Photos by Erik Boomer // Words by Erik Boomer as told to Jeff Moag
When Erik Boomer accepted an invitation to run the Muksu River in Tajikistan with an international crew of paddlers, it's safe to say the whitewater legend turned award-winning adventure photographer didn't know what he was signing up for.
The Muksu is regarded as one of the most difficult rivers in the former Soviet Union, a glacial torrent cutting through a series of blind canyons in the thin air of the high Pamirs, known in the Tajik language as the "Roof of the World." Just getting to the put in would involve six days of driving along the fabled Silk Road, and a 20-mile hike over a 15,000-foot pass while carrying boats and supplies for 10 days on the river. Only three parties had run the river before and the last, in 2013, had been forced to evacuate a team member due to high altitude pulmonary edema.
The mission was the final step in a seven-year project to run the most difficult and committing rivers in the former Soviet Union, including the Bashkaus in Siberia and the Sary-jaz in Kyrgyzstan. Trip leader Thomass Marnics of Latvia and filmmaker Olaf Obsommer of Germany had assembled a strong crew of German and Russian paddlers for the task. Boomer was the lone American.
"Thomass had a quote from one of the first groups in there, and the way they worded it was that the Mutsu River requires the greatest amount of suffering of any of the rivers in the former Soviet Union," Boomer says. That's a daunting description given the Russian predilection for rough travel and hard whitewater—not to mention the fact that the river had never been run at so high a water level.
The nine-person team would face a quartet of box canyons riddled with blind corners and dead-end rapids. The team found a natural division, with the strongest paddlers probing ahead while others concentrated on filming and photography. Boomer, who made his name as one of the boldest kayakers of his generation as he developed his talent for photography, faced a classic dilemma. Should he charge ahead with the front group, or dedicate himself to his craft?
"I was having so much fun that I really had to remind myself I had a job to do," he says. Boomer chose to charge ahead, as we shall see. But first he would document an eye-opening journey across the roof of the world.
“The team gathered in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, where they stayed in the home of their driver, Sayeed, who has four sons and four daughters, each with children of their own. "These kids were just running all around as we were packing up and getting organized, and after a while they started posing for pictures. I saw this scene with that little bit of window light hitting the wall and I was able to get him to stand still long enough to take this photo.”
"I always love capturing people wherever I go, whether it's families in the States or over there. The Tajik people, in general, were just really thrilled to get their pictures taken."
"The crew of nine spent six days traveling west along the Afghan border, crammed into a Soviet-era UAZ452 van and some sort of Russian Land Rover knock-off. When the jeep's suspension broke they piled more bodies into the van, which strained to climb the steep mountain passes and overheated with alarming regularity. "You've got your shoulders against everybody's shoulders, and it takes teamwork to get a good lay-down spot going," says Boomer, in shotgun. "We all stank pretty bad and the windows didn't open super well so we'd stick a Croc in there to get a little bit of airflow going in the back."
L: “This was one of the highest passes that we'd gone over at this point and when we got to the top we stopped and Egor Voskoboynikov jumped on the road marker and struck a pose. We were just jammed in the car for so long, and we all piled out and did push ups and a little bit of jogging to get our lungs going and get acclimated, because we were going to be hiking and sleeping at 15,000 feet. // R: "I kind of connected with this guy because he looked like he was into sports and seemed like somebody I would've met around Idaho, but at the same time he fit the role of somebody that a lot of people are afraid of. So I wanted to capture that duality. He told me I could do one picture. He got his pose ready and I feel like I got lucky with this one."
L: "We were invited to camp on a farm, and the family had two little kids. They reminded me of my niece and nephew, and eventually it became kind of a game to pose for pictures. I've got a ton of photos of this girl and her brother being goofy, but I really like this one. It was just so relaxing there. They had the best tomatoes I've ever had in my life, amazing apples and melons. They were just the nicest family and they had this good life, but I know that not too long ago there were a lot of bombs and tanks rolling down this road too." // R: "Thomass was our team leader, but he was a leader in a different way than a lot of American groups move. The Russians really do everything together. Every night they cook a pot for 10 people. The Russian way takes more organization and teamwork, and people find their roles. The role that Thomass hit wasn't to push that much. He was more of a soft-spoken leader, and a leader in the fact that he put a lot of time into planning the trip. When plan time would come, he'd go with the map and the drivers and look at the options, and then kind of present the choices: 'So guys, we have two options.'"
“This is after Sayeed rebuilt the van's water pump on the side of the road, and we'd been walking for about two hours. We're at 12,000 or 13,000 feet at this point, so we're just getting a taste of that altitude and trying to do a little jog to build as many red blood cells as we could. You know you can sit in the car and disappear into your music and your podcast, or decide to get out and break the monotony. We did see other tour groups with Land Rovers and stuff. There are definitely nicer vehicles in Tajikistan, but in hindsight the vehicles kind of made the whole experience for me.”
