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Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Mon
25
Jun '12

No shit, there I was…

Some locations are so exotic that their names take four syllables. Even in Vladivostok, Russia, best known as the terminus of the trans-siberian railway, 9289 kilometers from Moscow, the hotels and commercial flights still ring of the familiar. But as we looked through the small round helicopter windows, signs of humans quickly gave way and were replaced with dense birch forest, volcanoes, and snowfields covered with ash. Will said out loud what I was thinking.  “Shit just got real.”

On the Zhupanova river, the shit hit the fan.

Kayaking a calm section on the Zhupanova river.

The Zhupanova river runs for over 200 kilometers through the volcanoes of Kamchatka. We paddled the last 110 kilometers through the mountains and out into the Bering Sea. We loaded our gear into the boats on June 11th and set off. The river was swift and the water high. We were getting used to the boats. We knew the water was cold. We navigated carefully in the very fast water. We had only been on the water for a few minutes when we heard our emergency signal – a loud, shrill blast of a whistle.

I looked over my right shoulder and that’s when the shit got really real. From downstream I saw the bottom of a kayak pinned by a strainer, perpendicular to the flow. If you’re a kayaker, that’s all I have to say. If not, a strainer is an obstacle, often made of tree branches, that partially blocks fast moving water. Water flows quickly around the branches just like it flows through the holes of the strainer in your kitchen. But the surface of a kayak is large. With the water flowing fast, the kayak can get pinned against the branches by the water pressure. A person in the kayak could be powerless against the water pressure.

Will and I switched into emergency mode. The first rule of any wilderness emergency is to ensure your own safety so the situation doesn’t get worse. We saw a large eddy on the right side of the river, and, hearts pounding, pulled ourselves into the still water as one of our companions floated down stream out of her boat. We wouldn’t be in any position to help until we were out of the too-strong current ourselves. On the other side of the eddy, Richard was in the water. The pinned boat was a double, and both people were out of it. One person who had tried to help had flipped. As far as we could tell, everyone else was on a river bank. It was raining and the temperatures were in the 40’s.  it had snowed the previous night. The river was snowmelt. The potential for disaster was very real. Our guide Olaf  barked orders.

Because of the terrain, Will and I couldn’t get out of our boat, so we stayed closely rafted up to the small crew of people who had chosen the same eddy. After several minutes, Tom, one of the people from the boat that flipped, was brought over to the eddy and I gave him my thermos of hot water. Everyone was out of the water and our guides were working to free the boat. Four people had been in the water, two were hypothermic, one badly.

Olaf found us in the eddy and instructed us to cross the swift current. There was a fishing cabin on the far side of the river, and we would use it to take care of our teammates and regroup.  I had to steel myself to cross the current.

The fishing camp where we warmed up after our too-adventurous day on the Zhupanova.

In the camp which consisted of some small cabins with wood stoves, we dried our gear and regrouped. The accident had everyone rattled. But it isn’t the good days that define you as a person or a team. We had been scared, but we came through. No question we were on the brink of a disaster — far, far too close to catastrophe.  That’s a place I’d never go by choice. But on the other side, our team resolve had hardened. We made it to the worst place and back, and we shared an experience we wouldn’t lose. No one else will ever know what it was like on the Zhupanova that day, and I will always have a special bond with everyone who was there as a result. I know that they feel the same.

 

—Robin

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