River Conditions

Voyages Media Articles

July 1, 1988
Paddler Magazine

Another World

Rafting in the Soviet Union

By Bill McGinnis

"When you leave, I will cry," our Soviet host, Misha Kolchevnikov, said one evening in camp. We are halfway down the Katun River, and all of us, Soviets and Americans alike, understood. As we hunkered together around a campfire of crackling white birch, we shared a wonderful caring and closeness, and a growing realization that something extraordinary was happening on this voyage deep in the Siberian wilderness.

It was August of 1987, and we were part of the first Soviet-American expedition ever to raft a Soviet whitewater river. It was, among other things, a scouting trip for what we hoped would become an ongoing series of trips - called Project RAFT (Russians and Americans for Teamwork) - which would bring Soviets and Americans together to raft rivers first in the Soviet Union and, eventually, in the United States. And here we were. Actually living our dream of building trust, camaraderie, and teamwork - not only between ourselves and our immediate Soviet companions, but also, symbolically, between our two nations.

Our group of 15 Project RAFTers flew into Moscow on July 27, toting three tightly rolled self-bailing rafts plus 41 other duffles and gear boxes, but little food. After a day exploring Moscow, we began a marathon succession of Aeroflot jet and helicopter flights, interspersed by hacky-sack airport vigils, which deposited us (24 hours and 3,000 miles later) at Camp Altai, our base camp for the expedition, high in Goran Altaisky - the Altai Mountains. Siberia's tallest mountains, the Altais sore skyward near the point where the Mongolian, Chinese and Soviet borders meet in the center of the Asian continent.

An international mountaineering camp of growing renown, Camp Altai consisted of 50 or so Polish-made wall tents for sleeping, a large mess tent, a rough-hewn wooden sauna hut, and, a short distance away, a nice three holer with a good view of Lake Ak-Kem and Mt. Beluka. We spent two days there catching up on our sleep, taking saunas and hiking through verdant meadows to nearby glaciers and waterfalls. In the camp mess tent we spent time with our Soviet hosts, and with Spanish, German, and British mountain climbers - playing chess, acquiring an appreciation for the local moonshine and toasting, singing and eating our way through a series of extravagant feasts.

It was here that we met the people who would be our companions on the river. These included seven Soviets (four river guides, two interpreters and one Moscow official) plus eight Americans sponsored by National Geographic. Misha the chief Soviet guide, was an intrepid rafter and river explorer, the author of several guidebooks to Soviet Rivers, and an engineer in Barnaul, Siberia's second-largest city. Along with our other guides - Slava, Sasha, and Zghenia - Misha had volunteered to spend his annual month-long vacation acting as official host. Our interpreters (in addition to the three Russian-speaking Americans among us) were Ludmilla and Igor. Ludmilla - whom we affectionately called Luda for short - was from Moscow, where she worked as an interpreter, translator, writer, and academician at Moscow University. Igor, who like Misha was from Barnaul, was a student and a candidate to become a member of the Communist Party - a somewhat unusual distinction, since only three percent of the Soviet population are Party members.

From glaciers high on Mt. Beluka the Katun (pronounced ka-toon) flows first west, then north and east in a great semi-circle. We landed a short distance below these headwater glaciers in a broad, rounded valley ablaze with wild flowers. Here the 500 cfs flow, colored grey-white by glacier flour, raced smoothly and swiftly down a gently meandering gravel bed. In the course of the next 100 kilometers - around all three sides of the semi-circle - the flow increased 20 fold, and the canyon went through an ongoing metamorphosis from sloping glacial valleys to narrow rocky gorges (with quickening current and tight maneuvering) to broad, flat valleys with deep meandering river bends to steep-sided, V-shaped canyons with entertaining Class III rapids.

To coordinate our paddling efforts on the river, we created a neutral language of paddle commands based on sounds from both Russian and English. For example "fot" meant forward, and "zad" meant backpaddle. Choosing a neutral vocabulary, rather than relying on one of the languages native to participants, created an identical challenge for all.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the trip was seeing, first hand, Soviet-style rafting. The Katun, despite its remoteness, turned out to be a popular whitewater river, affording contact with a wide variety of Soviets, including some advanced boaters who had just descended the Argut, an extremely challenging tributary of the Katun. The Soviets use light, maneuverable, and stable catamarans constructed from two inflated tubes held together by a frame.

We learned that each year over 50,000 Soviets catamaran down the hundreds of rivers spread throughout every corner of their vast country - roughly two and a half times the size of the United States. During their long winters, working in their apartments with whatever materials are available, Soviets by the thousands stitch, rivet, and glue together their gear, resourcefully creating unique life jackets, paddles, aluminum frames, and long, cigar-shaped air bags. In summer, on their annual month-long vacations, they hike this gear in to remote wilderness put-ins. Here they put together frames either of aluminum or, quite commonly, saplings and branches cut at the put-in, and lash on air bags to create catamaran-style rafts. With, generally, four people per catamaran, these "splavniki" (Russian for whitewater enthusiasts) push down all manner of rivers - including Class V and V+.

We glided for nine days down the Katun, navigating Class II and III rapids, visiting remote villages, sharing camps with other Soviet rafters, and drifting on easy current through an ever-changing panorama of mountains, meadows, forests, and canyons.

Overall, we all agreed, our Katun trip was the most extraordinary river journey any of us had ever experienced. What meant the most to us, I think, was the closeness and teamwork, the companionship, the laughter, and the trust and caring. We shared so many truly good, close times: such as when, on a huge expanse of pristine beach, we introduced our Soviet friends to their first frisbee; and such as our ongoing efforts to teach Misha American slang. He especially liked the phrase, "Get your ass in gear," which, whenever he tried to say it, threw us into gales of laughter.

Our two cultures, languages, and political systems are very different - yet we found that we didn't have to eliminate or ignore these differences to be friends. We found the Soviet people to be incredibly warm and welcoming. We felt a wonderful, heart-rending closeness both with the Soviets in our group and with those we met along the way. At times we even experienced an incredible bonding, a deep, mutual recognition that, regardless of our differences, we are one people, earth people, with so much in common, so much to share, so much to gain from closer relations. And when we left, Misha did cry.



© 1988 Bill McGinnis.

 

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