The season starts in May when the snow has already melted, grounds are dry, and the water is still high. Spring is the best time to go paddling on almost any river in the country, if you don’t mind freezing cold nights. Summer brings much more pleasant weather, but to “get some water” you have to do some traveling.
"...... most of the coastline was closed to the unattended public
because the Coast Guard was paranoid of defectors."
The season ends in October when days are too short and too cold. In Russia, wilderness is just two hours on the train, from any city. Despite its popularity, the kayaking industry does not get enough government support and attention. Descriptions of the rivers are available, but maps are not updated properly and in many cases are inaccurate. The most reliable information comes from clubs and comrade paddlers.
To plan any trip one must begin with a crew. Interestingly enough, there is no specific age group involved in kayaking. There could be families with young kids or groups of students. Most of them come from big cities (those who live in the suburbs rarely express any desire to be close to nature). If it was not for the red tape associated with hunting permits, a lot of paddlers would also be hunters. The “Nordic” spirit of the spring trip makes even the wildest anarchist calm down and behave responsibly. Due to the high number of amateurs involved, almost 90% of kayaking trips are done on non-classified rivers. In all of my trips we would follow this simple formula: 1/ The crew must be trustworthy and fun. 2/ There has to be enough people who own a kayak, since renting in Russia is almost impossible. 3/ There has to be at least one person who can play the guitar. It was mutually agreed that an acoustic guitar is more appropriate around the camp fire than a boom box (and if anything goes wrong, you are guaranteed that the guitar will float...).
Where to go is a good question. The general requirement is that it has to be free from civilization and close to the railroad. The water should be clean and the area must be beautiful. Until recently, most of the coastline was closed to the unattended public because the Coast Guard was paranoid of defectors. Inland, there are plenty of good rivers in the central part of Russia (with Msta one of the favorites). There is a wide range of rivers in Karelia (NW of the country between the Gulf of Finland and the White Sea) and Caucasus (the area between the Black and Caspian Seas) is a whitewater paradise. There are also a number of beautiful rivers in Siberia, but in many cases, because of the distance involved, one would run out of vacation time before even getting close.
Due to the high number of amateurs involved, almost 90% of kayaking trips
are done on non-classified rivers.
Marketwise, there are boats available from Germany, Poland, and the Russian-made Saluts. Imports are fast and good looking, but the Salut is still the most popular. Saluts are simple, there are no bright colors and no foam padding on the seats. They are almost indestructible (20 year old boats are commonplace on the rivers), and no other boat can match their forgiveness when misused.
The Salut is also the only kayak available as a three seater. Most of the people I knew preferred those. A 20-foot boat is the perfect vessel for a long voyage or a weekend cruise with the family. All of this is possible due to its 900 pound payload. The two seater is 17 feet long and has a payload of 750 pounds. The lightweight aluminum frame has no hinges or moving parts and almost all permanent connections are done with rivets. Repairability is another big plus of the boat. The hypalon hull can be fixed with any glue that is applicable to rubber materials. Although the Salut is used on some classified rivers, it is not a whitewater kayak. Those who desire to have a whitewater boat must manufacture it themselves. Blueprints are available through the clubs. These boats are also foldables, but are much smaller and require a lot of padding.
Those who desire to have a whitewater boat must manufacture it themselves.
Once the trip is decided, the fun begins. The first step is to tune-up the kayak. In the middle of my apartment we would assemble our kayaks and inspect the hulls for damage from previous trips. If the river was expected to be rough we would glue strips of rubber to the outside of the hull over the stringers. We used old truck inner tubes as the raw material. Once cut in strips and glued into place they served the purpose well, only the apartment would smell like a shoe factory. The glue we used had a very strong smell, but that was part of the game. In a country with an awkward system of food distribution, getting enough canned food for a trip is also a very big part of the preparation. Sometimes it took us several months to come up with all the rations needed.
Generally, almost all traveling in Russia is done by train. Getting to the train is not as much fun as getting on the train. Regulations allow only 60 pounds per passenger and those pounds must be of certain dimensions. Rarely 10 people with 4 kayaks meet those requirements, so my friends and I would look for a friendly train attendant who would “close his eyes” on slightly oversized luggage.
Once off the train, our “captain” would go to the nearest gas station or general store and hitchhike for a truck. For a bottle of alcohol, the truck drivers would interrupt their daily duties to give us a ride.
If the right river is picked, the joy can be unlimited. One of my best adventures was a 20 day, 4 man trip. We were 12,000 miles from home, in the middle of nowhere, our only link to civilization was the boat ramp in the village, and that was 20 miles from the nearest phone. Although we planned to live off natural resources, like fish, we still packed 65 pounds of potatoes, 50 one-pound cans of meat, and even 6 pounds of baking flour. To move our supplies to and from the river, we had a two wheeler which doubled as a dining table.
Generally, almost all travel in Russia is done by train.
Another weekend, I was on a river where the guide promised plenty of beavers. To our surprise, the guide was very, very wrong. There were no beavers, only a long channel with sharp turns and vertical walls. To get out of the nightmare we paddled for 11 hours, the first 6 beneath freezing rain. At the end of the 9th hour we wanted to give up and camp on a narrow strip of mud. Suddenly the channel made a turn and in the light of sunset we saw green woods and sandy banks. Two more hours of “all out” paddling brought us to the most beautiful place on earth. Kayaking is a joy no matter where you live.
When I moved to the United States, the circumstances did not permit me to bring my Salut. Once I got some financial stability, I decided to buy a new kayak. However, the prices here called for a major investment. With that in mind, I again ordered a Salut and had it shipped to me. And again, as years ago, I am very happy with it.
For those interested in more information on kayaking in Russia or purchasing Saluts,
contact me at 640 C Southstreet, Waltham, MA, 02154,
or call 617-891-3760.
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