In June 2001, six months after returning to Australia, I found myself journeying back across Mongolia to Siberia. Together with three others-Ben Kozel from Adelaide, and Colin Angus and Remy Quinter from BC in Canada-, I planned to row the Yenisey river, from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. All together it was a distance of around 4,200km. The others had already begun the journey by rafting down the Ida and Selenga rivers in Mongolia. I was first captured by the large, north-flowing rivers of Siberia during the cycling adventure. Often I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a piece of driftwood floating downstream: first it would meander through the Taiga forest, passing tracts of wilderness and remote villages, then as the river widened, the forest would make way for the Tundra. In the open, chilled water of the Arctic it would pass by the settlements of reindeer herders, and flow through the domain of Sturgeon, seals, and Polar Bears. Finally it would spill into the Arctic Ocean, a tract of water on the edge of the ice only open for a few months of the year. To me it seemed like the obvious route through which to explore and experience the very heart of Siberia. The freedom and simplicity of such a journey was also as appealing as ever. After finding a rotten old five metre boat near Baikal, we repaired the vessel and set off. For the next four months our lives were tied to the routine of the boat and the life of the river. At times the irony of our lifestyle was painfully obvious: we were four guys living on a five metre boat in the middle of Siberia; the second largest wilderness in the world behind Antarctica. There were also elements that I hadn't imagined the driftwood would encounter: ice breakers, rapids, barges bent on running us down in the mist, a gruelling 24 hour rowing schedule, and a very leaky vessel. However beyond our cramped living quarters and quarells lay the people and landscapes of a truly captivating land. There were the villagers who fought over the prestige of giving us the most buckets of potatoes and the reindeer herders who welcomed us into their wigwam-like homes. Apart from reaching the Arctic coast as planned I felt that the adventure was eventually a success because we had managed to learn about and connect to the local people and environment.
To find out more about this journey read the story below, view the photos, trace our route on the map, and download the collection of stories written en-route.
Rowing The Yenisey
4500km In a leaky wooden boat,
from southern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean
4500km In a leaky wooden boat,
Part 1: From Lake Baikal to the Yenisey Proper
The sound of rushing water, rather like that of breaking surf, woke me from a state of cold and self pity. It was 3.00am and after a sleepless couple of days the feeling of oars breaking into the soft skin of my hands wasn’t pleasant. In a panic now I stood and peered tryingly into the darkness and down at the swirling jet-black water. Seconds later we hit. There was a sickly crunching sound of wood against rock as we ground to a shuddering halt. The shallow but strong current turned the boat on its side, threatening to allow water to flow over the gunnels. At the same moment I heard the crashing of the Chinese hurricane lantern and Colin leaping out of his sleeping bag. Poor Remy had been trying to get some sleep on the bow as we had hit and he was now struggling to cling on and retrieve his blanket from the rapids. In nothing more than underwear Colin tested the water before jumping off the boat followed smartly by Ben and I. For several minutes we tried pushing the boat in the thigh deep water until finally it began to move from the bottom. The icy cold water was quickly turning our feet numb, but more pressing was the urge to get the boat afloat before the battering of the rapids damaged the hull: there was after all just tar and a bit of fiberglass covering up the old and in places rotting wood. Finally the boat began to move fluently and I gasped in relief before leaping aboard. A splintered boat would have been a disaster, especially since we had only set off six hours earlier. It was the first night of our rowboat journey: an expedition that we hoped would take us more than 4000km north along the Yenisey river to the Arctic coast of Siberia. We had joined up as a team of four three weeks earlier on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was mid summer (late June 2001). My companions were Ben Kozel, an Australian from Adelaide, and Canadians Colin Angus and Remy Quinter. From lake Baikal in Siberia’s south Our aim was to be the first to follow the Yenisey river, the fifth longest river in the world, from source to sea. Our first task together had been finding a boat, and on the second day of searching the riverbank we found a wooden dory upturned in the grass. It was a five and a half metre, clinker-built boat that hadn’t been used in years. There were so many rotten planks that the sunlight pervaded the hull like it was a giant sieve. After some enquiring we discovered that the owner had died and we were welcome to take the boat. The next couple of weeks making it sea worthy and as comfortable as possible. After sanding down the hull we patched up the holes with fibre-glass and then coated the entire hull with tar. Next we built a simple ply-wood cabin complete with kitchen, loungeroom, and beds. The first 600km leg to the industrial city of Bratsk beckoned as a time for establishing routines of life on the boat. Our rowing set-up was dictated by the need to reach the Arctic coast before the Yenisey froze over for winter. We began a 24 hour schedule with a sense of urgency. During the day we decided to rotate shifts on the hour and at night every two and a half. Being woken up in the middle of the night to