Friday, September 23, 2011

In Which I Stare Directly into the Gaping Maw of Death and Laugh

Alternately, I could have just called this post "River Trip 2011," but, honestly, does that sound nearly as exciting?  The idea of staring into the gaping maw of death and laughing is just so much more appealing, and though it may be poetic license, I think I'm just going to stick with it.

So yes, the topic of this post is the recent float down the Yenisei that I completed with my coworker David. There was indeed a brief moment of death-maw staring, but more on that in a bit.  

The Yenisei River is almost certainly the biggest river you've never heard of, as the 5th longest in the world, and also the 5th highest in terms of volume of water.  It's longer than the Danube and the Ganges put together.  It's a big river, is what I'm trying to say.

However, like all rivers, up where it begins it's not so big.  It's still the biggest river in T-land, where it starts, but it's small enough to be, um, exciting, in points.  But enough about the river.  Let's go to the pictures:

We live in a city built on the confluence of the two major sources of the river, and to make the trip, we had to get into a car to drive up closer to the mouth of one of them.  Our car, as you can see above, was a Russian jeep/van called an Uazik, and it was not good to us.  This picture was taken during its third breakdown, and that doesn't count us running out of gas.  Twice.  Sigh.

Anyway, we did get to the jumpoff point eventually.  We had planned to float a few hours that first afternoon, but we didn't get in until well after dark, so we just set up the tent and waited for morning.  The next day, we surveyed our map:

The total was 280 kilometers, which I think is about 160 miles.  We had one bit of rapids to negotiate, but otherwise the plan was to just float down, fishing along the way.  The purpose of the trip was for a "men's retreat" of sorts, one last time for me and David to hang out before they left to go back to Canada.

It started out beautifully, a bit overcast but lovely and reasonably warm.  The fall colors were in, and it was going to be a great trip.

The fishing was great, at least for David, and he was reeling in fish within an hour of our departure.  They may look small, but in the overfished rivers of Siberia the fish are often quite tiny.  An 8-inch fish is a keeper, and is quite lovely when salted and fried.

Before we go further, maybe I should explain our equipment.  Our boat was an inflatable 2-man raft, with no seats or anything.  You can see it here below, and we used our supposedly waterproof duffel bags (more on that later) as seats.

I have never been a very gifted fisherman, and this trip did nothing to dispel that image, I'm afraid.  The first few days I didn't catch anything, although eventually we did get to a really nice hole where I did OK.

Obviously, at the rate the river took us along, 280 km was not going to happen in a day or two, so each night we would set up this tent when we saw a nice-looking spot and camp.  Oddly, the tent, designed to be immediately spotted from the air when mountaineering, blended in perfectly to the yellow of the trees, and we were almost camouflaged.

Unfortunately, on day 2 it started to rain.  And rain, and rain.  We set up a bit early, getting our tent up before the worst of it hit.  However, the next day, we were trapped in our tent as the rain didn't let up all day.  David went out and fished for a few hours, and I made a brief and futile effort to dry my jeans and shoes by the fire.  

 We did have the benefit of David's fishing skills to supplement our diet, and it turns out that frying fish on the fire makes them 10 times tastier.

Once we got back on the river, we began to see ominous signs that we were headed into the mountains.  Snow-capped peaks began to appear in the distance, and grow ever-closer as the days progressed.  It snowed rather early in the mountains this year, as normally there wouldn't be much snow in early September.  It made for some cold winds coming off the mountains, especially when we were wet from rain.

At this point I was still getting shut out on the fish front, but David got on a hot streak and reeled in a massive taimen (we think).

 It was the tastiest of all the fish we got on our venture, and I tried to take a picture of it, filleted and fried up with some mashed potatoes (made from dried potatoes we brought along).  The picture isn't great, but you get the idea.

The fall colors really were splendiferous.  It was quite an amazing trip in the scenery department, as each bend revealed something more beautiful than the one before.

