Four women learn to expect the unexpected on one of Asia's wildest rivers
Photos by Krystle Wright
Words by Conor Mihell
The summer monsoon brought days of heavy rain. The river rose steadily, cutting its banks, flooding the flat, shelter-less shoreline of grass and willow. When the gale-force winds hit, the Amur River, now four miles across, turned into a hostile giant. “We thought we could always get off the river,” says Amber Valenti, who led a team of women more than 2,500 miles from the Mongolian steppe to the Sea of Okhotsk. “But all of a sudden we couldn’t get off the river. We were facing ocean-size waves and torrential rain, and we were being blown around by the winds.” This nightmarish scenario—coupled with the myriad challenges of young women navigating the bizarre politics and social norms of Russia’s wild far east—played out numerous times as Valenti, Grand Canyon guide Becca Dennis, ecologist Sabra Purdy and Australian photographer Krystle Wright journeyed across this mind-bogglingly vast corner of the globe.
Valenti had long dreamed of running a free-flowing river from source to sea. The Amur River, which rises in Mongolia, traces the Russia-China border and empties into the Sea of Okhotsk some 2,500 miles later, captured her imagination from the moment she began learning about its “amazing history, culture and biodiversity.” It is the world’s third-longest free-flowing river, yet intriguingly, few Western paddlers had ever heard of it. “Unlike the Amazon or the Nile or the Congo, it’s not on anyone’s radar,” says Valenti, a physician’s assistant.
Dennis, a close friend, was an easy recruit. Purdy, another friend, was brought on for her experience as a water ecologist. Wright was enlisted on the advice of a mutual friend. The team won a prestigious Polartec Challenge Grant and received support through National Geographic’s Young Explorers program.
After years of planning, the team had to give up the notion of a source-to-sea paddle due to increasing tensions along the Russia-China border. The women devised a work-around involving take-apart sea kayaks and a lengthy ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Then, just as they were about to depart last May, tragedy struck. Dennis’s longtime boyfriend Zach Orman died in a paragliding crash.
The expedition hung in limbo before it even started. Dennis, the team’s most experienced paddler and logistical planner, was devastated. Bravely, she decided to carry on with the team to honor the memory of her partner. A few short weeks later, the women touched down in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and spent a week accessing the Amur’s headwaters on the rarely visited Onon River by four-by-four truck and packhorse.
Valenti estimates that only 15 people have ever paddled the uppermost reaches of the “Mother Onon,” as it’s known in Mongolia. Uncertainties dissolved as the Onon flowed deep and smooth across a wild landscape that reminded Valenti of an “endless Idaho.” Downriver, they met local people and shared in the timeless lifestyle of the Mongolian steppe. The women spent 22 days paddling the Onon to the Russian border, where Dennis left the group to return home.
The others coerced baggage handlers into loading their 15 packs into a cramped Trans-Siberian boxcar. For 10 days the muskeg wilderness of Siberia scrolled by through train windows. When they finally arrived in Khabarovsk, Russia, and reassembled their kayaks, they were greeted by a vastly different river—and deep misgivings about the safety of carrying on.
They made a snap decision to go for it. Unfettered industrial development borders the broad and languid Amur River, reportedly laced with contaminants like benzene and DDT that poison its fish with water unfit to drink. Without a translator, Valenti, Purdy and Wright treaded carefully. They camped out of sight to avoid encounters with transient industrial workers, and struggled to decipher social cues when they wandered into villages in search of drinking water.
As easy as it would be to accept the local name for the Amur—“The place that God forgot”—Valenti says the team accepted the challenges and unlikely rewards of “a cultural Class V.” “People were shocked that we came from so far away to see their river,” says Valenti. “They hold no value for the Amur. The Russians were curious, occasionally friendly, but mostly really confused about why we were there.”
In the end, the forsaken Amur flexed its muscle. The women got off the river just before the relentless monsoon pushed water levels to record highs. In the end, Purdy says this type of unpredictability is exactly what she expected from one of the world’s few remaining unharnessed waterways. “Even with all the industry and pollution, the lower Amur is absolutely wild,” she says. “There was nothing anyone could do to hold the water back. You have to learn to live with a river of that magnitude.”
For two months last summer, the Nobody’s River team did just that.
A version of this story appeared in the March 2014 Canoe & Kayak.
The team’s film, Nobody’s River, documents their journey along the Amur River, one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers of the world, and through the complexities of love and loss. From their hilarious antics to deeply human struggles, these ladies shine a light on the soul of internal and external exploration–and show us that no matter what, there is always a reason to celebrate.
Winner of 5Point Film Festival’s Spirit of Adventure Award, Nobody’s River will be screening at locations in the US, Europe and Canada in 2014 and 2015. Visit nobodysriver.org for more information on more about the film, upcoming screenings, or to host a screening.