"Alona Buslaeva is a seriously badass woman. For one, she put up with all of our stink in that van for days and days. The amount of farts she had to deal with was not right, but she held her own as the lone female surrounded by 10 other dudes. She's from Ukraine, and growing up and paddling in the former Soviet Union, the Mutsu was the one river that she'd heard about her whole life. It was a major rite of passage and a very big deal."
"She was really great to have along, because she was a real driving force with the Russian mentality of eating and cooking together. If it had been left up to the rest of us the Germans probably would've started eating freeze-dried food packets and energy bars, instead of cutting up tomatoes and cucumbers to make this huge bowl of salad that everyone can share."
"The van broke down again and we were walking over another pass at about 13,000 feet when we came to this building. It was pretty stark. There was nothing in the landscape and the building had the vibe of a From Dusk Till Dawn kind of bar, but we ventured over there and these people invited us in for tea and bread. We got inside and the building was heated with cow or goat poop—some kind of poop—so it's, you know, new smells and just a completely different world. This woman is one of the folks we met in there, and she pulled out these bowls of fermented milk called kefir and shared it with us."
"That gesture she's making with her hand on her heart is almost the Tajik way of saying hello. I never got a direct explanation for what that gesture means in Tajikistan, but I know how it made me feel. I just find it to be a more sincere way of saying hello—a more heartfelt acknowledgment of another person."
"We had two drivers, an older and younger, both name Sayeed. This was the older guy and he was a real outdoorsman. A lot of times when the car would be stopped he'd walk up on the hill, grab some bush and make tea with it. He was really excited to get the contract because the country we were going through was so remote and beautiful and he'd hunted a lot of it back in the day. He caught a few fish and always had his gun ready for big mountain Ibex or other game.
"He had an old bolt-action hunting rifle, but there were military and police checkpoints oftentimes and those guys were always armed. Right as we were getting to the put in for the Muksu we hadn't see anybody for a long time so it was a middle-of-nowhere a kind of feeling. We came across this dude in a black mask with just holes for the eyes and mouth, and he was holding an AK-47. I had my InReach handy and was ready to bump out a little InReach message, but he ended up being really nice. It turns out he was military and the mask was just for sun protection. The Russians weren't really scared but I thought we'd hit the end of our road.”
"We finally left the vehicles behind and hiked over the high pass. That night we camped at 15,000 feet and everybody was puking and had diarrhea. We were all really excited to start going down and the next day we really lucked out. We ran into some herders who lived in yurts up in that valley and we were able to pay them a little money to load up the donkeys and do a 20-kilometer push.
"That brought us to another hunting camp where we randomly met some Russians. One of them was an executive at one of the biggest banks in Russia and had to leave the country for years because he got in trouble for embezzling. He kind of mentioned, 'Oh, America. I would love to come visit America but at the moment it is difficult to get a visa. But very soon I think this will be changed.' I'm not quite sure what he was trying to say, but we all got a laugh out of that."
“The team followed the Belandkyk River for some 20 miles before it was deep enough to float their kayaks, then spent two days dodging rocks on the low-volume tributary as they made their way to the confluence with the Muksu proper. An earlier group had hiked 60 kilometers before they were able to start kayaking, and then found the water in the lower canyons almost too high to handle. "With that little bit of beta it was pretty scary. We were thinking it's great to paddle now, but this river is going to get way bigger and way tighter, and hopefully we don't have too much water."
"The Belandkyk picked up pretty quickly and we lost a lot of elevation. We were really happy when we got low enough that there was something to burn. As soon as we found driftwood we stopped and had a mid-day fire just to warm people up."
"I like this shot because it captures the scale of the place. At the base of that mountain is the Fedchenko glacier, which is the source of the Muksu River and the longest glacier in the world outside the polar regions. We were at 10,000 feet elevation, and the mountains are almost 25,000 feet, so you're looking at a good 10,000 to 15,000-foot relief."
"Reaching the confluence was a really big moment for us. After seven or eight days of our journey, we're finally at the river and now we've got some flow. The water was literally springing out of that glacier. It was one of the weirder things I've ever seen. You know at the base of a dam, how the water boils up when they're releasing flow? It was like that from the base of the glacier. I would guess there was about 5,000 cfs pouring out of the glacier, and later when we were in the main whitewater I would guess the river was between 8,000 and 10,000 cfs."
"This is Fabian Dörfler on the first big rapid on the Muksu proper. We didn't even expect this drop because nobody said anything about rapids before the slot canyons that we knew were coming up. So this rapid was a surprise, but we did find a pretty good safe route. We felt like we could get that entry and go between those rocks, and that current was just blowing through those rocks. I don't really want to know what was going on under or around those rocks but we felt if we could line up and stay on that middle tongue we'd be all right.