After four days of floating, we arrived at a point renowned for being a prime place to catch fish.  It was also one of the last places on the river to have any fish at all (once you get within a couple of days of our city there aren't many left), so we decided to stop and spend some time stocking up.

We got there a little after lunch, but since we wanted to spend some time there we went ahead and made camp.  Then we started into the fishing.  At first, it went like everything else on the trip and David caught fish while I flailed around hopelessly.  

In fact, in the picture below I'm trying to see if it will make a difference if I try David's rod.  He caught a fish the cast before this, then gave it to me to try.  I cast (while he took this picture), caught nothing, and then he went back to fishing and caught another fish with his first cast.  Sigh.

Eventually, we got the height right on my setup, and then I started catching fish.  We took a picture with this tiny one just because we weren't sure I would ever get another one!

But I did, and David caught more too.  At the end of the day, this was our haul - he still outfished me, but 7 of those are mine.

 And that was it for fishing.  Below that point, we had only the rapids, and then a couple more days to get home.  We were happy to be bringing along a bucketful of salted fish, and were quite happy with the way the trip had turned out.

There was just one more wee obstacle in our way - the fabled rapids (dun dun DUN!). 

David had actually floated down the river last year with our other coworker, and they had portaged around the rapids seen above.  However, after their portage they had looked back and concluded that they probably could easily have managed (their decision to hike around having been influenced by extremely strong warnings from people they met along the river of the dangers).

So we had been toying with the idea of running them all the way down, and when we pulled out to see only what you see in the above picture we thought it looked doable.  The right side of the big rock (it's the size of a schoolbus, but quite hard to see in the photo) was certainly not going to be possible, as the rapids were well beyond the capabilities of our small craft.  But the left side - well, that looked like a ride on the wild side that we might have a chance of surviving.

We had spent the night before talking about memories that we had from childhood, including one of my favorites with a friend who decided late one night that we should go outside and run around in our underwear in the rain for the sheer purpose of "making a memory."  I made the fateful decision as we entered the rapids, having carefully stowed everything that needed to stay dry in the "waterproof" bags, to shout "Let's make a memory, David!"

 I think it can safely be said that neither of us will soon forget the 30 seconds that followed.  The intensity of the rapids was well, WELL above what they had appeared from our upriver vantage point.  We managed to stay left of the big rock in the middle, and were trying to get back to the right to miss another sharp rock when the river simply opened up and swallowed us.

Actually, it was more that a very large rock (say, SUV-sized) just under the water picked us up, and on the other side of it was a large "hole" that we hadn't seen at all from above.  On the other side of this hole was another large rock, and we made it down into the hole but flipped onto that rock as we came out the other side.

David was thrown clear, and I, in the back, went straight face-first into the rock, with about 0.0001 seconds to react.  The only thing I did was hold onto my paddle, some part of my brain deciding this was mission-critical for some reason.  My baseball cap took most of the force as I went into the rock, though I had a swollen and abraided cheek and eyebrow for a few days.

We did come up, though, and then we struggled to the shore.  My main concern was that the boat would be gone, because we were still 125 km from home and that sounded like a long ways to walk without any food.  Fortunately, the boat was caught in an eddy at the bottom of the rapids.  David, still having shoes on, raced down to get it before it was carried away.  I had a concussion and was struggling with double vision, but eventually got it together enough to get over and help out (I had put my shoes in the bag to stay dry).

Once we sorted out that everyone was alive without serious injury (a minor miracle), we could look more objectively at our situation.  First of all, looking at the rapids from the bottom, there was no possible way we should have been on those rapids in that boat.  That decision, however, was long in the past.  

We took stock of what remained - we had lost one paddle, a black bag (that contained my camping pad and our tent boat repair kit, among other things), all our fishing gear, and a few other bits and bobs. The plastic box with our food had somehow flipped upside down, thus creating an air pocket that kept it afloat.  Our waterproof bags were caught in some eddies, so we had them as well.

