Bryan Smith is leading a team of whitewater kayakers on a month-long expedition to Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Funded by National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, the team will be attempting several source-to-sea first descents of previously un-run rivers, plus working with a diverse team of scientists, NGOs, and locals to help show how important Kamchatka’s river ecosystems are for the long-term survival of wild salmon. Shane Robinson with the expedition team sent this dispatch.
Expeditions lend themselves to failures, whether they be small mishaps such missed airline connections and days lost to logistical challenges, or bigger blunders such as denied access to rivers or even the uncontrollable weather.
All our research and planning told us we should be prepared for such failures and to build flexibility into our schedule to account for Russian bureaucracy, poor weather, and limited resources on the Kamchatka Peninsula. So when we ignored this advice, booked our schedule tighter than the skin on a bairdarka kayak, then missed our connection in Moscow due to missing luggage, we paved the way for our first major setback.
However, “Miss Failure” never met Martha Madsen, our Russian fixer-host, translator, logistical coordinator, guide, Mom-away-from home, and whatever other role we needed her to fill.
We had already thrown her a curve ball a week before our departure, changing our initial plans to travel to the Kol River Biostation, instead opting to paddle a river that had some of the most promising whitewater satellite images we had seen on the peninsula yet. After our call from Moscow, she was able to postpone the helicopter flight into the Semaliyach River a couple hours, meaning we would be boarding the heli five hours after landing in Petropavlovsk.
Upon landing, we chaotically packed boats and organized gear, were fed an amazing salad from Martha’s garden to refuel, and then found ourselves boarding an MI-8 Soviet-era helicopter before we even had a chance to know what time zone we were in. At this point, the reality set in that we had no idea what we were actually in store for, aside from what we’d discovered through a few Google Earth sessions back home.
While there are many rivers waiting to be kayaked for the first time, few regions of the globe have yet to be explored by kayakers. And these kayakers pass down valuable information in the way of flow seasons, potential drainages, or valuable contacts that understand what whitewater kayakers are looking for. In Kamchatka, we had no such intel—we were essentially jumping into the unknown, expecting the worst, and hoping for the best.
Just pulling off the heli logistic felt like a success in and of itself. Flying up the headwaters to the Semaliyach and seeing a boatable flow in an appropriately sized river felt like this might be Kamchatka dishing out a little beginner’s luck. Finding basalt gorges filled with slides, boulder gardens, and the occasional waterfall series felt like we were a group of prospectors who had just struck gold.
Completing the source-to-sea descent on time without incident had the team flying high, and when we surfed our way down the coastline to our 36-foot chartered shuttle there was nothing to bring down the team’s spirits.
Nothing, that is, except 40+ knot winds, 5-meter seas, and 19 hours of seasickness for most of the crew, including the two captains of the ship. However, even a little purging of our freeze-dried meals could keep the team from feeling like our first mission on the ground in this remote corner of the world was anything but a success! Now, another change of plans—on to a river we flew over with confirmed whitewater by kayakers (us that is), but still prepared for failure and hoping for success.
Photos of Bryan Smith running rapids by Ethan Smith, of Bryan Smith by Phil Tifo, and of kayakers near a mountain stream courtesy Bryan Smith and Reel Water Productions