"So that was our 'good morning' and Fabian just nailed it. Those really good slalom paddlers like Fabian and Thilo Schmitt are just so solid. They paddle with that awesome grace that you see in great slalom paddlers, but with them it translated really well to river running. It wasn't like they were so used to being dialed that it scared them to get pushed around on big water. Fabian in particular I felt like was one of the bolder paddlers in the group."
“Both Egor and Olaf started getting cracks in their boats when the river was low volume. They kept fixing and welding it, but eventually Egor's boat started opening up so much that something needed to be done to hold it together, and this was the best option we could find. I had a felt cowboy hat that I got at a bazaar, and we found that there was a wire in the rim of the hat. So we pulled out that wire and just slowly and meticulously Egor fixed a couple of his cracks by heating up a needle and then poking a hole and twisting around the wire. He welded on top of that and put some tape on it, and it just survived to the end of the river.”
"This was the first crew of boaters going in to explore the first canyon. It was one of those decision points where it wasn't clear if there was a way through. The only way to find out was to send boaters down into that canyon, and these guys were the first group. They were spaced out so that hopefully, if somebody came to an unrunnable section and couldn't get back, they could use a throw bag or tie a bunch of throw ropes together to get it downriver to pull someone back. Luckily it did go, so we didn't have to test that technique after all."
"This was the crux rapid. As the boater is entering he has to catch that eddy on the right above where the boats are stacked, and then climb out of the cave eddy to get to the ledge where the boats are. That was the way to deal with the rapid. You're basically in that cave and then you have to climb up that little crack."
"If you go down the frame there's a sharp pointed rock in the middle of the river. On the left side of that rock was a hole that you might not ever come out of. The walls are vertical and seemed to be undercut, and a lot of that current from the right side of the river was pushing left. A lot of the flow was going left of that rock, and there were a lot of variables before that."
Two years ago on the Sary Jaz I was really happy to be in the role of photographer, because there was no shame in portaging, and as long as I got the photo everyone was happy. On this river I came in feeling a lot stronger because of the training I've been doing, and I struggled when we got into the hard whitewater to switch between those two modes, between photographer and probe. There were definitely some rapids that I was just so excited to do that I was in the front team, just charging it. Some of my photography maybe slipped because of that, but I was having so much fun paddling.
When we got to the crux rapid Mike—Misha Krutyansky—missed the eddy and ran it unintentionally. I was feeling good enough that I was the only one who intentionally ran that one. This shot is from my GoPro just as I'm dropping in. You can see the guys and the boat pile. I ran down the right and as the river made that left-hand swing just in front of the boats I kept my momentum right and plugged right into the seam and disappeared for a four-count. I was comfortable with it, but it was a scary line for those watching. I was pretty happy to pop up right where I wanted to be and grab the next eddy. Just below was another big horizon line. “
“All we knew was that there was another drop just below that looked like a big ledge. This image is looking back up at that rapid. The biggest rock is actually downstream out of view in the previous photo, but you can see the pointed rock just above it. That's the same rock that divides the river in the big rapid. So all we knew was we had just passed one crux and now there's a 10-foot ledge just below it with lots of water flowing in and not much coming out. And we couldn't even get eyes on it.
That was another leap of faith.
We found a little eddy on the right and while we're waiting for everyone else to catch up, Mike climbed up and was looking at it from quite high. He said 'I think you want to be on the right side pushing right,' but where he got out was so sketchy that when he came back down he kicked free a landslide that pushed both of our boats into the water. Luckily there were two boaters there that were able to push the boats back to shore. It was just really difficult to get a good scout. We did find a line through there, but we weren't sure it would go until we tried it.”
"The whole trip was like that, just blind-corner paddling and teamwork and yips—the kind of drops that everyone gets nervous above. And then one person would go and with that good line a lot of confidence comes, and you build from there.
"It was two or three days of hard whitewater action and it kept getting more beautiful. I like this shot because it shows the teamwork and it's kind of typical of what we found in there. Not too hard of a move but a lot of consequences, and a typical feature of those days.”
“When we got off the river, Sayeed and Sayeed were waiting for us with. They'd driven all the way around through Dushanbe and put a new suspension on the jeep. On our whole drive back we were passing sheepherders and donkeys and dudes on horses. This was a typical Tajikistan traffic jam situation. One interesting thing, if you look closely these sheep have really big asses. They're bred to have a fat asses. Somebody invited us to a sheep feed and it was just amazing. This hunk of fat was like almost the size of a football. It was darn good.”
Erik Boomer is a photographer, whitewater paddler and Arctic explorer. He splits time between Baffin Island and Idaho, where he's found his own source of fermented goat milk.
— A look at Boomer’s partnership forged in the field with Sarah McNair-Landry
— Journey down the Sary-jaz River: Into the Tian Shan, Part I; and Part II
— Around Ellesmere Island with Jon Turk
— Evacuation in Tajikistan