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The sign catches us by surprise. Duct-taped to a paddle blade waving above a sea of heads in the windowless Moscow airport is a piece of paper that reads, "We look for four American kayaker to go Kalar River."
I look at Edge, Van, and Ben, counting with my finger. "That's us," I say. "That has to be us."
It's 3:00 P.M. Moscow time on July 23, 1993. If we were at home, we might have been tossing a Frisbee at a summer barbecue. Here, our future matches our bleak surroundings. Hordes of dark-clothed travelers scurry around the gray confines of the concrete terminal. Jet-lagged and tired, we aren't sure who, if anyone, is going to meet us. Wondering who is holding the paddle, we shuffle over for introductions.
At the end of the shaft is Boris Jahnis, his full brown beard and ponytail giving him the air of a Berkeley professor, only scruffier. If he's a professor, he's obviously off duty, as indicated by his black T-shirt with a gold-and-red coat-of-arms insignia across the breast. Light-blue surfer shorts with red and blue palm trees and yellow pineapples end just below his knees, exposing hairy, muscular calves. A black plastic-mesh baseball cap barely covers his forehead, which is as prominent as the paddle waving above him. On his feet is a pair of sagging socks tucked inside a worn-out pair of white canvas sneakers.
Joining him is a taller dark-haired man and a wavy-brown-haired accomplice. Their eyes dart quickly to our pile of gear.
"Do you speak English?" I ask tentatively. "We're the Americans looking to go to the Kalar River."
"I'm Boris," comes a hearty-voiced reply. "This is Igor and Sergei. We take your things."
He pauses before stooping down to pick up an army-green amoeba-shaped canvas bag housing our frame and oars. Igor bends over to help him.
"What is this?" asks Boris in a thick Latvian accent.
"That's our frame," admits a sheepish Ben.
"And our oars and raft," adds Van, justifying its weight and cumbersome appearance.
Boris grunts and turns away. In a few seconds, we see why: Sergei's white two-door car has to carry seven people plus all of our gear. After loading our gear atop a makeshift car rack and squishing everything else inside the hatchback, the car's lone mud flap touches the pavement before we even pile in. With the four of us on each other's laps in back, topped by even more gear on the top rider's thighs, we drag out of the passenger-pickup area and emerge into an even drearier outside.
The sky is overcast, a dull gray that matches our travel-weary brains. Like bleached dominos, row after row of identical concrete apartment buildings blurr by on the two-hour drive to Igor Petrovich and Sergei Milov's apartment. Laundry dries in the wind, hanging over almost every balcony rail. Despite their scale, none of the apartment buildings have parking lots; most of their inhabitants don't own cars. Power lines casually crisscross the highway, as if put there as afterthoughts. If one of the dominos were to tip over, they'd likely all fall, those not in line caught in the tumble through these archaic wires.
Two boys playing soccer with a half-flat ball wave as we park on a broken slab of concrete marking Igor and Sergei's place. We leave our gear atop the car and head to an elevator, which reeks of urine. Sergei delicately presses 12, his finger conditioned to dodge wires sticking out of the control panel. When the door opens, we emerge into a long dark hallway. At its end, we pile into a two-room apartment shared by Sergei, his wife, Irina, and their three children.
Despite the impoverished existence, Irina wastes no time in serving us herring, bread, and vodka in their crowded dining room. Before we know it, our glasses are full and Boris, Igor, and Sergei break into simultaneous toasts of "Nastrovia!" Exchanging glances, we tentatively sip our oversized glasses. Then our hosts drain their cups and we realize we have to do the same. Four shots later-as well as a cup of golden root tea, a mild narcotic that grows in Siberia's Altai Mountains-Boris explains why we should abandon our plans for the Kalar and join his group on a river called the Bashkaus.
"It is strong river," he says gruffly. "You meet my team and come with us."
Boris is a member of Team Konkas, a Latvian whitewater team from Riga that has been running rivers together for twelve years. This year, while we're planning to run the Kalar, they're tackling the Class V to VI Bashkaus, one of the hardest and most committing multiday river trips in the former Soviet Union. Sergei ran it four years earlier with three other members of Team Konkas. Igor ran it a year later, in 1990, and most likely won't be going back.
It's a fluke that Boris met us at the airport; we were expecting someone else. During our search for Russian partners to join us on the Kalar, Ben stumbled upon another Latvian, named George Aukon, from Flagstaff, Arizona, while rafting the Dolores River in Colorado. When Ben mentioned that we had secured a grant to run a river in Siberia, George told his friend Boris about us and sent him our flight schedule. Boris then took the liberty of intercepting us at the airport. For the time being, it seems a good thing.
Still, we can't shake the feeling that we have been kidnapped. We are in the apartment of a friend of a stranger who seems to know everything about us and our plans, while we know nothing about them or theirs. Shutting out the effects of the vodka, we decide to have a say in our fate.