They turned out to be less than waterproof, which was disappointing, but a wet sleeping bag is better than no sleeping bag.  Everything was wet, in fact, so we decided to stop at a downstream island to dry off.  On our way there (which was difficult, with only one paddle) we spotted the bag we were missing a few bends down the river, so we had our tent back.

So, we were grateful to be alive (seriously, it was a very dangerous situation) and doubly grateful to have most of our stuff back.  We spent a couple of hours drying off, and then moved on.  Oh, and I should note that all the pictures from this point forward are courtesy of David's camera, which was in a waterproof bag inside his waterproof bag, and thus didn't get wet.  Mine, unfortunately, despite being in a sealed Ziploc, inside another plastic bag, inside a waterproof duffel, was toast.

At this point you might imagine that our heroes were due for some good fortune, and indeed, we had some.  We pulled up to a nice beach after our spell of drying out, chosen because it looked like a decent place to camp and not because we had any knowledge of the place.  We just happened to pull up right where there was a nice Russian hunting cabin in the woods.  

The rules in these kind of places is that anyone can stay, and you do your best to leave more than you found when you got there.  It even had potatoes and salt, and was in very good condition, though we left the food alone as we still had most of ours (having only lost the bread and things that could get wet).

We didn't have to face any of the resident bears, though this one had wandered through the day before.

This picture was obviously taken upon our return, but the one thing we did take from the cabin was a wooden plank that was on the ground.  We left a lot of our food to "pay" for it, but we really needed a second paddle to keep the boat from going in circles with one paddler.  I carved it with my pocketknife and a hatchet, and it served us pretty well!

Anyway, the next day we started the boring part of our trip.  Boring because now we weren't distracting ourselves with casting and reeling every now and again in the vain attempt to catch a fish.  With nothing to do but float and occasionally paddle around some minor (but, in light of our early experience, suddenly very threatening) rapids, we watched the scenery change from:


 After 6 days of floating, we finally arrived home.  Our families were well, much to our relief, and, overall, I would say that it was a great time.  Now, with the benefit of several days to forget about the constant rain and remember the glorious sunshine, I look forward to doing it again.  Maybe in a few years, when the boys are old enough for me to risk their lives?

I leave you with some scenery pictures, since they're pretty and I thought you might like them.  We'll start with one I call "floating mountain":

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Package

When we came back from Moscow we had a surprise waiting for us - the mother of all packages.  Look at this thing: 

Of course, I couldn't wait to open it. Right after I took the picture with Jesse holding it, I ripped into it.  I'm sure I heard the angels in Heaven start to sing! 

The top item is my favorite comfort food in the world, Rice Krispies with marshmallows. I'm actually finishing off the last of the 3 bags of marshmallows and 4 boxes of Rice Krispies that was sent already.  I'm impressed with myself that it lasted this long.

And, you ask, who would be such an awesome group to send such a package?  None other than our family group in the wonderful land of F-V, NC.  I mean, look at it all!

And, what's in the picture was only half of what they sent us.  The other half I couldn't tear away from the boys long enough to take a picture of the massive amount of cars, trucks (including monster trucks which I'm sure I can thank Martha for), coloring books, CDs, markers, and toys, toys, toys.  They weren't interested in helping me open the box until they saw those monster trucks.  Then, I had to try to slow them down from throwing things out of the box looking for "their" stuff.  It was a wonderful time.  

I want to thank every person who contributed to sending this.  I wish I could do it in person.  But, then again, if I could do it in person we wouldn't of gotten the package in the first place.  It's a small sacrifice to "give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose".  Thank you all from the bottom of our hearts for this.  We love each and every one of you (and not just the people who sent this but all of you).  Your thoughts and support has been overwhelming to us.  We could not be here without you.

 Just so you can see, the last picture is the wallpaper our new neighbors put up in our mutual hallway while we were away.  That type of decor is very popular here.  Nice, eh?