be told that it was ‘your turn’ was unanimously the least inviting aspect of each day. During the day our little dory transformed into an office on water as we rowed, filmed, cooked, wrote, and made phone-calls on the Iridium satellite phones. The idyllic, and fun times were inevitably balanced by a less than romantic reality. Going to the toilet, bailing out the leaky bilge, eating and waking in putrid clothing, and broken sleep were just a few of the undesirable facets of life on the boat. Living together in such a cramped environment with little shore time was one of the greater challenges. We arrived in Bratsk after two weeks and our ensuing days there gave us an impression of a very different Siberia. We were taken care of by ‘Vladimir,’ a businessman who I had met the previous year on the cycling journey. From place to place we were escorted in a seven tonne custom built Chevrolet complete with bullet-proof glass, reinforced panels and accompanied by armed bodyguards. Later on during a special visit to a private cemetery we understood why. In the past year alone, 12 of Vladimir’s friends, and also his sister, had been murdered. From Bratsk we made our way to the outpost town of Ust Ilimsk. There were few signs of civilisation and at one point we passed through a long running gorge with spectacular cliffs that rose up to one hundred metres vertically from the river edges. Several times we took breaks during which I scrambled up high to capture the landscape on film and make short forays into the forest. Ust Ilimsk was the last major town for 2000km and ahead the river turned west for 500km carving out a deep valley through the Central Siberian Plateau. Downstream of the village of Kezhmo the first of many rapids came into sight. Running the gauntlet of these rapids became a daily routine. Hitting a rock at high speed would quite possibly puncture our rotten hull sending us to the bottom within seconds. Even in this remote part of Siberia, few days of rowing passed without being treated to the unique hospitality of Russian people. Intended ‘short’ breaks for food supplies in small village communities usually entailed a ‘compulsory’ meal of fish, homemade blueberry jam, and celebratory Vodka. There was just one time on the river during which we were treated with suspicion. It occurred one morning when we were temporarily mistaken by fishermen for being criminals on the loose. When they came to understand we were foreigners they explained that two men had recently escaped from a prison near Ust Ilimsk and were reported to be travelling downstream in a rowboat. Just east of the small town of Kodinsk we came across one of many unexpected facets of the greater Yenisey. It was an enormous unfinished dam. Later that day we were met by a chief hydrologist engineer, Yura, who explained that the so called ‘Bogachinskaya dam’ had been under construction for 28 years….and was probably another 28 away from completion. Although many villages on the banks of the Angara would be under threat when the dam went ahead most locals were unconcerned. Getting through the dam wall was an experience in itself. An enormous lock suited to barges and river freighters was opened especially for our tiny vessel. High above the water on the gate, Sveta, the operations manager, was plucking fish from an attached piece of mesh wire. She explained that using the lock as a giant fish net was one of many ways that she and other workers had been able to survive in the years following Perestroika and the economic collapse in 1998. After more than two thousand kilometres and thirty-six days of rowing we rounded a bend near the port of Strelka and were swept away by the waters of the “Yenisey Proper.” Up until this confluence we had been following the Angara river basin, which, although drains twice as much water than the Yenisey before the confluence, is historically recorded as a ‘tributary.’ We stopped for a day to celebrate but there wasn’t much time to waste: the river would be frozen within a couple of months and we were still 2000km from the Arctic Ocean.
Part Two: From the confluence to the Arctic Ocean
From the port town of Strelka in central Siberia the river took a decisive turn north. Having passed through the last of the rapids, 24 hour rowing again became the norm, and we made swift progress. Two days north of Yeniseysk the geography of the river’s surroundings took on a character that would remain consistent for much of the remaining journey. In the east precipitous slopes rose to the Central Siberian Plateau. And to the west marshy, flatter densely forested land took on the features of a floodplain. The river widened and its banks became steep angling slopes rising fifteen or twenty metres. Far above, deep gashes in tree trunks could be seen that were the result of Spring floods during which logs, ice and other debris were sent crashing into the forest. The previous winter had been particularly cold, and in the spring melt the Yenisey had broken its banks in places by an incredible ten metres.. The statistics about the Yensiey are mind boggling: the Yenisey has some 20,000 tributaries that form an aggregate length of 880,000km and drain a basin of 2,580,000 square kilometres. That is an area larger than all but six of the world’s nations! Every year 600 cubic kilometres of water is discharged into the ocean. In comparison Australia’s biggest rivers seemed like shallow trickles. As we carried on we were hit regularly by squalls and often found ourselves grounded on gravel banks in the middle of the night. Pushing the boat free of these unseen obstacles, with icy water up to the groin certainly wasn’t pleasant. Perhaps the most haunting danger was that of being run down by huge river barges and freighters. With just our little hurricane lamp we often prayed that we were visible in the dark of night or picked up by radar. Our crossing of the Arctic Circle was made just as the Birch and Larch trees were turning ablaze with golden yellows. To celebrate our passing into this haunting realm of the Arctic we afforded ourselves a rare night on land and indulged in the ritual of a ‘Tent-Sauna.’ As we continued I became acutely aware of an irony of our journey: we were passing through one of the wildest landscapes on earth, and yet for most of the time, our world was reduced to the cramped confines of a five and a half metre row boat. Just north of Igarka any trace of friendly waters vanished. I was rowing at the time when a strong northerly wind abruptly gust forth tearing up the river in its path. Whitecaps broke the span of the river and swells began to slap the boat from every direction. The swells increased in size often crashing over the bow and sending us plummeting into cavernous dips. I pointed us into the wind and watched in awe as curling crests beside the boat caught the moonlight and broke into a milky white froth. There was a definite chill in the air too, and although our thermometer had broken I imagined that it was hovering around zero. In the morning ice had formed on the gunnels.. Using old plastic folders we had closed up the port-holes, and when not rowing were grateful for down jackets and thick felt boots. The next night we steered onto the lee shore of an island to take refuge and in the morning Colin confronted us with the news. “Well, our car battery is pretty much dead which means we can’t charge the satellite phones. Our remaining food supplies total a kilogram of macaroni and a tin of condensed milk, and we only have half a litre of fuel left for the stove. The rowing seat is near collapsing, and at this rate we will never get to the gulf before everything freezes over.” We spent a miserable day and a half on the barren island wondering whether our dreams of reaching the end had been dashed. Hunger and tiredness had taken its toll and more than once squabbles broke out over who had eaten more than their fair share of chocolate. It was purely academic of course, as we had finished off our supplies innumerable days earlier. Finally there was a slight abating of the wind and we made a break for the village of Potopovka thirty kilometers further downstream. After a week of painfully slow rowing north of Potopovka we reached Dudinka, just 200km shy of the Yenisey gulf. From here we set ourselves for the last grueling leg of the journey. Soon after departing, the temperature plummeted and we passed beyond the northern fringe of the Taiga forest and into the Tundra. These marshy plains of permafrost and moss flanked the river like a bleak brown-green sea. Then north of the tiny village of Ust Port, it felt as if we rowed off the map into lonely, unknown waters. The river widened out to 90km and was dotted with a low lying group of marshy islands. Navigation became increasingly difficult and a northern wind persisted in sending rolling swells that tossed us about like a twig on the seas. With just 20 kilometres to go we were caught in a snow blizzard that came raging across the water from the north. Swells larger than we had ever encountered thrashed the boat and a snowdrift began to build up on the stern. I remember waking blurry-eyed, feeling the snowflakes melting on my tongue and wondering whether we had already slipped into the Ocean. Then just when it seemed that we were on the verge of being swallowed into the world of turbulent snow wind and water, Colin saw something. “Hey, I think I see chooms. Yes, I am sure there are chooms over there!” he shrieked excitedly. We all scrambled up out of the cabin and peered into the murky white and grey. Some 400m away on a small flat island, two black triangular shapes were just visible as blotchy shadows. As we neared them it became obvious that they were indeed chooms- the wigwam-like dwellings of reindeer herders. For years I had been dreaming of experiencing the lifestyle of these northern indigenous people who traditionally live a nomadic existence that is tied to the migratory cycle of reindeers. We spent the next day and night with the family huddled in their reindeer skin choom whilst a snowstorm raged oustide. Our diet improved greatly during this time as we were fed kilos of reindeer meat, sturgeon and caviar. Observing their self-sufficient way of life made us realise that we were just tourists in this land- for them the Arctic wasn’t a destination but a home. The following morning we stepped out of the Choom into the pre-dawn gloom mumbling curses about the cold. It had continued to snow overnight and the earth was dusted white. For the last time we boarded the boat and took turns at hunching our sore bodies over the oars. As the sun nudged over the horizon I looked to the sky where a ‘V’ of geese were flying south towards warmer lands. It was definitely time to bring the journey to an end. Several hours later we rounded a small peninsula and the last sign of land tapered off into the open expanse of water. A seal popped it’s head up and peered on with glistening eyes. Unable to dock on the shallow shoreline we whipped off our boots and dashed through the water onto the sand. Freezing toes or not, we wore irrepressible smiles and cracked open a half-frozen bottle of Russian champagne. We had done it!…….And now all we had to do was somehow get back home. The journey’s crew thank Australian Geographic; Iridium; Mountain Designs; Kodak Australia; Pitch Black; Nikon; Gore-Tex; Aire Rafts; Ocean River Sports; Riot Kayaks; Flinders Camping; Cascade Designs; Aquabound; The Globe and Mail; Vladimir Alexandrovich; all the warm-hearted people of Siberia they met along the way; the captain and crew of the vessel that picked them in the Yenisey Gulf and John and Alison Kearney (and their family and friends) for helping to make it happen.