"Boris, can you ask Sergei if we can use his phone?" asks Ben. "We want to try calling Andre, our contact here."
Boris turns to Sergei and Sergei nods, pointing to the corner. It's a rotary, but it works, its ancient crackling traversing the web of wires holding the apartment dominos together. A few minutes later, after Boris gets on the phone and interprets, Ben returns to the herring- and vodka-filled dining table.
"He's not there," he says. "He's stuck in Turkey, delayed by a storm on the Black Sea."
"When's he getting back?" asks Van.
"His wife doesn't know," Ben answers. "Could be a week. Could be a month. But there's more-she says she's never even heard of us."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"She has no idea who we are," confesses Ben. "Her husband never mentioned us or our expedition."
It's a big blow. According to faxes received by Ben, Andre was to build us three breakdown whitewater kayaks, which we were going to use to run the Kalar. Van was going to row a cataraft, housed with our breakdown oars and frame in the canvas body bag now atop Sergei's car.
"Well, that sucks," sums up Edge. "What about the other guys who were supposed to come along?"
"They were all friends of Andre's," answers Ben. "I don't even know their names."
What we do know is that, well vodka'd and still groggy from the flight, we have some serious decisions to make. Quickly. Boris is meeting the rest of his team at the Moscow train station the next day for a three-day ride east to Barnaul. Do we wait around here indefinitely hoping that Andre will return, or cut our losses and join the Latvians?
The decision becomes tougher when we walk across the hallway to Igor's apartment and watch him turn on a scratchy video of a Bashkaus trip he took three years earlier. The rapids look horrendous, and the homemade equipment-including bulky life jackets that make the paddlers resemble cosmonauts-looks even worse. Catarafts surf uncontrollably in holes above sure-death swims. Eddyless Class V rapids continue for what looks like miles. If they're not running a death-defying rapid, they're struggling their gear over a slippery, steep portage. Igor then drops the bomb, describing how he had to wait ten days in the heart of the canyon for the water to drop, witnessing three deaths during that time. After first leading another group out on a four-day hike to safety, he returned to lead his own group out-all in all, a ten-day hike for him to escape the canyon.
With a job and family now, Igor is not going this time. Neither is Sergei, who also has kids to take care of. Given what we saw on the video, we wonder if this is an omen.
When Ben asks a question about their rafts, Igor's answer causes even more chagrin.
"We make it," he says through Boris. "We make everything-rafts, paddles, life jackets, even tents."
Shaken, inebriated, and tired, we drag ourselves back across the hall to Sergei's apartment. There, Boris hands me a short description of the river written in broken English. He borrowed it from their trip leader, Ramitch, who picked it up at a river runner's library in Moscow. Sitting at the table, I flip the page.
"Among all the rest Altai routes," it reads, "this one is to be pointed out because of its unity and the combination of impressions of fairy landscapes and difficult and worth-overcoming rapids, leave alone the extremely high psychological tenseness connected with the danger and long staying alone in the isolated deep canyon."
Fairy landscapes, difficult rapids, mental tension, remote, steep canyon, and isolation. It sums up what we saw on Igor's video, and more.
We share a tiny room vacated by Sergei's kids, who join their parents in their bedroom, while Boris sleeps in the dining room. I part the drapes and take in the rows and rows of identical buildings, which match the gray clouds. Lightning flashes in the distance. "Well, what do you guys think?" I ask. "What do you want to do?"
The choices are clear. Either we stick to our plans and try to run the Kalar, which means waiting indefinitely for our boats and phantom point person, or embark with a group of complete strangers on a nightmarish-looking river on homemade equipment, all three of which we know absolutely nothing about.
It's as clear as our vodka that we've stumbled upon a Land of the Lost when it comes to river running. The sport here has evolved much like Australian wildlife: completely free of outside influences. If we join the Latvians, we'd get an up close and personal look at Russian-style rafting on one of the most difficult whitewater rivers in the former Soviet Union. The "extremely high psychological tenseness" from "long staying alone in the isolated deep canyon" would likely be magnified with complete strangers who don't speak English. So would the difficulty of running Class V-VI water on homemade equipment.
Sergei knocks on the door and pokes his head in.
"Spokoynoy nochee," he says. "Good night."
"Spokoynoy nochee," we reply in unison.
When the door shuts again, Ben echoes what's on all of our minds.
"I don't know," he says. "We don't even know these guys."
After 182 hours of solid traveling involving three airplanes, five cars, a seventy-three-hour train ride, two buses, and an army truck, the last piece of the puzzle falls into place. Our put-in for the Bashkaus is a broad camp atop a bluff overlooking a sparkling green waterway. Boris, grinning from riding shotgun in the army truck while we were crammed outside in the bed, hops out and unlatches the rear gate. Our four-hour bumpy ride jostling on top of gear is over.
