard,” he says when he sees me with the spoils.
The progressive lack of food relative to the physical hardships we’re enduring weighs on everyone. Even Yevgheny’s handouts are smaller and fewer. Today’s portage is epic, not so much for its difficulty, but for all the little aggravating things that go wrong. Bow and stern lines become unraveled and catch in crevasses. We carry the boats over slippery, wobbly rocks that zero-in on shins. Crossing moss-covered logs makes us wish for ice skates. Edge and even mild-mannered Ben lose it at times with sudden outbursts. Edge slips and hits his knee, has to untangle a rope, and then slips and hits the same knee again. It becomes overwhelming. When the Latvians start conversing away in Russian at the end of the portage, it triggers a psychological breakdown.
“Ooga, ooga, booga, ooga!” Edge shouts back at them in a tantrum.
He’s reached his breaking point. We all have, and can’t blame him. If the conditions are tough, the language barrier is even harder. A few ooga boogas is all their words mean to us. Russian is not a romance language where you can second-guess meanings. Ninety-nine percent of the time we simply have no idea what they’re saying. The times when they’re laughing are worse—we never know if it’s at our expense. We’re constantly left out of conversations and the whole communication loop. When Boris and Olga aren’t around, we end up simply figuring things out for ourselves. At times like these, we don’t feel like brothers on the Bashkaus; we just feel ignored.
Language barriers have surfaced on other trips I’ve been on, but never to this degree—and never day in and day out in the stress of life-or-death situations. When the Tambopata flooded in Peru, my Spanish was good enough to listen and understand, and try to communicate.. Other times, I’ve been just as much in the dark, but for shorter time spans and with less severe consequences. While in Prague to watch a World Cup slalom kayak race, my cousin Homer and I paddled the course naked (we didn’t have any shorts) at night with Czech security guards yelling from the banks. We couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but we got the gist. Another time, at the end of a four-day canoe trip down Japan’s Omono River, I almost paddled out into the strong currents of the Sea of Japan because I didn’t understand directions to get out at a fish camp on the left. But it was nothing like this, where decisions are crucial and, absent context, you have no idea what’s being said. Edge’s ooga-booga breakdown said it well for all of us.
Sign language, at least, is universal. The next Class V is a gnashing monster, with sharp rocky teeth guarding its entrance and deep holes that could swallow our rafts whole. After scouting, we believe we can run it—a faster, more fuel-efficient alternative than portaging. As usual, Ramitch, Sergei, and I play the Russian equivalent of Roshambo—a game where everyone throws out up to five fingers and you add them up to see who it lands on. Only this time we all three throw fists, which count for zero. Though we’re fully prepared to run the rapid, Ramitch sees it as an omen. He looks at Sergei and I and wiggles two fingers upside down in the air. We’ll walk. It’s another portage. This simple twist of fate, all of us throwing zeros, feels like it could have saved our lives. Not really wanting to run the rapid anyway, we carry the boats and gear around. The almighty fingers have spoken.
Ramitch’s physical communication tonight at camp is just as easy to understand: he raises the drinking flag from a nearby tree, a homemade emblem with a picture of a paddler below the words Team Konkas. We brought 12 liters of vodka and Everclear-like rotgut for barters and celebration. Unlike trips in the states you don’t just dip into the libations at random. Everything is a ritual.
“Even though we have only one more day in the lower canyon,” Olga translates, “we are not out. We still have to be careful. Sergei’s flip yesterday could have been far worse than just a broken frame. We have been lucky.”
As if on cue, Sergei the Tall breaks out a ziplock bag of precious sugar cubes and passes them out to help everyone be more alert tomorrow.
“We are real men on the Bashkaus,” Ramitch continues through Olga.
It sounds funny coming from Olga, but he means what he says. For them, running difficult whitewater is a way of proving themselves. In a socialist society, if you work hard and do a good job at something there is little reward. In a capitalist society, if we do a good job we’ll likely see a reward. On the river, however, they can do a good job and be rewarded instantly.
When we ask Olga about Ramitch’s “real men” comment, she tries her best to explain.
“Our boys are not satisfied,” she says. “They need strong water to be men.”
“Still, I don’t know too many real men who suck sugar cubes,” Ben says under his breath.
The ramblings aren’t all talk. With their cigarettes and chiseled features, any one of them could easily star in a Marlboro commercial. While we feel soft, they’re hard—from home lives as well as their lives in the canyon. Their quest to be “real men” seems not to be based on machismo, but on a recognition of the fact that on a river such as this, we all share a common ancestral denominator: we’re all simply trying to survive, learning that we can, and getting better at it daily. To them, real men survive at all costs.
The Bashkaus certainly is a good testing ground. When something goes wrong, like Sergei’s flip, the cigarettes go in, the axes come out, the trees go down, and the situation gets remedied.
True freedom is being aware of this ability to act. I think of “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song I belted out for them around the fire. Nothing left to lose also means everything to gain. We all have our lives to lose, but the Latvians perhaps have a greater need to be here than we do. With less freedom over their own fate, they have less to lose. Conversely, we have less to gain from being here. Unlike Olga’s comment about her “boys,” we are satisfied with our normal existence. We don’t feel we “need strong water to be men.” While this trip has made us appreciate our own freedom, we don’t need to prove anything here to anyone, not even ourselves.
Only, we do want to prove our worth to the Latvians, to show that we have the mental and physical fortitude to belong side by side with them in the canyon. And we’re fast learning that this is far easier to achieve when you work as a team. The beauty of paddle rafting is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and everyone has a say in their craft’s fate. Emerging safely after a rapid is far more important than any personal accomplishment en route. One hero can’t always raise the performance level of the entire raft. A brilliant, course-saving rudder stroke does little good if the next wave knocks us over.
Because of their upbringing in a system that better develops a sense of sharing and group-centeredness, the Latvians seem more socialized to this sense of community. We noticed it first when they loaded the train back in Moscow, and we see it each day on the river. They know how to work together without individualized competition, which is a harder concept for us to grasp. We’re more individualized, self-centered, and competitive. It might not be coincidence that four-person catarafts were invented in Communist Russia and one-person oar rigs in the United States.
Here, deep in the canyon, we’re relearning something we’ve intrinsically known all along but have somehow forgotten. Synergies arise in working together. Like throwing a draw stroke right when it’s needed or hitting a swimmer with a throw-rope, the team experience is natural and reflexive for the Latvians. And it’s become so for us.
This becomes more important than ever the next day. After an hour on the water, the river calms abruptly. It becomes a lake. Still in the heart of the canyon, the eerie tranquility seems out of place. So do the dead trees sticking out of the water with ghost-like driftwood caught in their branches. Rounding a corner, we see why. A giant landslide has careened down a side canyon on the right, completely blocking the river. We have to crane our necks skyward to see where it came from. The result is Perestroika, the worst rapid we’ve seen yet….