"Come on, guys," he says. "We're here."
We quickly pile out, followed by the rest of the Latvians. Unfortunately, there is no time for stretching. No sooner than their feet touch ground, they set to work. Sergei the Tall and Valeri start a fire to boil soup, Ramitch and Sergei the Small notch logs to place around a fire pit, and Boris secures enough firewood for an army. It seems overkill until we hear it will take three days to build the frames for the rafts.
"So close," Edge says, eyeing the river, "and yet, still so far."
"So far" is right. We're about as far into the boondocks as any of us have ever been. I look downriver for a glimpse of the "fairy landscapes" from the river description but see nothing but rolling, grass-covered hills pocketed with stands of thick forest.
After the confines of the road trip, it's nice to finally be at the river. We've been traveling in close quarters with the Latvians for a week, and the lap of the river and the Siberian air are refreshing. I stroll a few yards from camp to a ten-foot-high cliff overlooking the river. Cobblestones on the far bank lead up to a foot-thick layer of dark green moss, above which lie hundreds of small yellow flowers framing a grassy bench. The bench ends abruptly in a thick forest of larch and pine.
The water is clear and fast, but not dangerously so. Below me, the current has slackened into a green pool, with a large eddy lining a rocky beach. Upstream, the water turns white, where a Class III rapid extends up around the corner. It's bordered by granite cliffs, with boulders constricting the river into a series of drops and folds. Neither the rapid nor water volume looks overly intimidating. I dare an inner smile of joy, before remembering what lurks downstream.
Turning that direction, I try to see where the water goes. But the river is bordered by a thick-walled forest on each side and disappears around a blind bend. I won't know until I'm there and on it, when there's no turning back. When we won the grant to run a river here, we felt luck was on our side. Now I continue to wonder if we are still so lucky after all.
While the Latvians set to work, we unload the gear from the back of the truck and find our packs among the odd assortment of Latvian gear. Separating ours out, we pull out sleeping bags, pads, and other gear, shaking it off from the dusty ride.
When Yevgheny sees us unpacking our slim, compact life jackets, he comes over and holds one up for examination. He then yells to Ramitch, who also comes over to inspect what is our only chance for survival should we swim in the Bashkaus. Turning it over in his hands, Yevgheny squeezes the jacket's flotation and fusses with the zipper. Then he goes over to his pack and pulls out his life jacket, beaming.
"Your life jacket, no work," he says, putting on his own. "This is jacket you need for strong river."
The source of his pride looks cartoonish. A giant inflatable collar rises behind his head like Dracula's cape. Two twelve-pack-sized rectangles of foam are sewn into each breast, with two more dangling in front of his stomach. When he finishes buckling his crotch strap he looks more like a motocross racer than a rafter. Our life jackets pale in comparison, both in fashion and flotation. Where ours are state-of-the-art kayaking life jackets made by reputable manufacturers, like their backpacks and tents, the Latvians' are entirely homemade.
Ramitch puts his life jacket on, too. Soon, he is clad in purple from shoulders to toes like Barney. Ensolite strips are sewn into every available square inch of surface area for extra flotation. On his arms, the strips run parallel to his forearms before switching 90 degrees and running across the elbows for flexibility. Then, they resume a parallel position along his upper arms. The same Ensolite flotation pattern holds on the legs and knees of his purple overalls: parallel along the shin and femur, and sideways across the kneecap for mobility. He's so protected, he could survive a Russian hockey game (the intended purpose of his light-blue helmet). The final piece of his ensemble is an orange plastic cylinder dangling from the front of his life jacket. Inside is mandatory survival gear: matches, fire starter, and, most importantly, cigarettes.
Sergei the Small strides over with his life jacket. He puts it on over a white-and-maroon flannel shirt and joins the promenade. It's akin to being at a Paris fashion show, only we're in the middle of Siberia, the models are hairy-legged, stubbly-bearded males, and instead of touting delicate bikinis, they're modeling bulky head-to-toe wardrobes for whitewater.
Sergei's life jacket has a markedly different look from the others. It's made from six halves of soccer balls, with three domes protruding proudly along each rib cage. Each dome has an improvised rubber valve for inflation. He shows us his homemade helmet, an oblong white blob made out of pieces of Styrofoam glued together and shaped in a close approximation of his head.
Boris's life jacket is equally unique. Rather than have the bulk of his flotation on the front like the other jackets, two giant humps rise from his back like Quasimodo's. The jacket matches a pair of bright-orange, flotation-riddled overalls underneath. Andrew's life jacket has a still different approach to flotation-it's made from old wine bladders housed in nylon sleeves.
Excerpted from Brothers on the Bashkaus by Eugene Buchanan Copyright © 2007 by Eugene Buchanan. Excerpted by permission.
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